How to Backup and Organize All Your Photos

SO many photos.

On your phone, on your computer, on your cameras, on your old hard drives, in shoe boxes…they’re everywhere!

What do you DO with them all?  How can you EVER put them in order?

The good news is that with technology nowadays, there are many great tools that do a lot of the hard organization work for you. The tricky part of such a monumental project is knowing where to start, and working up the courage to do it.

I am going to preface this with a disclaimer- my photo organization has been evolving for quite some time, and it was only within the last few months that I have finally been able to get it down to a system that WORKS for me now. My photos for this year are pretty well-organized, but I still have many years’ worth of past photos that need some TLC…and that’s OK!

The most important tip I have is to not get overwhelmed, because if you psych yourself out about what a huge project it will be, you will never get started. On the flip side, if you try to do too much, all at once, you will get burned out and quit. You are not going to be able to organize all your photos overnight, and that’s OK!  Start with baby steps where you are, and work backwards- which brings me to my first step of photo organization-

#1 Begin by implementing good habits for your photos that you are currently taking. Prune and edit your photos as you go.

For your phone, go through your photos immediately after taking them or at a MINIMUM DAILY (i.e. the end of the day before bed) to clean out any that didn’t turn out and edit your favorites with an editing app.

For your digital camera, pull up your photos on a computer as soon as you get a chance- don’t let them sit on your camera for eternity before going through them and deciding which ones to keep, edit, etc. Having these habits in place will make organizing your past photos so much easier because you have a system for keeping things organized in the future 🙂

#2  Decide on a backup/consolidation method.

So there are more or less 2 different approaches to photo backup & storage. The type of memory-keeping you do will determine which method of backup & storage will be most useful to you.  For example, Project Life App users will greatly benefit from picking Dropbox as their method of backup & organization (more about that later), while others like myself who don’t use the app, have some more flexibility in their choices, which is nice because I want to minimize monthly fees as much as possible. Whatever option you decide to go with, I recommend having your photos consolidated in at least one other place in addition to your PC or mobile devices.

The first option is to use a physical hard drive that you keep in your house that you have 100% control over what is stored there. Within this category there are different types of drives depending on what features are important to you. There are traditional external hard drives that backup via cable, which tend to be the cheapest alternative.  There are also network hard drives (AKA cloud drives) that back up wirelessly via your home network. Wireless backup options tend to be better for people who take most of their pictures on their phones and need an app to do it automatically for them.

Though I LOVE cloud storage (more about that below in option 2), I personally like the idea of knowing that my full-resolution photos are all in a physical location near me, and I also LOVE the fact that once I buy the drive there is no monthly fee! I have all my photos backed up on the Western Digital My Cloud network drive. It has a compatible mobile app that looks for new photos from my camera roll every 5 minutes and automatically updates to the drive on my desk as long as I am within range and have wifi. Screenshot_2015-12-29-20-44-51

My husband as the same app on his phone, so all of his photos back up to the same location as mine so that ALL our photos are easily consolidated in one spot. It also has a desktop app called WD Sync that will automatically upload any new files on your computer to the drive.

The problem I have run into with this system is that the mobile app is slow and gets easily bogged down and sometimes it takes a few attempts to successfully upload files.  Also it will occasionally glitch, and will stop backing up photos unless I open the app and keep it open on my phone. Restarting my phone usually solves this problem. Not sure if it is a phone issue, app issue, or network issue…so this may not be the case with every person who uses the app. Another issue I have with this backup method, which will not apply to Apple iphone users, is that the app does not recognize other galleries on my Android phone to back up. Since the photos I edit on my phone are saved in a gallery separate from my camera roll, my edits do not get auto-synced, and I have to manually back up every edit that I do via the MyCloud app.

Overall, it is a good option for the money, and I like knowing that my photos are backed up in my home.  It isn’t a perfect system though, which is why I choose to backup my photos with a secondary alternative-

The second option is often referred to as “cloud storage”– basically a company that will store all of your photos & documents for you, that you can access any time via the internet. Dropbox, iCloud, and Google Photos are all examples of this type of cloud storage that all have compatible desktop and mobile apps that will auto-backup everything for you. Here you can compare different cloud storage options.

I use Google Photos in addition to my network hard drive, because I like redundancy when it comes to backing up years of precious memories, and also because Google Photos has free unlimited storage!! It does limit photo size, but even with the size limitations you are still able to store photos at reasonably high resolution for printing up to 16×24. Google Photos has some incredible features, including auto-sorting your photos by date taken, smart search with facial recognition & object recognition capabilities, a photo assistant that will select similar photos and arrange them in collages and short animations, as well as ridiculously fast auto-syncing. Google Photos’ backup usually happens within seconds of me taking a new photo, and it will recognize other galleries in your phone (for example if you use an android photo editing app that saves your edits in a gallery separate from your camera roll)…so all my edited photos get backed up automatically as well. I heart Google Photos.  Here is an example of the smart search feature in use. Google has recognized and tagged all my cat pictures for easy searching…yesssss 😉Screenshot_2015-12-29-20-55-16Google Photos, as well as Dropbox and other cloud-based storage apps, give you the ability to access ANY of your photos on your phone through the app.  So if you upload your photos from your DSLR to Google Photos or Dropbox on your computer, their app will allow you to see and download those DSLR photos on your phone! Network drives have that same capability too, but in my experience Google’s app is far superior than the Western Digital app at pulling up previously uploaded photos.

For Project Life App users, Dropbox is still currently the most convenient alternative, because the PL App links directly to Dropbox and allows you to take photos directly from Dropbox and plop them into your app pages.

#3  Start with the present and work backwards. Mobile photos first. 

OK, once you decide WHICH method you are going to use to backup your photos…get it set up and start using it to consolidate your photos from the present and recent past. For most people, these tend to be pictures on your phone. I have found it easiest to get all of my mobile photos backed up first because it’s easy and I like to just get it out of the way.

If  you are using an app to backup, navigate through the app to select all the photos on your phone that you want to upload, and choose the location you want to backup to. For my network drive, I have a separate folder called “Unsorted” that I have set as the default in the app, that all of our mobile pictures upload to.

Once you have the defaults set, let the syncing begin! I suggest doing the backup process right before bed, because it can potentially take hours, depending on how many photos you have. Once your phone is done, then do your husband’s phone, your kids phones, etc. Get all their photos backed up and consolidated with yours into your giant folder of “unsorted” photos, and make sure their settings are set so that they will back up all future photos to the correct location.

If you are backing up to a cloud program with auto-sorting by date, great! Less work for you! If not, create folders within your drive to sort your photos by year & month, and drag and drop all your photos you just consolidated to get them sorted into their corresponding date folders. This should go reasonably quickly because mobile cameras name their photos with a date and time stamp, so you should easily be able to identify all the photos from every month and year grouped together. In the end it will look like this: folders

Make sure you keep up on the organization of mobile uploads.  Because our phones are constantly backing up to the “unsorted” folder, periodically I will go through the “unsorted” folder and quickly sort them into the appropriate year/month folder. Again, this process goes quickly because of the time stamp on the mobile photos, and I am usually only have 1-2 months to deal with at a time.

#4 Digital Photos Next. 

Once you have the present and recent past mobile photos out of the way, it’s time to tackle regular digital photos on your computer. Oh boy. I could write a whole blog post on this topic alone, because it’s a doozy. (To be honest I am a long way from where I want to be with my digital photo organization, but I am at least current on my present and recent past photos, and slowly I am chipping away at organizing photos from previous years.)

Start with the most recent digital photos that you have – maybe they are on your computer, your DSLR’s memory card, maybe they are stored in another drive or device- and work backwards from there. Before consolidating, make sure the digital photos have the correct date/timestamp in the “Date Taken” spot of your picture info.  picture info

Once you have verified this, install the appropriate desktop uploader for your computer, and add your digital photos to your upload queue.

Make sure to configure your default folder settings so that the desktop uploader will automatically backup everything new that gets added to those folders in the future, and that it’s backing up to the right spot (“unsorted” folder for drive).

Google Photos desktop uploader also has a feature that will prompt you to backup every time you connect a storage device, like a USB or a memory card.

If you are using a drive,  go through all the new photos added to your “unsorted folder” and sort away!

#5 Save physical photos for last, because they require their own special process.

If you plan to scan your own photos, which I recommend for a few reasons, there is really no fast way to do it, although there are some tools and tricks that will expedite the process. I like to scan my own photos for a few reasons- it’s free, I keep the photos organized (I have heard so many horror stories of online scanning companies sending back boxes of hundreds of photos totally out of order), and I get to add extra info to the photos as I go.

To simplify the scanning workflow, I sort the physical photos by approximate date first before scanning. This makes things so much easier when tagging and sorting them on the computer later, because I keep all the same time period together. If you want, you can also label the photos beforehand with a photosafe pen on the back, so that you have the dates and details ready at your fingertips for organizing later.

For the actual scanning part, I use a Pandigital Photolink One-Touch Scanner because you can feed the photos in pretty quickly, and it is a lot faster than a regular flat-bed scanner. There is one main disadvantages to doing it this way, though. This scanner is not perfect. You have to clean it and recalibrate it every 30 photos or so to make sure that it doesn’t leave lines on your scanned images. Luckily the cleaning and recalibration process takes only a few seconds each, and to me, the speed at which I am able to scan photos more than makes up for its flaws.

Once you scan the photos, you will want to rename them, edit the date taken field to be accurate, and tag them using dates to help sort them more easily (more details on that below).

Once your photo information is updated, you can consolidate them to your backup method of choice.

#6 Add tags and comments to your photos for ultimate organization.

This information is called metadata and is found right below the Date Taken field in the photo details pane of Windows.  Tags are categories you can label your photos to find them more easily later on. Comments can help fill in the blanks for any other details you may want to remember about that picture- people’s names, the exact location, exact dates, etc.  metadata

So far I have only added tags and comments to my scanned photos because I don’t have digital camera date stamps on those ones and the tags help organize them by date, but I plan to do the same process with all my digital photos eventually. I use people, holidays, themes, events, and dates for my image tags. For example, a group shot of our vacation to Destin would be tagged: 2013, 2013 vaca, beach, family, and maybe the names of all the people in the picture. You can customize the tags to whatever makes sense to you.

The beauty of tags is that later when you want to search for all the images in a particular category, you can simply type in the name of the tag in the search function and it will pull up every photo tagged. This is a really handy feature to use to find pictures from over the years to make themed layouts- like 10 years of Halloween costumes, or a collection of pet photos.

Google Photos has their own internal smart tag system, which is nice if you only plan to use their program and don’t want to go through the process of tagging your own photos. The cool thing about manually adding actual metadata to your photos though is that when you add it, it is embedded in the photo and stays there forever, until someone removes it. It is universally read, and this is useful because if you change computers or software, your photos still remain tagged with all that valuable information you spent so long inputting.

To sum up: Metadata=Super Helpful.

That’s it! Did I miss anything obvious?  What tips do you have that help you stay on top of your photo organization?


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  1. Alice says:

    These are great tips! Thanks for sharing.

    I recently found a way to beckup my photos also on the cloud (in addition to my laptop and my external hard drive) using Flickr. It basically works the same way of Google Photo and you have 1TB of memory for free. I use both the iPhone app and the FlickrUploadr program for Windows.

    I still have to understand how G Photo works though, because I tried it a couple of times but it used my Google Drive memory to store the photos and I only have 15GB there.

    Thanks again for your tips! xx Alice

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