Photo Sorting Tips

I don’t know about you but in our home there a hundreds if not thousands of photos dating back to my husbands and my late teens and every year since. Some are in albums, some are in photo boxes, some are still in the envelope they came in when they were picked up from the store. Needless to say they are mostly in one area of the house but when it comes to organisation there is very little of that going on.

Of course we are talking about printed photos here, lets face it sorting digital photos is child’s play. Actually, sorting printed photos would have been child’s play too had we been diligent all along and not just chucked them in on top of each other with far less respect than they deserved. Now we have a huge task ahead of us to sort through them and add some semblance of order to our lives in picture.

I am going to give you some guide lines as to how to sort through this mess in the most logical fashion. Even though there are many ways to sort your photos it is usually best to sort them chronologically. If you were to go in search for a photo of say your cousins wedding the most obvious place to start is by the date that this occasion took place. The same goes for a birthday party, vacation snaps even a baby’s first tooth photos if you had such a thing because it is easy enough to pin point around about when the event happened.

If chronological order is the most logical way to find a photo then it is also the most logical way to sort photos in the first place. Even when you start sorting through the disorganised piles of photos you have you will likely recognise the event in the batch of photos and remember roughly when that event occurred. So even if your collection is as big a jumbled mess as mine you will soon start to set it to order once you muster up the courage to begin. I am actually giving myself confidence that I can handle the task as I write this post.

I have made a list below of some items that will be of assistance in making this task as painless as possible:

  • 5 x 7 or 4 x 6 index cards
  • Photo storage boxes
  • Photo safe pen
  • Archival Sleeves (Acid Free Page protectors) for larger photos
  • Negative holders
  • And of course, gather up all the photos from wherever they are throughout the house.

Before you begin: You amy want to read through the list of steps before you get started so you know exactly what the process is before you begin. Seeing the big picture may help with the sorting process as you go along. You may also want to weed out “bad” photos as you go or get the sorting squared away before you start this process. With loose photos like this (not in albums) I would sort first and weed later, that way they are never out of their protective environment for too long. Once sorted you can weed at your leisure, one batch at a time.

Step 1 ~ Guess how many years of photos you have to sort through and mark one index card for every  year (1979, 1980, 1981…) you have to sort.

Step 2 ~ If you ar like me and have photos that have been given to you by other people and loose photos that have somehow become separating from other photos of an event just set them aside until you have the bulk of the photos sorted. It will become easier to sort these once their fellow group of photos are in place.

Step 3 ~ Start sorting the bulk of the photos into their appropriate years. There is no need to be too precise about what month they belong in, for now a rough guess will do. If you also have the negatives that relate to each group it is best to keep them together throughout the process then once the photos are identified you can also mark the negatives and file them away appropriately.

Step 4 ~ Once they are sorted by year go back through each year and identify as best you can what month/date each event occurred on. At this point we are trying to be precise about chronological order. Make an index card for each month that you have photos for and then separate those with an index card marking the name of the event.

Step 5 ~ For history sake you may want to mark the back of one or two photos from each group identifying the people in the photo and the event they relate to. Ideally every photo should be marked this way but I think I would go insane at the very thought of going to that much trouble. My advice is do whatever feels right to you.

Step 6 ~ Now it is time to identify the negaties and file them together with the photos or in a separate negative file. Remember it is not so easy to view the negatives so it is best that you identify them clearly before you files them away. My husband recently sent our negatives to a professional to be scanned so we now have digital copies just in case the originals deteriorate over time. In fact it was already too late for some.

Step 7 ~ If you have large photos of special events like weddings and school photos it is best to store these in archival sleeves in a hard cover folder. Or course you will also identify the event and date for each of these photos as you place them in the folder.

Step 8 ~ Grab that pile of miscellaneous photos I mentioned in step two and start sorting them into order with the other photos. Hopefully they will be easier to identify and sort because you have come across matching photos in the first part of this process. There may be some photos that will remain single, it is best to identify the back of these photos and make a miscellaneous index card and file these singles together at the back of the appropriate month/year to which they most likely belong.

Step 9 ~ If you are like me and also have some random heritage photos, make a special file/album for these and of course identify the people, event (if any) and approximate date. It is likely that future generations will have no idea who these people are if they are not clearly identified by someone who knows the history behind the photo.

I hope I have covered everything and that you will find this guide useful when or if you find it necessary to sort your photo collection. I would love to find the time to sort through my parents photo collection as they won’t be around forever to identify the people in the photos but for now I will deal with mine and then maybe one day not too far away I will tackle that task.

Good luck and happy sorting.

Today’s Declutter Item

This item belonged to my daughter. I often send her text messages or ambush her when she comes to visit to find out if I can delutter her clutter.

Dolphin Trinket


My Gratitude List

  • Something that made me laugh ~ Listening to my children in fits of laughter while talking to each other on the internet. Liam was showing his sister some funny photos I had found of him when he was little.
  • Something Awesome ~ Driving in the rain when you have just replaced your windscreen wipers.
  • Something to be grateful for ~ Liam’s university semester is almost over and he can take a break and regroup for a while. It has been a hard slog trying to finish last years work (due to his accident) and this semester’s work all at once.
  • Something that made me happy ~ Escaping the house this afternoon to have coffee with a friend after doing housework non-stop for the rest of the day.
  • Something I am grateful I learned in my past ~ How to track down what appliance in the house is causing the master fuse to trip. This comes in handy when the power goes out to your refrigerator in the middle of the night.

It matters not how fast I go, I hurry faster when I’m slow

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About Colleen Madsen

Colleen is the founder of 365 Less Things and lives in Newcastle, Australia.


  1. Although the steps are perfectly logical, it sounds intimidating when it’s all spelled out like that.

    Can you believe it? I know I have some photos stored in *construction paper* which has to be the least archival paper on the planet. Perhaps natural decluttering will have occured during the decade these photos have lingered in a box in their carefully constructed construction paper wrappings.

    I actually tried to do this last month, but I took the wrong box to my craft group. Instead, I took a box of old albums, most of them those ones that I think were called “magnetic” but are really some sort of gluey surface. I decided I’m going to tear them apart and put them into one album. Even some of the labeled photos from high school and junior high brought back no memories of the people in the photos. If I don’t have any memories of them now; I’m sure that situation is not going to change as I get further and further away from junior high!

    • Hi Cindy,
      those magnetic albums are a killer on photos and best to get them out of there as soon as possible. Like you any photos that mean nothing to us are going straight in the bin.

  2. Colleen,

    Wow, it is absolutely overwhelming just reading your steps! I had promised myself I would start with just going through a couple of boxes today and weeding out photos I know I don’t want to keep. This is a good task for me today, since I am in a fibromyalgia flare!

    My husband said that when I get started on getting rid of stuff, I seem to go for the things that we are going to want later. One time when I was on a declutter rampage, I sold all of his CD’s. (And I have never heard the end of that one!) I’ll have to be careful not to do this with my photos. I just want to get rid of all duplicates because they take up so much space and no one looks at them when they are in boxes.

    I have two boxes and a plastic box-like container sitting on the hope chest at the base of my bed right now and I can feel them staring at me from behind. I guess I ought to go get started!


    • Hi Chelle – Two ways that I have seen duplicate photos used are:
      1-Give them to the people in the photos (ask first so you’re not cluttering up their lives)
      2-If they are pictures of your children, you can pick the best so you can make them their own albums later. Both my mother and my husband’s mother made albums for us when we were married. They started with pictures of their own marriage, then baby pictures of us, family shots, and finally a wedding photo of us. It was time-consuming for them, but so appreciated by us.

      • Nice idea Jo. As I go through my photos and am going to break out the scrapbook supplies and continue on with the kids albums so they have a memory book to take with them when they leave home. Bridget and Liam were cracking up laughing the other day over compromising photos I found of Liam. I don’t know what was funnier the photos or the sound of those two laughing, I was wondering who was actually going to wet themselves first.

    • Hi Chelle,
      like I said yesterday ~ don’t declutter precious things just for the sake of decluttering. As you stated ~ when I get started on getting rid of stuff, I seem to go for the things that we are going to want later. The idea of slow and steady decluttering is to give yourself time to think carefully about the process as you go along. Make sure you take your disorder into account while decluttering and it may be best to get your husbands second opinion before you eliminate the objects you choose altogether.

      The one thing about the steps to the photo sorting is that you can still do it in small chunks of time, it doesn’t all have to be done in one long sitting.

  3. Colleen, I don’t know if it’s just because this is exactly the way I have approached my pictures in the past, or some other reason, but I really like this method and from my own experience feel it’s the easiest way to deal with large masses of unidentified pictures. Good luck with yours! Also, it’s comforting to hear you say that sometimes you, too, still have to remind yourself to break big jobs down into small time segments 🙂

    • Hi Jo,
      this method is something I learned through scrapbooking, not that I ever did it obviously because I most worked with the digital photos. And yes, I was getting into quite a dither on the week end over the very thought of the project but them I gave myself a pep talk and got over it.

  4. Jo, thanks for the hint. I would never have thought to make albums to give to my kids with the duplicates. That’s a great idea, though it’s kind of an overwhelming thought!

    Either way, I will get through those boxes today and get rid of the ones that I definitely know wouldn’t be “keepers.”


    • Chelle, just remember you don’t have to make the albums today! You could keep them in a separate box or envelope for now.

      • Jo,

        If you want to see my pitiful attempt at organization of those “3” boxes (I got through 1), head on over to my website at I put up a picture of what my bed looked like at the end of the first box yesterday.

        Colleen, I am definitely going to take this slow and easy. I’m focusing more on sorting than throwing away with the pictures because I could easily throw something important away. And I definitely am taking into account my illness while doing this. It’s going to probably take all summer (at the very least) and I will have to really work on it, maybe just a few minutes a day. I have no idea where it’s going to end up, but it won’t be with all the boxes landing in the trash (which is kind of what I wanted to do with them yesterday!)


        • Hi Chelle,
          I took a quick look at your post over at lifeonthedomesticfront and I had to laugh when you spoke about those sheets of photos, wallet size, 5×7, 8×10… you are so right I was going through the same thing yesterday with the kids old school photos. I had good intentions as you said about doling them out to the relatives but it never happened. Such a waste of money!

          I am glad you are taking it slow. I have one of my photo boxes hiding behind one of the living room sofa chairs where I can drag it out and do 10 minutes here and there.

  5. Step #9–yes please! I would recommend to everyone who has any photos to label them! I rescued a tupperware container full of old family photos that belonged to my grandmother that had no identification on them at all. Every time I visited, we would look at a few but she didn’t always remember who was in the photos. And now that she is gone, I fear I’ll never know if they were family members or friends and neighbors 🙁 Except for my mom, she was the last one of that side of the family.

    • Hi Melissa,
      I have been promising myself to do this with photos at my mums & dads for years but still haven’t got around to it. maybe I will start when I go home this time. it is easy enough to chat and sort at the same times. My dad will remember the stories behind the photos, I am sure.

      • Melissa, I have one of those envelopes too! I went through it with my dad after my grandmother died and most of them, he had no idea who was in the pictures. We labeled the ones he could identify and I do not know what to do with the others. I feel like if I threw them out, it would be like I was throwing away family, but right now, these are just people in old pictures!

        • Hi Chelle,
          do you know if anyone is tracing your family tree, maybe they would be able to identify the people in the photos. Check out genesreunited and do a search on your grandmothers name and see if she comes up. You should be able to contact the person tracing the tree and you never know what you will find out.

 is also great for this

  6. Wow, your sorting method really goes into detail!

    I’ve been starting to take my photos out of those “magnetic” albums recently, because I had read that they aren’t good for the photos. I’ve been trying to write approx. dates and who the people are on each photo, and am finding, like you said, that it’s a big job, so I’ll probably work on that when I’m watching the news or something.

    For some reason, I’m tired of photo albums sitting around, so I’ve been putting all our photos into clear plastic shoeboxes. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but it keeps them neatly in one place.

    My father died in April, and we went through my mother’s photo “box” to find photos to use at his funeral. Her photo “box” is one of those LARGE Rubbermaid storage containers. Many of the photos have no marking on them at all. I don’t know if any of us will ever tackle the sorting and writing that would be needed for that project.

    • Hi Becky,
      it is a shame when the photos are no longer meaningful to people because of the lack of identity on them. As for keeping them in clear shoe boxes, photos should really only be kept in boxes designed for photos, the material the boxes are made from should be ph neutral (acid free) PVC for one, is not. I bought three divided boxes from Joanns when I lived in america they are designed for storing photos. They even have a shallow flat section on one side for larger photos. Too bad I still haven’t actually done the job of sorting the photos yet but we won’t go there, right!

  7. Oh wow – this is something I’ve been meaning to tackle (on my family’s behalf!) I have a 21st Album to do for brother 2 before March 2012, so hopefully whilst sourcing photos for that I can start the major cleanup! The most annoying thing of being young is all those childhood years blur into one! It’s hard to pin point one year’s holiday photos from the next! But I’m sure I’ll manage something. I dread the cost/buying of album though – I think a box might suit me better. But I think some photos are funny shapes – we used to have a camera that did panaromic(sp?) as well as two other formats… mmmm

    • Hi Snosie,
      sometimes you can buy albums that are ring binders that can fit an assortment of different pages that fit an assortment of different size photos including panoramic.

      Better still for your brother get a coffee table book made up of digital images. Check out You can scan old photos or digitise negatives to include in the book.

      • I know about those books or albums. But I think it’s more ‘decluttering’ if I use existing photos and put them all in one place (well the best of them) to be treasured. Thank you for the suggestion!

        • Good point Snosie. Those Blurb-type books are beautiful and great if you have unprinted digital photos, but it’s much more decluttering to use the real photos if you have them.

        • Hi Snosie,
          you make a good point here. At least with using existing printed photos you are decluttering some of your collection.

  8. This is great, Colleen! When I return (tomorrow) from my little holiday in San Francisco, I am going to start on the photos. ‘Organize photos’ has been on my to do list for a long time as you probably will remember. This summer, it’s on the top of the list. Wish me luck, fortitude, good fortune, whatever …

  9. When I was approaching 365 days of decluttering and trying to decide if I was done or to go on or use a different format etc., one of the things I considered was tackling photos for a year. I need to finish my children’s baby albums, my wedding album, and generally do something with the digital photos we have. Or stop taking them; I guess that would be another option. Anyway, I spared myself this decision by deciding to continue decluttering for another 6 months.

    • Hi Cindy,
      I have been avoiding this task since the beginning of my 365 day mission. Although we have done a little here and a little there It is really time to tackle the mess now. Hopefully the upside of that is that I must be running out of other things to deal with. I wish!!!

  10. I know it’s a month or two later, but I’m pleased to report I have got all the family’s photos in two photo boxes (aside from those already in albums, and those too big for the two photo boxes). I even got mum and dad to help cull some (yay! and I wasn’t so pro decluttering with this particular task actually!) I even labelled some too. I think every Sunday (which I’ve deemed the filing day – as I set up the filing system at home, and am happy to do it with/for them , with some guidance) we’ll go through more, label more, organise more. So happy to have them safely stored for now though!

    • Wow Snosie, good for you. Now, can you come over to my house and do mine for me. I have made a start but I keep finding other things to declutter and avoid that task. I only do a little before it throws my head into a spin. I guess I am just not ready for that yet. The day will come though just like it has for other tasks I was not too keen on but are now accomplished so I am not concerned. I do envy you having yours out of the way though.