The Best 9 Step Tutorial: How to Organize Photos Even If You’re Really Far Behind

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Today, I’m going to give you a manageable solution for how to organize ALL your pictures… hopefully without losing your mind in the process. You can do this!

With the current digital media age, there are pictures EVERYWHERE. Facebook, Instagram, your phone, your spouse’s phone, text messages, Google Photos, your email, your computer, and on and on. This picture overload makes it feel really hard to know how to organize your pictures.

 This post does not cover WHERE to store all your pictures. If you’re deciding between iPhoto/ iCloud, windows photos, the cloud, a hard drive, Google photos, Prime photos (and on and on), check out my thoughts on which program makes the most sense for most people! 

How to Organize Photos in 9 Steps

1. The Once a Month Photo Club

The main “trick” here is to understand the following steps and then schedule a time to organize your pictures every single month. I plan for it on my calendar, brew some decaf or tea, and spend a couple hours on it after the kids go to bed, usually with a show on in the background while my husband is geeking out – coding next to me.

It doesn’t have to be super time consuming. Depending on how many picture sources you’re gathering from, it may take 30-90 minutes.

TIP: If you want a quick and easy edit, use the “auto” improve button in your photo program of choice. (I use & edit my pictures in Google Photos & often click “auto” for an easy upgrade.)

2. Start Current

If you haven’t organized pictures in 10 years, don’t get discouraged. (I have heard from people who use this tutorial to go through 20 years of their family history photos… it works for anyone!)

Here’s what you can do to ‘catch up.’ First of all, START CURRENT. Just commit to doing this month’s pictures. Forget about going back for now. Sometime in February, for example, block out an evening to work through January’s pictures.

It might feel slow the first time, but eventually this process will get faster and easier. Develop the habit of doing this for a couple months. THEN, you can go back and try to catch up.

Once you’re current, the easiest way to catch up is to set small goals. Do the current month + 1 old month each month. I suggest going in reverse chronological order.  Don’t do more than that if you’ll get overwhelmed. If you have the freedom, flexibility, and endurance to block out an entire Saturday to get caught up, fine. But most people would rather drink bleach while poking their eyes out. So, I suggest small progress. Baby steps. 1 old month + the current month. You can do it!

3. Gather Pictures from Multiple Sources for 1 Month

  • Phone
  • DSLR
  • Email
  • Texts
  • shared photos from google photos, FB, or IG

TIP: To make the gathering process less tedious, get in the habit of immediately saving anything shared with you to your phone album. If someone texts me a picture or I see one on Instagram/ Facebook that I want to use in an album, I save it on the spot. That way, when I’m gathering photos at the end of the month, I don’t have to go back through Instagram, Facebook, and texts. I’ve already saved the pictures I want into my regular photos album.

I do the same thing with email. If someone emails me a picture I want to use in an album, I immediately download it and put it in iPhoto. Then, it’s already there when I go to organize the pictures for the month.

EXTRA TIP: If you take a lot of pictures on your phone, go through them a few times throughout the month while you’re on the treadmill or watching a show, and delete the crappy ones. This will save you time during your once-a-month upkeep session.

EXTRA EXTRA TIP: Use Google Photos cloud storage to manage your pictures instead of whatever the default photo app is on your phone. Move the default app to a random hidden folder so you don’t accidentally use that. Do all deleting in Google Photos because it will automatically sync to the cloud. Then, periodically just delete photos from your actually device. More about this in my Complete Google Photos Tutorial.

4. Put all the pictures for one month in an album together

I used to organize pictures into folders by event, but I’d find myself looking through my pictures folder trying to remember the name of a particular event.. was it called John and Julie’s Wedding, or Smith Wedding? 20 minutes later, I’d find a folder called something ridiculous like “JJ Wedding Best Ever 2015 Summer.” Organizing by month keeps things simple and prevents a lot of painful searching!

This will make it so much easier when you’re ready to order printed photos or photo books.

5. Delete Crappy Ones 

Once you have all your pictures in one album for the month, start deleting. Immediately delete all the obviously crappy pictures. Delete as many as you can! If you took 20 in a row of your kiddos doing the same thing, try to pick your favorite one or two. (Come on, I know I’m not the only one who takes 16 in a row to try to get the perfect baby & mom selfie….)

tips for organizing old photos

6. Delete, Delete & Delete Some More 

If you take a lot of pictures, go back through and delete more! Digital picture overload makes creating albums and products paralyzing. I’ve learned that from experience. It’s nearly impossible (and annoying) to sift through the hundreds and hundreds of pictures I have from my oldest daughter’s first year of life.

7. Edit (Optional) 

tips for organizing photos

If you care about the shadows, lighting, colors, etc… go ahead and edit the remaining pictures in your folder. When I used iPhoto, I usually just clicked “enhance.” Occasionally, I also used lighten, and contrast.

In Google Photos, if I have time, I hit “auto.” The auto edit feature really makes a difference, but when I get behind, I skip the editing and just get the pictures sorted and in my albums!

If editing sounds overwhelming, skip it.

8. Backup

Once you’re done gathering, deleting, and editing, it’s time to backup that month’s pictures.

Your options are:

  • external hard drive – get the right kind for your computer: MAC option ; PC option… don’t stress about size and brand. Just grab one of those – either a mac or PC. Get at least 1TB. 2 or more TB is fine too. And you’ll probably never run out of room on here 🙂
  • cloudAmazon has photo storage for prime members; I use Google Photos the iCloud is another option but I find everything about it confusing even though I have a Macbook and iPhone, so I never use it. Ever.
  • both – the more backup the merrier

Call me old school, but for years, I still backed up my photos onto a hard drive every month.

But, I’ve lost my hard drive a couple times, which induces extreme panic. Every time that happened, I would resolve to move my backups to the cloud. I finally moved all my pictures to cloud backup in 2017 and haven’t looked back. I moved everything on to Google Photos, and I LOVE IT!!! (Here’s a step by step Google Photos tutorial if you’re interested!) YOU CAN DO THIS!

9. Honestly, making up your mind is the biggest thing.

Decide you want to organize your pictures, and then start. As with anything, it will get easier the more you do it. Don’t stress about what you miss, or what’s undone. The point is to be preserving memories for your family in the future. It will help to have a ‘why.’ Why are you organizing photos? The main reasons I organize my pictures are:

  • to make an annual family photo album with Mixbook (or Blurb or Shutterfly).
  • to easily create photo gifts with Mpix – the grandparents seem to love the 15 oz photo collage mugs!
  • to create annual page-a-day calendars for xmas gifts! These are SUPER easy to order each year if you use this personal photo organizer system I’m describing. You can make them at Social Print Studio, using my $5-off code for your order: 4GQQTLZYP1

To quote Myquillyn Smith, “it doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful.” Just go for it! Good luck!

May the force be with you!! Comment below with any questions or photo organizing tips of your own.

how to organize pictures

46 thoughts on “The Best 9 Step Tutorial: How to Organize Photos Even If You’re Really Far Behind”

  1. The comments on my site are turned off now, but I'd love to hear from you on Instagram! Follow me there & tag me in a comment or DM me. Xo I'm @MrsReneeCook on Instagram!
  2. not sure! I think there is a comment option for each photo… I make sure to label pictures/ put captions when I create the books. I wonder if you could use a free photo editing program like canva or pic monkey to add a caption at the bottom of the actual image, then save the image into your google photos. Otherwise, not sure about digital captions! That’s a good question! Good luck ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Iโ€™m trying to tag old photos because Once Iโ€™m gone no one will know who they are.
    What is the easiest way to do this?

  4. Thank you for this incredibly simple, straightforward and sensical method! Really kind of you to share with us ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. I too LOVE Google photos and your article. Please send me your cheat sheet, 8 steps to organize your pictures!. The links didn’t work for me.
    Cheers Deb

  6. Oh I’m so glad!!! I have an android now, too. So let me know if you have any more specific questions. ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. Hi Renee,
    Thank you ever so much for your photo tutorials. They are the best, and easiest to understand for me, a not-so-tech-savy grandma. I have not got everything out ot them yet, but I have a start. I have an Android so there are some differences there.
    I have saved them in my Pinterest board for future referral. Thanks and hugs..

  8. Elsie!! Oh my word, I know what you mean. Haha iCloud has always driven me nuts… I’ve never been able to figure it out. My google post explains why it’s not a problem that Google doesn’t keep full res photos… unless you’re a pro photographer!? Check out that other post and see if it answers your questions. If you sign up for my photo organizing cheat sheet, you can always hit reply to an email too ๐Ÿ˜‰ good luck!!

  9. I am at my wits end with ICloud. I feel like itโ€™s stilen my photographs because it makes it impossible to download ALL your iCloud photos onto a hard drive. I want to know Iโ€™ve got all my photos on a hard drive AND in the iCloud. The process is unfathimable, impenetrable IMPOSSIBLE! Theyโ€™ve removed the select all button for bulk download. Iโ€™ve spent hours online trying to sort it and even went into an Apple shop and they drew a blank. I am worried that Google does not keep full resolution images on its cloud server – is this right? Because that would worry me. I have 3 years of images on iCloud and about a decade in iphotos on my hard drive. You seem to know what youโ€™re talking about so I am going to read all your blogs and links. Thanks for putting this altogether – wish me luck!!

  10. This is one of the best posts I’ve read lately. Truly appreciate you keeping it simple, encouraging progress vs. perfection and providing a clear action plan with wiggle room based on how much time you have and where you are in the process. So many blogs are unnecessarily long and wordy to gain ad space…thanks for the clean, clear and helpful post!

  11. Oh, wow I can’t tell you how encouraging this is. I’m a former-ish photographer (set the $-making aside to focus on other things but still take a TON of pictures!) and I’m only “caught up” on my family photo archive to about, oh, 2014. CRINGE. It’s just so daunting. But then I think, oh CRUD if my hard drive crashes — ok, I have most backed up on an external drive — or my house burns down I would lose YEARS of photos!! All those memories! All I’d have would be Instagram! Which is still a lot but nowhere near all of them.

    Thank you for giving me permission to take itsy bitsy bites out of this YUGE project. Short assignments: it’s a tenet I live by in my work as a writer, but one I have trouble applying to the rest of life (um, clearly). So, yay! I’m sorta looking forward to tackling LAST MONTH’S photos in the next few weeks. I can DO this!


  12. What excellent ideas! My oldest grandchild is 6 and#4 is on the way. I decided to make photo albums for each of them and got as far as year one, child one…Yikes! Your organization ideas are so helpful and really make sense! I have renewed hope that I can actually accomplish this task. Thank you!0

  13. Ay ay ay. That’s a lot! haha! But what a gift ๐Ÿ™‚ I would say, just dive in. Use the same strategy – one month at a time. Maybe make a checklist of years that you can check off as you go through to track your progress and stay motivated to finish. Give yourself a reward at the project’s end! And give yourself a deadline. The good news is – there won’t be a LOT of photos from the “good ‘ol days” before cameras were so easily accessible. So those years should go quickly hopefully! Good luck!!

  14. I always start my folder with the year then month then date and then add a quick description)eg 2017 11 05 Jerryโ€™s birthday party at Wakaw Lake). It is amazing how easy it is to stay organized and to find an event or person! Also good for those annual books…

  15. Do you have any suggestions for someone who has over 90 years of photos. I have my mothers and grandmothers.

  16. I have everything apple, but use google photos for everything!! There’s a post on my site about how I use it – just search google photos. Let me know if you have any questions ๐Ÿ™‚ good luck

  17. Hi!
    Thanks for sharing, great advice.
    I recently bought a new Mac, which comes with “Photos” and I really don’t like it! Used to love “iPhoto”! Don’t know why they stupidity delete Events, it was so much easier to import from different devices and move pics to same event, also avoiding duplicates… But now?! I can’t get my way around Photos: Memories is too much authomatic and I can’t make it do what I want, doing album is basically a manual process and u may end up with lots of duplicates. So at the moment I set Photos apart and just work on folders manually… My issue is that I have so many pics taken from different devices and would like to have a platform to sort them out, like with Events Inn iPhoto… Any suggestions?

  18. Thanks for your reply, Renee! That clears things up and I’ve been going ahead with the long process of organizing all of our photos and uploading them to Google Photos. I’ve been really loving how easy it is to organize them on Google though. I’m amazed at the photo recognition and I’ve been having a lot of fun with it ๐Ÿ™‚

  19. Hey Erin, I don’t keep the photos on my computer at all… they all go into Google photos for backup. I used to backup onto a hard drive as well, but I don’t anymore. If you want to put them on a hard drive, just make a folder in Google photos, then download it. It’ll download as a zip file in your “downloads” folder on your mac. Then, unzip it, move that folder to your hard drive and voila. Empty your downloads folder into the trash every so often so you don’t have a bunch of big files in there. I found the mac process really frustrating too… how they were all in different spots. So I stopped putting them in my mac photos app all together. I turned off the auto backup from the mac photos app on my iphone and they only go through Google Photos now. Does that make sense? Basically, I use a macbook & an iphone but have everything Apple turned off (because I found it confusing) and everything Google turned ‘on’ so that nothing ended up actually on my mac… just on the internet.

  20. I love this system and scheduling a time each month to go through and organize photos – I’m planning on doing that and I’m sure it will make the job a lot less overwhelming! I like the Mac Photos app and it’s easy for me because most of my pictures these days are taken with my iPhone, but my problem is that I have too many photos to keep them all on my computer. How do you back them up to a hard drive? (What bothers me is that I have my photos in regular file folders on my hard drive, but I can’t access them easily like those that are in the Photos app. It frustrates me that they’re in different systems and not all in the same place and format.) Just wondering if you have a system that works for you because we use so many of the same tools (I also back up to Google Photos.)

  21. Glad this helped!! Hmmm good point about the contradictory advice – oops!! When I initially wrote this post, I had auto syncing turned off. Now that I use Google Photos, I do leave it on for ease. BUT, it does clutter my photo library in Google Photos. I go through frequently and delete the duplicates. I need to update my advice in the post, but I would say it’s a judgment call/ personal preference. If you don’t want to manually backup frequently, then you might want to leave auto-backup on for Google Photos and just deal with sifting through the duplicates and deleting them manually. If you DO backup frequently and don’t want to deal with sifting through & deleting, then do that.

    What you do with the photos is again personal preference. I’ve done an annual photo album for our family every year since my first daughter was born. I use Blurb for that. I also really like Mixbook, for a more drag-and-drop approach. I’ve never tried a google photo album but I’m curious! I like them in album form, and I like the process of making the album, but it’s not for everyone. Our family loves to sit down and look back through the printed albums. Search my site for digital photo albums and there’s a post about why I make those. I should probably write more details about brands I like….. adding it to my to-do list ๐Ÿ™‚

  22. What program can I use on my PC to organize pics? I used to uses Picasso and that was pretty good. But there is no download for it anymore. Got a suggestion?

  23. I am way, way, way behind in my photo organization but determined to get to it. I stared with your your blog post about Google Photos, set up a command center with all the printed ones in tubs and have many backed up on a hard drive. I am confused by this comment: I Because I frequently go through my phone and delete, I have all auto-syncing between my phone and computer/ cloud turned OFF. Otherwise the 20 crappy versions of the picture make it to my computer before I get to deleting them on my phone. This is different than the advice you gave in the Google Photos tutorial….can you explain?

    Also, when you say do this for the current month and one older month (great advice) do you do print albums, google photos albums or…what is your suggestion?

    Thanks so much!

  24. If I don’t schedule it, it doesn’t get done… which is why I’m currently behind. Haha! Better get it on my sept. schedule ๐Ÿ™‚

  25. Thank you for your post! It is great to read about other peoples path to photo organization. I especially like the idea of Once of Month Photo Club, scheduling that time away from distractions to organize all the photos in your life.

  26. Hi your blog is superb, so logical and simple making it very easy for people to understand and use. Non of the waffle found on some other sites. I couldn’t agree more on your advice to delete then go through and delete again. I know so many people who keep every picture and insist on showing them all, even the ones with heads missing! I use a very similar structure for my files using lightroom. I also within lightroom use keywords for quick access. I could just type in my daughters name for example and all pictures of her will come up from all files, same with any topic I’ve used as a keyword.
    Keep up the good work.

  27. Renee – I love your blog!! What a great, encouraging resource for mamas like me!! May I suggest an amazing product for picture organizing and backup? I work for a company called PrairieIT, and we have an amazing product called ThePhotoStick that finds, saves, organizes and backs up all of your pictures with one click!! It is super easy to use!! We would love to send your one for you to try? Maybe you would recommend it to your readers? Please email me and let me know if you’re interested!! Blessings – Heather

  28. Hi Fi, Thanks for commenting. I think you’re right about iPhoto… I’ve updated my mac routinely and for some reason, it hasn’t switched to Photos. But I think that’s a fluke. Lucky me. I’m in the process of switching to google photos in place of iPhoto because I assume it won’t be accessible for much longer. My main issue with iCloud is that I don’t understand it! So, that’s more a “user error,” than Apple’s fault. Haha! It seems expensive for the space, plus I have trouble navigating around compared to google. I use google drive and gmail for most of my online work, so adding google photos was a natural fit for me. Plus it has organizing capabilities within the software. Sharing is super easy. It has fun video and collage compilation tools. The search feature is amazing. And, it allows me to delete & edit within google photos app from my phone… so if I delete a picture from the app on my iPhone, that picture is gone from my backup in google photos too. I like that there’s no redundancy. I’ll likely post an update about how and why I’m using google photos soon, but that’s the gist! Sounds like you have a good system too!!

  29. Readable and logical! I do try to keep mine reasonably organised, but I can take hundreds in a day if I go to an event or place of interest, so it can take a while. However, your suggestions do make sense.
    I’m not sure iPhoto is around anymore (?) I only got my first MacBook last year and almost straight away iPhoto changed to Photos. I downloaded Photoscape and use that for editing.
    Out if interest what issues do you have with iCloud? It makes sense what you said about deleting rubbish before it can get to your Mac if you have all-sync on. I irregularly back up to an external hard drive with RAW files and my final edited photos, as well as Google cloud.
    Really helpful piece, which I found through Pinterest.
    Thanks for posting. :@)

  30. yes! iPhoto is a mac only program. Look in the app store if it doesn’t come on your mac automatically. Let me know if you can’t find it anymore – I’ve heard some people have trouble getting it because Mac’s software is trying to push people over to their new picture app called “Photos,” which is not as good, in my opinion. I much preferred iPhoto. Regardless, I plan to switch over to google photos and write a tutorial on that! If you download my cheat sheet in this post, I’ll have your email address and can send the google photos tutorial to you when I post it ๐Ÿ™‚

  31. Jim, great naming idea!!! i forgot to mention in the post I add a number in front of my months so they’re in order too… i.e. 01 Jan / 02 Feb/ 03 March etc.. yours is even more detailed ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks for the tip!

  32. Enjoyed your post. Organizing photos is certainly a constantly ongoing project. However, I use a slightly different storage naming process that has yet to fail me in over 12 years and 10,000+ photos.

    For photos, simply name the folder using the standard naming convention below.

    – First four (4) digits are the year of the folder/document, followed by an underscore
    – Next two (2) digits are the month of the folder/document, followed by an underscore
    – Next two (2) digits are the day (if necessary)
    – Then, a brief description of the folder/document.

    All personal photos are stored in a folder: /Photos_Personal
    While ‘professional’ photos are stored in: /Photos_Studio

    Then, in sub-Folders by Year: /2016_Photos

    Then, Event sub-Folders Example: /2016_11_Honeymoon
    Then, below thatโ€ฆby day if necessary:


    This naming convention automatically sorts documents chronologically. Then, I use the folder structure to divide documents by event, subject or type. You can then easily search by date or event as well.

    As a reminder, backup your drives regularly (weekly / monthly) to external hard drives and/or cloud based storage services!

  33. oh my goodness, Leslie!! Thank you!! I’m SO glad this was helpful for you. I agonized over the draft and have changed it several times trying to make it as easy to follow as possible! Did you read the post about google photos too? I’m going to switch this year to google photos and write a new post specifically for that option ๐Ÿ™‚ good luck with your pictures!

  34. OMG I am so happy I came across your post. You are very inspiring and make it so simple to follow I love it and I am going to do it and share this post. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts and ideas. Thank you so much for sharing.

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