12 strategies for organizing your photos in 2012

Maybe 2012 is when you'll catch up on organizing photos from 2011. And 2010, 2009, 1999, 1959 ...

The good news in our digital era is that even phones can snap decent-quality pictures, sometimes even print-worthy. But now we're taking more photos than ever, and hanging on to the bad ones.

And that's starting to weigh on people. Professional organizer Mary Ellen Vincent of Kansas City, Mo., says staying on top of the tsunami of photos is one of her clients' biggest challenges.

"They've got boxes and drawers full of slides and photos, plus all these digital pictures," Vincent says. "It's really emotional."

Like many of us, Overland Park, Kan., photographer Ali Lomshek grew up looking at photo albums, not an endless stream of photos on a computer or phone screen. She wants her three children to enjoy the same tangible experience.

"I love looking at everyone at different ages," says Lomshek, mother of 5-year-old son, Ziga, and daughters Zala, 3, and Teja, 9 months. "There's one where my younger brother is clowning around in a group shot, but he's super serious in the next one. It's so hilarious. Photos tell stories. They help us remember life as it was."

Our pictures are probably the first thing we'd rush to save if our homes were on fire. We're here to help eliminate photo-organizing frustration so you can easily enjoy them for years to come.

Edit ruthlessly

Vincent's recent organizing newsletter takes a bold stance: "Improve your life story by purging your photos."

"But it's true," Vincent says. "I toss photos of myself that look unflattering. My 4-year-old daughter, Eve, always looks good, so those are harder."

Also go through photos and eliminate ones that look similar. Vincent sets limits for events, such as the best five.

"When you have thousands of pictures, similar ones lose their impact," she says. "Be brutal, and then you'll be happier with the final results."

Organizer Jennifer Ford Berry of Buffalo, N.Y., author of Organize Now! (Betterway Home, $16.99), tackles the task by making three piles: toss, keep, doubles for friends and family.

"People feel like they have to hold on to every picture and feel guilty throwing them away," Berry says. "But if it's been five years and you still have kindergarten pictures of your son after you've kept a few copies and given them out to family and friends, throw the rest away. It's OK."

Also for the heave-ho pile: photos that have heads or major limbs cut off, show mostly people's backs, are too dark or too bright, are fuzzy, are too far away or too close, are unflattering of loved ones (Caveat: unless they make you laugh).

Digitize old photos

Scan slides and old photos onto your computer. If you don't have time to tackle it, consider going to a photo store. Crick Camera of Kansas City, Mo., offers a bulk scan of up to 300 pictures for $49.95, says co-owner Bill Thomas.

"That way people can put their color slides into different [computer] folders and create albums or make prints in the sizes they want," says Thomas, who discusses organizing as part of photography courses he teaches through continuing education at Kansas City Art Institute and through Communiversity at University of Missouri-Kansas City.

"Otherwise the slides are just collecting dust."

Consider software

Editing software that allows you to crop images and eliminate red eye is another great way to keep up with your visual story. Some programs contain folders as well as keyword tags, so it's easy to pull up all the photos of a particular person. Free software often comes with your computer. But there are nifty updates for photo software that cost about $80 to $100. Adobe Photoshop Elements 10 has a facial recognition feature for automatic labeling. And it automatically adds the location of each photo if your camera contains GPS. If your camera doesn't have GPS, the map sites can be manually added.

Watch your backup

Your pictures will be safe if your hard drive crashes or your computer gets a virus if they're also stored on a backup source.

"I don't think a lot of people back up," Thomas says. "This generation of kids could be the lost generation when it comes to photos, because people don't print them out anymore. Computers die."

Photos can be saved onto recordable CDs and labeled with events. Store them in a fireproof box. Gold archival discs should last more than 100 years, but the silver ones might have only a 10- to 25-year lifespan, Thomas says. He recommends external hard drives. Some hard drives (about $80) automatically back up as scheduled, or only when new photos are added.

But cloud-based systems that don't eat up your computer storage might be the best backup system, Thomas says. In the event of a tornado, your photos would be accessible. He uses Apple iCloud and Flickr. Some sites let you store up to a few hundred photos free but then charge an annual fee for unlimited storage. Another benefit of a cloud system is that by using the site and a password, you can access the photos anywhere to share with friends and family.

Organize chronologically

Berry says to start with your most recent photos and move backward. "The most recent ones are in your memory more vividly, and you can write captions if you want," she says.

It's best to do year by year, putting events in order from January through February. It makes the photos easier to work with for albums and other projects.

Enlist help

If you have an overwhelming number of old photos to sift through, Berry suggests calling on family members.

"Get together for a Sunday meal or a few of them," Berry says. "The photos will spark conversation, and it could be a lot of fun."

Professional organizers and their assistants help people organize photos all the time. Their services typically start at about $40 per hour.

Create albums from digital pics

Lomshek is working on creating photo albums from her digital photos, designing one for each year starting with 2006, when she had her first child.

She likes, which fits lots of photos into a thin-spine book.

"It was pretty simple and intuitive," she says. "You can add captions or just let the photos speak for themselves."

Berry likes because she finds the software easy to use. You can even auto-fill the book; no design choices required. And as you upload pictures, you can post them to social media and photo-sharing sites.

Prices of photo books vary, starting around $15.

"It typically costs the same as if you made prints and bought a separate album," Berry says.

Simplify storage

If you go the traditional album route, look for 4-by-6-inch sleeves and sheet-protected pouches for odd sizes.

"Don't feel compelled to scrapbook," Vincent says. "That takes time and lots of supplies. You're going for practical to make life easier."

Swap out photos in frames

When Berry helps clients organize their homes, she notices framed photos that can make an interior look dated.

"If you have framed school pictures of your kids, make sure it's the current year," she says. "With a bunch of school pictures, a place appears cluttered."

Put old school pics in an album. If you don't want to worry about switching out snapshots and other faded photos, opt for framing black-and-white images.

"It's a timeless look," Berry says.

Keep it together

This sounds simple, but now more than ever, we have photos all over the place. In albums, boxes, cameras, phones, computers. Berry says to put photo albums in one spot and to funnel digital photos from cameras and phones into one master folder system.

"It puts people's minds at ease," she says.

As for digital display, Vincent likes tablet computers such as iPads versus phones (too small a screen) or digital photo frames (too much of an effort to swap out).

"Tablets feel more like a photo album," she says. "You can carry them from room to room."

Make gifts

A perk of having photos organized is that it is easy to create meaningful gifts for family. Calendars are popular, but a framed forgotten photo is always welcome.

"I make a photo album each year and just print out an extra one for my parents at the holidays," Berry says. "It's as easy as the click of a button to change the quantity."

Follow a system

Once photos are organized, keep them that way. Store photos in a photo box or album within a week of getting them developed. Otherwise, they'll end up in a drawer or box, and nobody will be able to enjoy them. Label the photos with the date, event and names on the back. Each month, download all the pictures from your digital camera and delete bad ones.

Once a year, update photos you have on display in frames.

"Think about this: Your photos are going to end up in the hands of family when you're gone," Berry says. "How are they going to make any sense if there's not a system?"