Happy New Year, Friends! We did it! We found the escape hatch out of 2020, and we arrived to the new year alive. This is the part of the movie where we’re all bloodied up from our adventure getting here, and there’s a triumphant theme song (preferably composed by John Williams) playing while we hug each other. Now that we’ve arrived, we have to put some systems in place to successfully make this new year our home, and I’ve volunteered to take leadership in an area that overwhelms a lot of moms: taking photos, organizing them and doing something meaningful with them. If that suggestion completely overwhelms you because you are so far gone, buried in a mess of thousands of photos you never thought to organize; don’t run! This is fixable. Come with me.
I don’t normally follow the calendar when it comes to inspiration for starting something new; but if we’re talking about organizing photos, it makes the most sense to have January as your starting point. This is your chance to start the year on the right foot! Whether you mostly just use your phone to take photos or you’re into DSLR photography and editing, this post is going to dig in to all the tips and tricks to help you be successful this year at taking photos and creating consistent, sustainable practices for editing them, storing them and doing something meaningful with them so your family can enjoy these photos for years to come. I have fizzled out on so many systems in my life, but this is one area where I’ve been successful, give or take a few hard lessons learned (back up your photos!).
I asked what you want to know about this topic on Instagram Stories and received so many great questions, so I’m going to try and organize this in an orderly fashion by your questions and themes. But I want to begin with the two most important tips that will help you be successful. No matter what system you set up to manage your photos, if these two tips aren’t followed, I guarantee you’ll fizzle out on keeping up with them.
1. Make it joyful, and understand your “why.”
If keeping up on your photos is always an arduous dreaded task, no wonder you get behind and feel overwhelmed! The reason I’ve kept up on my photos all these years is because I actually enjoy the process. I’ve created rituals around editing (Saturday mornings with my coffee and a good playlist before anyone else is up) to make it less of a task and more of something that brings me joy. I also understand and fully embrace why I do it—it’s not just to “stay organized.” Having photos sorted, displayed and in books so that we can easily look at them and remember our moments together has brought so much joy to our family and makes me feel so much more grateful for my people and the experiences we’ve had together. I swear my kids’ memories of places we’ve visited and things we’ve done are more vivid because of the photos they continually look at to remind them of what we’ve shared. Having photos well organized also makes it really easy to create photo gifts for loved ones, video montages for birthday parties, etc. Try and think about photo storage and organization less as a task and more as an opportunity to sit down and look at your memories—an invitation to joy and reflection. Create a little time each week (or every two—keep your goals doable) to move photos, edit (if you’re the editing type), and organize them; and make this time enjoyable by lighting a candle, playing music, bringing a glass of wine into your office, etc.
2. Lower your standards and make photo goals sustainable.
When Lainey was a baby, I went deep into the abyss of digital scrapbooking. I spent hours creating intricate layouts, journaling letters to her and writing stories to go along with every album spread so I’d never forget a detail about her babyhood. I took thousands of photos and saved every one. People used to tease me that I’d never be able to keep up with it once I had more kids, and they were 100% right. So many moms go in strong the first year with the first kid but five years later lament that they never pick up their camera anymore and are so buried in years of unorganized photos, there’s no chance they’ll ever catch up—so they don’t even try. Lower your standards! Don’t set yourself up for failure. I make one annual album at the end of the year that includes a year’s worth of memories, and I choose the simplest layouts—no text (although text is an option with the company I use). If I started putting text in my albums, I know I’d feel the need to keep it up. The project would turn into something much bigger and time consuming, I’d procrastinate about doing it—and then I’d get behind and be where a lot of you are. Simplify! Your goal is “Done,” not “Perfect.”
My Process for Taking, Editing and Storing Photos
Before I tackle your questions, let me give you a quick run-down of what my photo process looks like. I use both my phone and DSLR camera for capturing memories. I use my phone for all the candid shots where I’m not really thinking about composition, but I do use it for some of the “good shots” too, especially if I’m out and see a great photo op and don’t have my big camera with me. The albums I create are made mostly of those “best shot” DSLR photos, but I’ve included phone photos many times and they print just fine (I’ve helped friends make my same album with mainly just iPhone pictures, and they still turn out beautiful). If I’ve taken a lot of photos from one event (say, a day at the zoo, a trip, a birthday party, etc.), I try and edit them and get them off my card and onto my hard drive immediately (within a day or two of taking them). Other than that, I try and edit day-to-day moment photos once a week. Some weeks I don’t take enough photos to do that; other weeks give me a nice fifteen minute editing session at my computer. I store all of my photos on an external hard drive (I like this one) and back them up to a cloud service. I use Amazon Photos because I have free unlimited photo storage with my Amazon Prime membership, but there are many cloud services available. After every editing session, I upload all the photos I edited into Amazon Photos and name the album folder the same as how it appears on my hard drive. I pay a small additional monthly fee to store videos on Amazon Photos as well. My phone photos automatically sync to Amazon photos, and I’m pretty lax about how those are organized because I already have a great organization system for my DSLR photos and also—practicing that low standard thing. In fact, when it comes to my phone, I usually just dump all the photos on my phone into one big folder on my external hard drive a few times a year (I need to do it more like once a month). The folders are given very classy names like “iPhone Dump August 2020”. I know I can always search later by the date photos were taken based on their metadata. If your phone is your main source of taking photos though, you probably want to follow more of what I do for my DSLR photos. This is what my external hard drive looks like for DSLR photo storage:
I used to save every shot I ever took, but it turned into a ridiculous hoarding situation. You don’t need 15 shots of the same thing with slightly different facial expressions. The older I get and the more responsibilities I have to manage, the more ruthless I become with what I save and throw away in all areas of my life. I’ve managed to develop a pretty good curating system—only the best of the best gets edited. I use Lightroom to edit my DSLR photos and Color Story to edit phone photos. Because I’m a major photo taker, I know my children are well documented. I do not for one second waste time feeling bad about deleting photos of them because we are not hurting for photos in this house. I am more careful to save photos of people we don’t see very often—grandparents, cousins, friends and family.
Printing Photos and Making Albums and Books
As far as what I do with my photos, our main big photo project is an end of the year album that includes our entire year. We make this hardcover album from Pinhole Press (it’s beautiful—thick wedding album quality lay-flat page spreads). I fill it with the maximum number of pages (90), and it sits on our coffee table all year long. It gets picked up, loved and looked through almost every week. I start creating my album in January and create page spreads all throughout the year, so it’s never an intimidating process. That way I can also see how many pages I’ve filled to keep me on track (I try to be up to 45 pages by June).
I wrote this post last year all about our albums and the album making process if you’d like more information. I don’t make the kids their own album each year because it’s just not sustainable to do one for each kid, but I do make other little soft cover books and projects for them for special occasions now and then. We also make smaller photo books throughout the year like these board books we create for all the trips we take, and the kids LOVE looking back at these trip memories. Pinhole Press saves all your projects on their site, so I can always go back and order duplicate albums later.
I print a batch of regular hold-in-your-hand prints maybe twice a year or when we need them for a project. I love the square prints from Social Print Studio for displaying or tucking into cards and gifts. If I need photos printed for a quick project, I just send them to Walgreens. If I’m enlarging photos for our home, I use WHCC or have my father-in-law print them (he basically has a printing lab in his office). I always love having a stack of recent photo prints on hand though, so I try to print a batch a few times a year.
Now, let’s get to your questions.
By far, the most frequently asked question is:
I’m so far gone, I don’t know where to begin. How do I catch up on past years? How do I deal with the 50,000 photos in my camera roll?
I liken this question to the challenge of cleaning a bedroom that is so messy, you don’t know where to start. In the case of a bedroom, I’ve found the best way to attack is to move all the stuff aside first—load it up in laundry baskets that you can sort through later, but get to the bones of the bedroom so that you can see the light in the tunnel. Change the sheets, make the bed, dust, vacuum, light a candle, start fresh. Over time, you can backtrack and sort what’s in the laundry baskets, but what’s most important is getting the bedroom to a joyful starting place. It’s the same with photos. Set yourself up for 2021 by creating your first folders for this year’s storage. Maybe create a 2021 folder with Jan, Feb, March, etc. sub folders within it. Take lots of photos this week just for fun—corners of your home you love, your pet lying in a sliver of sunlight by the front door, your kids reading on the bed, a vase of flowers on the kitchen table. Drop them in your first labeled folder of the year and feel good for where your headed! As far as that giant mess of photos? Dump them in one folder to start (if they are on your phone, you may need to offload them in batches because of how long they take to download. I’d suggest connecting them directly to an external drive and exporting them there). Then, when you have time, you can slowly start to organize them into sub folders. Work with the most present and move backwards. So if your 2020 photos are one big heap of a mess, start by creating a 2020 folder for all of them. Within that folder, create one sub folder at a time. Give yourself a number so it’s not too overwhelming (kind of like the 15 minute shakedown I do to clean my kitchen). Tell yourself you’re only choosing 20 favorite photos from each month to put in subfolders. You can always add more later.
How do you narrow down your selections for what goes in the album and not feel the need to include or print every single photo you ever took?
Time has helped. I used to struggle with this and included way too many photos in albums. But then the good ones don’t stand out. I try to have the big moments and events always represented (events, vacations, birthdays) and then lots of my favorite photos of day to day life. Here’s another good tip I’ve used for years: Create a “Favorites” folder at the beginning of the year. Whenever you take a shot you really love—one that truly embodies your family or a favorite moment or really beautiful photography (the “framers”), save a copy into the favorites folder. Whenever I’m looking to print photos to frame, include in a gallery wall or represent my best work, I can quickly pop into the favorites folder and find one. My favorites folder also inspires my creativity. When I’m not feeling very inspired to photograph, I can always spend a few minutes scrolling through favorite photos I’ve taken and feel a surge of creativity and inspiration return.
Do you have any editing tips for beginners?
Keep it simple! I don’t use a lot of filters or make a lot of changes to my photos to keep the editing process quick and enjoyable. In Lightroom, I make minor adjustments—brightness, fill light, sometimes temperature or individual color adjustment—but it’s super quick. And whenever I’m editing a batch of photos that were taken in the same light, I copy and paste edits to keep the process rolling. The simpler you keep your edits, the more likely you’ll keep up with it throughout the year.
About how many photos do you include in one year album?
I actually just counted the ones that are in my 2020 album—200. Some layouts are spread out with several photos on one page spread. Some page spreads are just one beautiful photo across two pages (for the best photos that I want to shine). I have 6-7 favorite page layouts in Pinhole Press that I reuse throughout the entire album.
My photos are mostly iphone only. Can I make an album from my phone?
Pinhole currently doesn’t have a phone app set up for this, but many other companies do. I would still suggest creating an organization system on an external hard drive where you can access, organize and do things with your phone photos from a desktop. I find it much easier to manage that way (plus, they’re safer on an external drive than on your phone—but back them up anyway!). If you transfer your favorite phone photos into folders on your computer, you can easily create a Pinhole album. Other album/book sites I know a lot of people love that have different options: Chatbooks, Popsa, Artifact Uprising.
Do you have an organization system for photos on your iPhone?
Because I use my DSLR so much and iPhone photos are extra fun backup for all the casual day-to-day life stuff, I don’t organize my phone photos with as much dedication as I do for my big camera photos. I will, however, say that I started creating albums for my phone photos last year, and how have I waited so long?! If you’re iPhone only, I’d highly suggest you create 12 albums right this second in your phone for favorites for each month: January 2021 Favorites, February 2021 Favorites, etc. When you take a photo you love, add it to the appropriate album. Then at least when you’re going to create an album, book or print photos, you can pull right from the organized favorites albums rather than scrolling through 200 screenshots, 52 blurry kid selfies and shots of parking lot spots you didn’t want to forget.
How do you find interesting in the mundane?
As far as photography goes, find inspiration in the work of others! There are so many photographers who are masters at capturing beautiful photography of mundane moments and things. Follow them! Subscribe to their work. One of my favorite photo inspiration books for capturing the mundane is A Year of Mornings, a photography project shared between two moms across the globe who took one photo of their morning every day for one year. The images are stunning and completely expanded my perspective on things that make beautiful photos—light hitting the pocket of an apron hanging in the kitchen, a bowl of eggs on an old farmhouse table, a pile of colorful kids shoes by the front door, a cardinal in the window. I always challenge myself to capture beautiful photos outside of my children because I don’t want my love of photography to hinge on their presence. They’re going to be grown and out the door someday, and I don’t want my love for this hobby to wither when they leave. There is so much beauty in the world to be captured. Don’t forget to take photos of flowers, kitchen still life shots, corners of your home, scenes on neighborhood walks, etc. Include them in your favorites folder and yearly albums. Another photo book I love that always inspires me as summer gets closer—Summertime by Joanne Dugan. The images of simple summer pleasures are timeless and inspiring. Also, Click magazine is my favorite magazine subscription—a delicious buffet of photography inspiration. I am giddy when I open the mailbox to see it’s arrive.
One last thing! If you are buried under mounds of photo prints from the past that you want to organize and digitize, we’ve used Legacy Box, and they are amazing. They send you a box (shipping prepaid) to fill with your photos—prints, film, VHS tapes, even slides—and they digitize everything for you and send you all your prints back as well as a thumb drive with your new files, a digital download and a watchable DVD set.
I know that was a lot for one post, but hopefully you’re inspired to start fresh this year. Photography and having our moments preserved has brought me so much joy. I don’t want overwhelm keeping anyone from digging in.