How to Organize All Your Paper Photos

It’s time to pull out the boxes, blow off the dust and do something with those physical photographs. These images carry generations of memories, but they don’t do anyone any good if they are hidden away or, worse, deteriorating. You can share and protect these images by organizing and storing your photos.

Project: Organize and store photographs

Why: If you organize and preserve printed memories, they will be accessible today and saved for future enjoyment.

It’s a good project for you if: Your printed photographs are stored in bags, boxes and albums around your home rather than in one accessible location. Without proper organization and storage, you could lose the photographs and the memories, says Debbie Kraponick, a personal photo organizer in New Jersey and certified Association of Personal Photo Organizers member.

Whom to hire: If you have time, this can be a DIY project. You can also get assistance from professional organizers in your area. Some photo organizers can give you guidance and the tools to start the project, and then you do most of the sorting yourself. Other professionals sit alongside you and help you organize your printed images. Others can handle the entire process for you, including future organizing.

Along with the different levels of service, you can hire people for different tasks, from basic sorting all the way to digitizing your physical images.

Because you are working with physical photos, you will most likely meet with a professional in person.

Cost range: For the DIYer, your biggest cost will be your time. After that, it will depend on the number of storage containers you need to store your organized images. Boxes to hold 4-by-6-inch photos can range from $25 to $60.

If you hire a professional, the costs vary depending on how many images you have, how they have been stored and what level of assistance you need, Kraponick says. Many photo organizers charge by the hour, with rates ranging from $50 to $500 an hour depending on location.

Typical project length:Before any organization happens, you will need to round up all your images. This might take only 10 minutes if you have them in boxes that are easily accessible. If they are scattered throughout the house or in storage units, that might take longer.

If you hire a professional, he or she will most likely set up a phone consultation or in-person meeting to figure out the scope of your project. Kraponick says these meetings usually take about 30 minutes.

Once you have the images, plan on this project taking hours, even if you have only one shoebox. Kraponick worked alongside a client for three hours, and the two of them got through one shoebox together. You can look at your photo collection and estimate how many hours it will take based on the number of images you have.

If your images are stored in old photo albums, this will add time to the project. You will have to remove the photos from the book so that they can be preserved. Kraponick says most albums she sees are destroying the images they hold and that the photos will need to be removed.

Best time to start: Start as soon as you have all of your photos gathered. You don’t need to have a timeline, Kraponick says. You just need to start and continue on the pile anytime you have downtime or while sitting at home watching TV.

“If you have a goal, it can help motivate you to keep going,” Kraponick says. A goal, she says, could be to have everything organized so you can share the memories with family and friends during the holidays.

Where to store your photographs: Because you want to keep your printed images safe, you will need to find a secure location for them in your home. Here are three things Kraponick says to consider when choosing a location.

  • Humidity: Do not keep your images in a place that has fluctuating humidity levels, such as the garage, attic or basement. In addition, the basement could flood and ruin your images. Inside your home is going to be a more regulated, stable location.
  • Temperature: Avoid hot and cold extremes, which could warp your images or make them brittle and crack.
  • Light: The darker the location, the better. UV and fluorescent light fades images.

Considering those factors, Kraponick recommends storing your images in a closet or on a bookshelf off the ground.

Photo handling tips: Wear lint-free gloves while sorting through your images because your photos are dirtier than you think, Kraponick says. Wipe your images as you go with a lint-free cloth.

For photos stuck in an album, use dental floss to lift the image from the page. You can saw back and forth a little and then use a spatula to scrape it off. If it’s really stuck, you can blow on it with a hair dryer, she says. That will loosen it some, and you can continue to work at it with the dental floss and spatula. If it’s still stuck, she recommends trying un-du, an adhesive remover.

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How to Get Started

1. Gather. Before you can start organizing, you need to get all of your images in one spot. Kraponick recommends setting up a small table where you can place the images and sort them as you have time.

2. Sort. You can start sorting from any box or album. There is no need to find the beginning, Kraponick says.

She recommends sorting either by chronology or by theme. Going in chronological order usually takes longer, she says, because people have to do extra research to figure out the year. “People get hung up on the dates. … Is this 1978 or 1979?” she says. “You end up looking at the clothing and the hairstyles and the buildings. You end up being a detective.” When you do it by theme, you separate the photos by occasion, such as birthday or Christmas. From there, you can sort by person or location.

If you want to write on a photo, use an archival pencil so you don’t harm the photograph.

3. Label. During the sorting process, corral photos into plastic bags, and label the bag by writing directly onto it or use a sticky note to label the bag with its category. Move these images into more permanent storage after you have gone through all your images.

4. Store. You want to use boxes that are made for photos. “The word to look for is archival,” she says. These types of boxes can hold hundreds or thousands of photos. You will want to consider the space in which you are storing your images and find archival containers that fit. You can find links to additional resources on the Association of Personal Photo Organizers site.

You will also want to keep in mind that the larger the photo storage box, the heavier it will be.

Inside the storage box, you can use dividing cards to label separate categories. You want to avoid using any pens or markers on the photos to label them.

5. Maintain. Even if many of your photos are now digital, you may print your photos or receive prints from family and friends. Add these new images to your collection and buy more archival boxes as needed.

Considerations: Once your photographs are organized and stored, you can ensure their safety into the future by creating physical and digital copies. A professional photo organizer can recommend services and help with this if you are interested.

Resources: You can find professional photo organizers in your area on Houzz and through the Association of Personal Photo Organizers.