by Susan McCarthy
After you gather all the photographs you can find in the house, you want to bring some preliminary order to the collection. Deciding how you will sort the photos can help create structure for the hundreds or thousands of images you may be going through.
Finding the old family albums tucked into my mother’s closet was and underwhelming experience. There were pages crammed with multiple photos showing the exact same pose – me or my brother standing at the front door, hand getting ready to turn the doorknob and head out to the new school year. Well, I suppose the haircuts from the 70s and 80s were interesting.
My family never vacationed or hosted gatherings. There were a good number of photos from the few pets we had, though.
You may have a similar, dull collection of photos…which will make sorting those photographs a bit easier. However, if your family loved taking pictures, well you’re in for some fun (or work, or fun work).
You’ve gathered photos from all over the house and your eyes may be spinning like a cartoon characters. So many photos! What are you supposed to do with them all?
If you’re family is clearing through your parents’ estate, the goal may be for everyone to flip through the pictures and take the few most meaningful ones. Each person can figure out what to do with them on their own.
However, if you’re going through your personal collection of photos…or you and your siblings are too overwhelmed to take the time and bring sense to the hundreds or thousands of photos you’ve uncovered, then you’ll want to bring some order to what you are looking at.
This preliminary sort will start to bring sense to the years, decades, of images of people, places, and events.
While I refer to physical photos in this article, sorting digital photos uses similar techniques. Instead of using cardboard trays to sort the images, you’ll move photos into digital folders.
Why Sort Photos
Sorting photos, like sorting any other group of items, allows you to see what you have and make comparisons. During this stage, you aren’t judging the content of photos. You are simply acknowledging, “Oh, birthday party, vacation, etc.”
This step takes time and you may be tempted to skip it or combine sorting photos with tossing or storing photographs. However, I think that if you don’t see what you have, it’s difficult to judge what you want to keep and how you want to store it.
The first step in sorting photographs is to decide how you want to sort the images. Honestly, there is no right or wrong way to sort your photos. The best way is how you’d like to view the images in the future. You may follow a chronological system for current photos but group old family photos by person. Whatever works for you.
The key to determining how you want to sort photos is to consider how you will best enjoy looking at them. Do you want the storytelling element of chronological order, or do you prefer themes like vacations or Christmases?
Sort Photos by Years
Sorting photos by year helps you create chronological albums that tell a story through time.
To sort photos by years, you’ll want to label a bin or tray for each decade, switching to individual years for the past decade. (So, 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000, 2010, 2020, 2021, 2022). Yes, that may seem like a lot of trays, but consider that many of photos are already grouped by year/decade (even those photos sitting in envelopes from photo labs).
What if you’re sorting through old family photos and you aren’t really certain when that photo of your mother was taken – the late 60s or the early 70s? Don’t worry about being perfect. When you begin to arrange the photos within this category, you may better see how to organize them by year.
If you can’t decide how you want to organize your photos, use this method since it is probably the most straightforward.
Sort Photos by Events
Sorting photos by event helps you create themed albums – Olivia’s birthdays, the yearly summer vacations, Christmases. Yes, you’ll probably then want to sort the images by year. Of course, you may decide to create many small albums – say, vacation 2011.
Although I’m not going into sorting digital images in this article, sorting digital images by event works well.
Events can be things like birthday parties, first days of school, vacations, anniversary parties, holidays, etc. Again, you’ll want to line up trays or boxes to sort your photos. Here you aren’t as concerned about the year as you are about the content of the images. Later on, you may then organize the photos by year.
Sort Photos by Categories
You could sort photos by person (but this becomes challenging when you have one image with multiple people in the picture, so this may work best if you’re looking through old family photos with the intention of pulling out images of, say, your father as a boy).
If there are images of the garden or of a house being built or renovated or even of pets, you may want to sort these images into their own category.
What about Photos in Albums?
People who specialize in photo organizing recommend taking photos out of old albums. In some cases, this action helps preserve photos that are slowly being discolored and destroyed by non-archival albums. Unless you love the setup of an album and you frequently view the images as they are presented, you can consider if you’re up for removing the photos from their albums.
The added benefit to removing photos from their old albums – it will be easier to scan old prints so you can have them backed up in digital form.
Remember, while sorting you aren’t judging the quality of the content of photos, you are focused on grouping photos so you can best see what you have and then determine how to best organize these memories.
Why You’ll Want to Sort Photos
Sorting photos allow you to compare what you have. Do you have two dozen photos of the same birthday party in 1967? Do they all need to be included in the family archive? Will relatives appreciate looking at so many photos…even if they are organized?
You get to make that decision. What do you want and what does your family expect? (If no one seems interested in the photos, avoid thinking that if you spend hours and hours organizing them suddenly your family will appreciate the images...and your work.)
Remember, keeping a lot of photos that no one ever looks at isn’t your goal. And if you want to digitize images, you’ll still need to create order so the experience of looking at family photos isn’t a chaotic, confusing one.
To recap, you want to sort photos into smaller groups have something in common and can help tell a story about the family.
Sort photos by:
This is still an early step in the process of bringing order to a lot of family photos, so don’t worry about doing this perfectly. You’ll still have multiple opportunities to examine and judge the photos. Look for the other photo organizing blogposts in this series.
Hi, I'm Susan
Emptying my parents' overpacked 800-square-foot house left me popping handfuls of peanut M&Ms and doing a WHOLE lot of comfort-crocheting. The experience of sorting through mom and dad's stuff also encouraged me to become a professional organizer...so now I can offer techniques that work much better than chocolate.