Here are some tips and tricks to tame an unruly digital photo collection.
Block out time
The first step of any organizing project is to create a manageable timeline for getting it done, Nelson said. You might require more time initially if you’re building your organization method, but once you have a system in place, Nelson recommends carving out about 20 minutes every week or month (depending on how many photos you’re organizing) to comb through pictures. Spacing out the project prevents it from becoming overwhelming.
Another way to avoid feeling overwhelmed: Make a habit of regularly deleting photos. “You have to figure out a way to get to the ones that you care about,” Nelson said. “It’s like maintenance, like house cleaning.” Make a habit of culling pictures from your phone when it’s being updated or backed up.
Choose a system
There are numerous methods and services to keep your photos in order, and “there is no one perfect system,” Nelson said. To assess what will work best for you, consider how you plan to use your photos — whether you want to share pictures publicly, have others add to albums, print them or just keep your collection for yourself.
The most basic way to store your collection, Nelson said, is to create a folder on your computer and add photos to it every month. This could work for someone who just wants to store their collection so they have it.
Kate Jacus, who founded the photo organization firm the Photo Curator, says the easiest organization tool is the software that comes pre-installed on your devices and is connected to cloud storage. If you have an Apple product, use Photos and iCloud; for Microsoft try Microsoft Photos; and for Google, try Google Photos. Especially if your phone is your primary camera, using this method is an easy way to link your devices, because your phone probably already automatically backs up into this system.
Especially for prolific photo takers, the cloud is key. Don’t use your phone as your primary storage system, Nelson said, because you’ll probably run out of space. Nelson has the Dropbox app on her phone, which automatically saves her photos to her Dropbox account. Then she goes online and organizes from her desktop.
Web-based systems are a good option if you’re looking to easily print photos or share them publicly. Nelson likes SmugMug and Forever, both of which are secure and make sharing, printing and editing photos easy. These websites include various share settings and the ability to create print products such as albums and cards within the site. For example, Nelson traveled with friends and created a link on SmugMug for the group to share photos from the trip.
Get serious about sorting
Most phones sort pictures by when they were taken, but Nelson said the easiest way to sort your pictures is to create themed albums. “We think and remember thematically in terms of experiences,” she said. “It’s much more interesting to pull it up based on themes and experiences that matter to you.” She sorts the pictures on her phone into albums that correspond to themes such as “Celebrations,” “Friends” and “Family.” She travels a lot, and has different vacation albums that correspond to her trips, such as “Machu Picchu” or “Santa Fe.” The most bare-bones method of organization is to create folders that are named for years and months, she added.
“Best-practice digital photo management is actually looking at everything, making decisions, and tagging and sorting things as you go,” Jacus said. Jacus and Nelson suggest using the “ABCs” system (which Nelson created) when deciding which photos deserve a spot in your collection.
A. Album quality: your best photos that you want to save, print out and put in photo books. Depending on the device, app or software you use to organize pictures, you probably have the ability to add keywords or tags to each photo file (or group of files). Mark these photos in a way that will make searching easy when you decide to use them. One easy way to do this: If the photos you want to use primarily live in your iPhone’s camera roll (the camera folder if you’re using an Android), Nelson recommends going through your library and “favoriting” them.
B. Box: photos that are worth saving and important but probably won’t end up in an album. If these were printed photos, they’d be the ones you keep in a box somewhere but don’t necessarily display. They also might provide additional context or tell the rest of the stories of the “A” photos. Store them according to whatever regular theme-based or chronological system you have set up.
C. Can (as in, trash can): photos to delete. This category includes blurry pictures that hold no emotional or sentimental value, duplicates and low-quality pictures. Nelson recommends using the 80/20 method: Save 20 percent of your pictures and discard the rest.
S. Story: photos that tell a story. Even if these aren’t the most compelling, beautiful photos, they have value if there’s a memory attached to them. This is another way to determine if a photo is an A photo.
Prioritize good storage
Even the best organization method won’t matter if your data goes missing. Prevent this from happening by backing up your image library in multiple places. Jacus says the industry standard for backup procedure is the 3-2-1 system, which means backing up your library in three separate places. “You want three copies of every photo in your collection on at least two separate types of media, and one of them is off-site,” meaning not on your physical device, she said. “What that looks like is you’ve got your photos on your hard drive inside your computer, you’ve made a copy on an external hard drive of your whole collection, and then you send another copy of your whole collection to the cloud.”
Physical storage: This includes your computer’s hard drive, an external hard drive or a USB memory stick. Buy a drive with more space than you think you need, especially if you’re storing videos, Jacus advises. “Two terabytes is a lot of space, but if you can afford a drive with four or five terabytes, you’re definitely covered for a lot of photos,” she said. Jacus and Nelson recommend replacing external hard drives every three to five years. Jacus likes drives from these four companies, which she says are widely used in the photo organizer community: LaCie, Toshiba, Seagate and Western Digital. You could also put photos on CDs or DVDs, but make sure your machine can read the files.
Off-site storage: Carbonite, Google Drive, Apple iCloud, Dropbox and Microsoft’s OneDrive are all cloud storage options that provide easy access and several plans at various prices and storage capabilities. Jacus suggests signing up for automated billing to ensure continuous service and guard against a possible loss of data. Before choosing any service, read the terms and conditions to get an idea of what would happen to your data if service did stop. Read the fine print, and don’t use any service if you’re uncomfortable with its terms and conditions, including privacy.
Jacus also recommends comparing the features of different services, such as ease of automatic uploads, file storage size capacity, how photos can be subcategorized, and available search features, such as keywords and facial recognition.
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