We take hundreds and thousands of photos these days, because we can. Long gone are the days of film rolls limited to 24 shots. Storage is trending cheaper and more infinite. You don't want to miss any of your dog's cute moments or your kids' as they grow up. But when we have so many digital images and we want to cull them down a bit and get organized, where do we even start?
We spoke with a consumer tech expert, a professional photo organizer and a photo-loving tech entrepreneur to get their tried-and-true methods for sorting digital photo collections — whether you're doing simple, routine prevention of photo bloat or starting a big archiving project. Because there's something so powerful about images, preserving our memories and connecting us across distance and generations. That's if — and only if — we can find 'em.
(Note: NPR receives funding from Google and Amazon. The recommendations below came from experts interviewed for Life Kit.)
Commit to organizing your photos in the first place.
"Organizing your photos takes a lot of time and commitment, and it's something that you can't procrastinate. You actually have to do it," says Kim Komando, consumer tech expert and national radio show host. "Next year you're just going to have more photos. So just bite the bullet and get it done now."
Whittle down what you don't need.
Remove images like memes your friends shared with you, screenshots and duplicates. If you have similar photos of the same scene, "if you can really do it, you start picking the best two," Komando says.
Some software programs do this task for you. A couple of the pros we talked to like a program called PhotoSweeper. Komando recommends Photos Duplicate Cleaner on a Mac or Duplicate Cleaner for PCs. These programs group dupes so you can keep only the ones you need.
To get into a regular photo-organizing rhythm, she recommends sitting down and culling those duplicates and unnecessary selfies at least once a month, using a big monitor or your laptop.
Do your future self a favor: Keep a regular photo maintenance routine.
You can do it by marking favorites on the fly and sitting down to do monthly organization.
Komando likes to sort through her photos while she's streaming TV shows. Ana Carvajal, a professional photo organizer and owner of the company Posterity Pro, loves the simplicity of keeping your favorites folder on your phone up to date so you can go to it first for albums, gifts or cards. "You'll start realizing what you really love, what you really want to preserve and what is really important to you," Carvajal says. "That is something that anybody can do on the go, on the fly."
Image courtesy of Ana Carvajal
Organizing photos chronologically may begin by dividing photos into years and then get more detailed.
Image courtesy of Ana Carvajal
But if you have a big project or you decide you want to get your entire photo history organized, organize big archives chronologically. If the photos are really old digital prints or film, she organizes by decade. Then she gets more detailed.
Do the tedious work ... of tagging.
Tagging means writing to the metadata — information that travels with the digital image file — so that any computer can more easily search and sort, going forward. The photos app that comes with Macs lets you add keywords, and Windows similarly lets you add tags to your photos. Google Photos also allows manual tags.
Carvajal likes using Adobe Lightroom to do this and recommends not getting bogged down by an overwhelming number of tags. "So, for example, my personal library is about 100,000 photographs, but I only have about 20 keywords," Carvajal says. "Travel" is one of them. You don't need to get too specific.
Since she has organized by date already, she can go to 2016 and click the travel tag, and all the travels of that year will come up. "Whatever system you have, whatever works with you, just pick a software that can keyword or tag," Carvajal says. "The thing is to actually do it and maintain it. By the end of the year, you should have your photographs tagged for the current year," she says. That way, when the holidays roll around, you can easily create personalized gifts or calendars for the upcoming year.
No time for tagging? Lean into machine learning and search functions to fill the gaps in your system.
These days, most of our phones have software that accurately recognizes faces, places and common visuals, like a hug. Tech entrepreneur Naveen Selvadurai says his family keeps it simple by relying on this machine learning and artificial intelligence to help him identify the what, who and when in his photos. "Something really wild has happened in the last five years," Selvadurai says. "Machine learning and all this stuff is now so good, and getting better every year, that you could actually just use search alone to go back and look at some of your photos."
Back up. Back up, back up, back up.
No matter how well you're organized, your vast visual memory collection means nothing if it has ... vanished.
Carvajal, the professional photo organizer, recommends the 3-2-1 backup standard, which means three copies: two copies on different types of media — like your computer and an external hard drive — and another copy off-site. A cloud service counts as off-site. Komando recommends Google Photos and Amazon Photos, which comes with a Prime membership (though, as we've mentioned in a previous Life Kit episode, take steps to protect your online privacy.)
Selvadurai uses iCloud, and Carvajal uses a cloud service called Backblaze. "I also have my photographs in my computer and on a hard drive that my computer writes to every night. So if my computer fails, I have at home a second fail-safe. And then if worse comes to worse, Backblaze will [mail] me a hard drive," she says.
HOW THE EXPERTS BACK UP THEIR PHOTOS
Professional photo organizer Ana Carvajal's recommendations
- Carbon Copy Cloner ($39.99 software for Macs only). CNET review here.
- Backs up your computer to an external hard drive or to another Mac
- Carvajal also uses Backblaze as her cloud backup.
- Wirecutter recommends it as the best online cloud backup service. Here's a PC Mag review.
- For personal backups, you can use this cloud service for $6 per month.
- Encrypts your data.
- Unlimited files, unlimited file size. Will send you files on an external drive if needed.
- Works on PCs and Macs.
Consumer tech expert Kim Komando's recommendations
- Google Photos
- Good for collaboration across devices and platforms
- Amazon Photos
- Free photo storage included with paid Amazon Prime account
As a note on iCloud, Carvajal reminds us: It's a syncing service — not a pure backup service. "So whatever you do on one device [transfers] to all the other devices," Carvajal says.
Now that you're organized, share those memories.
Photos capture so much of our lives and bring us together. So the final tip is about what all this organization is for — sharing. Carvajal keeps an extensive archive, but she also prints photos into books and other gifts. She has a revolving photo album on an iPad in the kitchen. She uses photos as part of family nights and gatherings.
"Sometimes I do Sunday night slideshows where I pick pictures of the kids that are funny. ... We sit down and we watch 50 funny pictures and stories come out."
In preserving moments, you can bring the past forward. We just have to be mindful of how to manage them all.
This episode was produced by Audrey Nguyen and engineered by Patrick Murray.
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