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How to organize boxes and boxes of photos

by respaced on October 16, 2013

photos in boxes

One of the questions I get asked most often is how to organize boxes of printed photos. Many of us have shoeboxes stuffed in the backs of closets overflowing with decades-worth of photos. Sorting through all of that can feel so overwhelming and tedious! Unfortunately, there’s no quick and easy way to organize boxes of photos, but there are some techniques I can share with you that will make it go more smoothly for you.

1. First of all, recognize that you are embarking on a project, which means you need to work on it in chunks at a time. If you tell yourself that you aren’t going to leave your table until every photo has been gone through, you are setting yourself up for burn-out and failure. Instead, set aside an hour every few days to go through your photos. See if you have a family member who is willing to help you, as that will make the sorting go faster and be more fun.

3. Get yourself some archival-quality photo boxes along with some dividers for the insides and labels for the outside. (Organizing pictures into photo albums is nice, but unrealistic for 99 percent of people.) In the image above, you will notice there are shoebox-size boxes and wider, flat boxes. The shoebox-size boxes can hold up to 1,500 4×6 photos, while the wide, flat ones are perfect for organizing oversize photos that came out of picture frames.

4. Set up your criteria for which photos you keep and which photos you toss (sorry, you can’t recycle photos). I would recommend tossing any photos that are damaged beyond repair, blurry or feature people/subjects with their eyes shut, with red eyes or not centrally featured (you know, pictures where the person’s head is turned and/or almost out of the frame.) I would also consider tossing duplicates or giving them to other family members. Finally, I would toss photos of people whom you don’t remember.

5. Decide how the photo boxes will be organized. You could try to allocate one box per year or per range of  5 years, which works well if the photos are fairly recent and you can figure out what year they were taken. Or you could organize boxes by event such as Christmases, birthday parties, summer vacations, new house, etc. This is a great method if you have decades-worth of pictures and don’t know when they were taken.

I don’t recommend organizing photo boxes by person, because often you will find more than one person or family in a photo.

That picture of the first day of school featuring your kids at an indeterminate age? Don’t sweat it. Just set up a box for grade school years (or middle school years, high school years, etc). If you don’t have that many photos of that time period, you could set up a box called School Years and have dividers labeled “Elementary School,” “Middle School,” etc.

6. Once you have your keep/toss criteria and photo box categories set up, put on some good music, pour yourself a cup of tea, and start sorting photos into the proper boxes. If you find yourself getting distracted, try setting a timer for 15 minutes. Give yourself permission to take a break every 15 minutes. Try to focus on what you have accomplished, not on how much you have left to do. Have faith that if you keep chipping away at it a few times a week, you WILL finish getting every photo sorted!

7. When you are finished sorting all of your photos into boxes, you can put the boxes away on shelves. Some people take it a step further and create photo albums or scrapbooks. That’s great if you have the time. But if you don’t, keeping your photos organized in boxes is just as adequate.

Image courtesy of Pinterest.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Ana November 15, 2013 at 9:39 pm

Thanks! I have been wanting to go through my digital photos and these guidelines are going to be helpful with that also. Just substitute folders on my hard drive for boxes on a shelf and voila!

The first step is what I was really needing to hear- it can’t be done all at once so I need to just get started and chip away at it.


respaced November 17, 2013 at 7:54 pm

I’m glad to have inspired you, Ana! Honestly, organizing photos (digital and/or printed) challenges even the most seasoned organizer because of the monotony and length of the project. We have to remind ourselves to take it in small chunks at a time too! I always advise people to wait for a big snow/ice storm, when they are housebound and have nothing else to do. Suddenly, organizing photos can look like a good way to pass the time until they can get out of the house again! Thanks for reading and commenting.


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