5 – Step Photo Organization

There are plenty of “how to” blog posts on Pinterest, so I’ll have a go too. 
4 March 2017

According to the Library of Congress, we need to be our own digital archivists

The Library of Congress has an entire website dedicated to personal digital archiving and family history. On their blog The Signal, they listed 4 easy steps toward preservation: Identify, Decide, Organize, Make Copies.

Here are my five steps:


Gather, Name, Organize, Maintain, Enjoy

None of these steps are very easy in my experience. I struggled for years with the steps of digital media organization. I have one big overall rule, though – don’t overthink it. There are really only two goals:

  1. Be able to find what you are looking for
  2. Be able to share what you’ve collected


  1. Find and scan the physical photos in your collection and save them to one folder on your PC (I start with “Pictures” as the top-level folder name)
    1. Photo albums
    2. Picture boxes
    3. Pictures in frames
    4. Also scan documents such as newspaper clippings, school programs, obituaries, memorial cards, etc.
  2. Find and collect photos from hard drives, phones, camera SD cards, and cloud storages such as Facebook
    1. How to download photos from Facebook
    2. Also get the video clips from these locations


What have you got? Look through all the pictures. Think about an organization hierarchy based on what you have. You can also start thinking about tags and metadata. It will help a lot in the long run if you take the time right now to rename the Windows files to something that identifies what is in the photo.  More information

Also be disciplined about deleting things you don’t need to keep:

  • For example, I didn’t keep a digital copy of zoo animals taken 50 years ago unless there was a person I knew in the photo as well. The physical copies of these still exist if I ever really want to see that black and white picture of a long-ago elephant behind a fence.
  • Ditch the blurry photos from your phone unless they are otherwise significant, such as the one and only photo of something important to you.
  • Keep only the best of the similar shots – like the time when you took ten bathroom-mirror selfies. (Hope you cleaned up your bathroom before you did those…wash that mirror too.) You don’t need to keep all ten. Keep the ones you love and delete the rest. You really won’t miss them at all.
  • You may find duplicates. I have my great-grandmother’s photos, my grandmother’s photos, and my mom’s photos. I scanned all the albums and ended up with many duplicates. You might want to delete them now, so you have a few less to manage. However, if you prefer to wait, when you start tagging photos, the tags will help you find and weed out the duplicates.


Hard part! Once you figure out a hierarchy that works for you it makes all the difference.

Date-based hierarchy

You might like to organize by year, then by month and day, or by Event, as suggested in an article from Photography Life. I found that a date-based hierarchy didn’t work as well as I wanted it to, for me, but it might work for you.

  • Sometimes, I have no idea what the date was at the time an old photo was taken, although sometimes you can figure it out (Easter 1965 fell on April 18, Thanksgiving in 1901 was on November 28, etc.)
  • It didn’t help me locate “that photo of Cousin Pat” if I couldn’t remember the approximate date of the photo. Tagging would certainly help with that, but if you’re still “in progress” with tagging, you might need to find some specific photo before you’ve finished.
  • Not all the photos in my collection are of people. There are pictures of places, animals, flowers, cars, etc. It’s easier for me to locate pictures of my dog Teddy when I have them stored in Pictures > Animals > Pets.
It’s not perfect – but it does help narrow it down: did I save that picture of Ma’s kitchen to “Places > Wisconsin > Wyocena” or is it in  “Catch all?”

After some trial and error, this is the scheme I ended up with (within the top level Pictures folder):

  •  Animals
    •  Captive (Zoo, botanical gardens, etc.)
    •  Pets
    •  Wildlife
      •  Birds
      •  Bugs
      •  Deer
      •  Other Animals
      •  Rabbits
      •  Squirrels
      •  Turtles
  •  Catch all
    •  Fireworks
    •  Food
    •  Other catch all (furniture, household items, etc.)
  •  Clip art
  •  Digital Darkroom (includes document scans, “photoshop” type manipulation)
    •  Artistic borders and frames
    •  Background suitable
    •  Composites
    •  Document scans and screenshots
      •  Clippings
      •  Coloring and patterns
      •  Letters
      •  Obituaries
      •  Postcards
      •  School and Church related
      •  Vital records
    •  Effects and filters
    • Other manipulation (colorized, sepia, “instagram” type filters)
    •  Restoration
    •  Stacks (HDR photo editing  – stacked exposures)
  •  Flowers
    •  Fields and groups
    •  Floral portraits
    •  Macros of flowers
  •  Foliage
    •  Leaves
    •  Other foliage
    •  Trees
  •  Original scans (where scans get saved as I’m batch scanning)
  •  People
    •  Celebrities
    •  Friends
    •  Kids and immediate family
      •  1937
      •  1939
      •  1940s
      •  1948
      •  1950s
      •  and so on, up to the current year, with subfolders lke:
        •  2016-01-03 Bowling
        •  2016-01-09 Basketball camp
        •  2016-01-16 Bald Eagle days
        •  …and so on
    •  Other and unknown (those scans from your old photos which contain people you don’t know)
    •  Other family (not the immediate family, this is where all the cousins, aunts, etc. “live”)
    •  Professional photos (school photos, etc.)
  •  SORT (this is the folder that I use as the destination when I am in a big hurry to import from my cameras and phones) – this is a working folder and everything in it is supposed to be moved out to another folder.
  •  Travel, Events and Places
    •  Events
      •  2016 dance recital
      •  Grandma’s 80th birthday
      •  Rockford air show
      •  …and so on
    •  Places
      •  Alabama
      •  Around Madison
      •  Around Wisconsin
      •  Indiana
      •  …and so on
      •  Tombstones
        •  Massachusetts
        •  New York
        •  Wisconsin
        •  …and so on
      •  Unknown places
      •  Work


The actual maintenance workflow will be different, depending on the source (phone, camera, scanner, etc.) and the photo database program you end up using (Microsoft Photo Gallery, Lightroom, Paint Shop Pro, etc.)

This is the step where I’m dealing with photos I saved to the folder hierarchy listed above, renaming files, tagging, doing things like color correction, restoration, etc. It is an ongoing process. I sorted pictures first so I could find them right away, and all the tagging is still in-progress.


Share the photos

Make scrapbooks

Make digital albums and stories

Put them on facebook

Send them off for print copies