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  • Emily Tse

Photo Series Part 3: The DO'S & DON'TS of Sorting Photos

Real talk… this blog post is LATE. Not days late, weeks late. After reporting on the initial steps that helped me get started with organizing my massive photo collection, something strange happened. I was ready and eager to start actually sorting but couldn’t decide HOW to do it and got stuck in a pile of good old-fashioned analysis paralysis. I had assumed that the ‘doing’ part of this project would be the easiest part for me. Instead, I was a couple weeks in, mercilessly behind where I’d hoped to be, shamelessly binge watching season 2 of The Home Edit and procrasti-cleaning like I was about to host the Queen.

Not exactly the makings of an inspiring blog post. So I decided to just work through the stuck-ness, make a bit more progress, and try to distill everything I’ve learned so far into some Do’s and Don’ts to help you get started.

DO gather ALL your photos before you start

Nothing is worse than starting to organize and then finding another box of miscellaneous snaps a month later. Take a good look in your storage areas, sentimental places, albums, and any nook and cranny where they might be hiding. Loosely skim through what you have to get an idea of what timeline you’re dealing with.

DO clarify what your goal is

If you’re not sure how to figure it out, read my previous post about it here to make a plan. Knowing why you're organizing your photos (to make space, to digitize, etc.) and for what audience makes the decision making process a lot less murky.

DO sort BEFORE you discard

Sorting and discarding are totally different things. Sorting is simply placing things into categories without trying to get rid of anything yet. Discarding is actually sifting out the photos that don’t make the cut. If your photos are already stored in chronological order in a box or album, stop here to do a brief celebratory dance! *Throws Confetti* If not, start by sorting. To keep track, write a year or time range on a sticky note or piece of paper and place all the photos that belong with that year in a stack beside it. Continue this until you have the photos you're sorting loosely gathered in the right order. Then, knowing how many photos you actually have for each time period, start to make decisions about which ones to toss.

DO pace yourself

Of all the organizing projects I’ve tackled, this one is by far the hardest to estimate in terms of time. I’m making great progress but it is a marathon, not a sprint. Plan to work at it slowly but consistently and don’t get disappointed when it takes longer than you’d hoped. I had thought I would make it through my 5,000 photos by the time I was ready to write this blog post, hahahahaha. Haha. Ha.

DON'T forget to enjoy yourself

Rejoice in the glory of your dorkiest fashion choices and most confusing haircuts! Not that I would know, my style has always been flawless (see image to the right and please appreciate the decision to wear two pairs of sunglasses at the same time). Make sure to slow down once in a while to enjoy some of the entertaining photos you find.

DON'T make sorting too complicated

Stick to ordering photos in chronological order for now. Resist the urge to group collections based on themes or people. While it may be tempting to sort them based on family members or holidays, this can become difficult when multiple people are in the same photograph or it’s unclear which event is being celebrated in the photograph. Once your photos are sorted and scanned, you can always create unique themed collections later. For now, keep it simple.

DON'T cut corners to save time

It will haunt you. My family photos were in albums chronologically, so I thought that I could then save time by only pulling out the ones I didn’t want to keep. This turned into a cumbersome nightmare where I was flipping back and forth to see if I’d accidentally kept duplicates and then realized I’d need to remove most of them to scan them later anyways. My advice: Remove photos from sleeves but keep them in their exact same order in a little basket or shoebox. It makes it easy to spread out a few at a time to compare similar shots and choose the best storage method later.


Now that you have basked in the wisdom of my mishaps, ask these questions as you clearly decide which photos are worth keeping:

  1. Is this a good photo? This sounds painfully obvious but you will encounter many photos that are blurry, dark, or poorly timed. At a glance they seem like an easy toss, yet you might still hesitate to throw them away because someone once decided it was good enough to save. So why are they still there at all? How did a photo of Uncle Scooter’s elbow make the cut? Probably because developing film was expensive and anything that was paid for ended up in the album. So truly, it’s ok to look at a photo that was once deemed worthy of saving and let it go.

  2. How many versions of this photo do I need? Before the era of digital cameras and smartphones where we could see which shots would turn out, we just had to take our chances. That’s why you might see 5 or 6 almost identical versions of the same group shots, taken in hopes that one of them would turn out well. Look for the one that did, and let go of the ones that were close but not quite. One version is enough to preserve the memory.

  3. Do I know the people in this photo? Do I like the people in this photo? This one will vary depending on your goal for sorting. If you’re preserving your family history, then this one might involve some sleuthing and discussion to find out who is who. For my purposes and for where I am in my life, my photos are serving as a means to reflect on my memories and experiences. Photos of people I have no recollection of I am letting go.

  4. Could I google this? This one applies to scenery pictures. While I do keep some, most of my favourite traveling photos have people in them. Notice what you actually enjoy looking through when you reflect on past travels. If you take beautiful scenery shots and it brings you joy, keep them! If like me, you skip past the amateur landscape shots to look for the candid photos with friends and family then thin out the scenery pics.

Come back soon to read about the last and final steps to keep your beautiful collection safe and enjoy it to its fullest! Have some do’s and don’t of your own to share? I’d love to hear them! Comment below, share, or follow us on Facebook if you like what you’re reading!

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