© 2016 photobookgirl

How to Start the Year Off Right – A Guide to Organizing and Backing Up Your Photos



Every year around New Year’s I take stock of my year in photos. In 2015, I took 9046 photos. That’s a bit down from the prior year’s 10,613, but still pretty respectable I think! (A few dozen of these photos were taken by a professional photographer for our family photo shoots and some selfies were taken by my talented four-year-old, but the vast majority I snapped myself.) At year’s end not only do I take a look back at what I shot the past year, I make sure that I’ve backed up my photos to date. Before I started using Time Machine (an automatic backup program on the Mac), I used to do it manually – I would either burn my photos onto DVDs or CDs, or make a backup on Zip disks (anyone remember those?) But, as we have all witnessed – storage media can have relatively short lifespans.

hard driveI mean, does anyone have a zip drive any more? My current computer doesn’t even come with a CD or DVD drive. Even if you can access old storage media, they are by no means permanent and they can degenerate (i.e. scratched CDs can become unreadable) or just die mysteriously. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has had a hard drive crash and never recover.

Being a blogger who writes about photo books and photography, I receive a lot of emails daily asking for photo-related advice. The ones that really break my heart are when folks tell me they’ve lost all of their cherished photos. I know this heartbreak firsthand. I thankfully haven’t lost all of my photos before, but I have lost some here and there. From that lesson, I now have four backups of my photos. I have a redundant hard drive, automatic Time Machine backup which runs in the background, a small portable external hard drive that I backup from time to time and keep offsite (I’ve sent this one home with my folks or my in-laws) and a cloud backup on CrashPlan. I wrote a four-part series on photo backup options if you’d like to see more details and comparison of cloud storage services. It’s probably time for an update of that series, but I still think there’s some useful information there.

If you have one backup and you think that more than one is overkill, it’s not.  I strongly urge you to have a SECOND backup of your photos. One backup really is not enough.

Actually just this past week, my iPhoto (free photo editing and database on the Mac) started acting strangely. I went to open it like I do from time to time and I got this message that I needed to upgrade my iPhoto Library. I followed the link to the Apple site and after downloading the upgrade things seemed to go okay until I tried to open iPhoto and couldn’t. I looked at my iPhoto library folder and there are no photos in it! Needless to say I was a little freaked out by that, but I quickly checked my backups and found the 330 GB iPhoto file that had gone missing. I know there are fixes I read about online, but I haven’t had time to try any of them yet. This bad experience prompted me to upload all my old photos to Adobe Lightroom – a much more powerful post-processing and photo database program that I have been using since 2014. I had originally decided to leave all my pre-2014 photos within iPhoto, but it seemed to make more sense to finally migrate everything to Lightroom. More recently I’d been working on photo book projects and found myself trying to locate old pre-2014 photos and it was kind of a pain, so I finally just went ahead and dumped every jpeg I could find into Lightroom so I’d only have to look at one place to find it.

Now that I have most of my old photos in Lightroom, I’ve been taking the time to go through and tag the photos with keywords. (I do this when both kiddies are fast asleep and I have some hope of a few hours to myself.) For example any photo of a flower gets a “flowers” tag associated with it. Every photo of my mom has “Mom” tagged on it. Then when I want to find a photo I only need to type it in the search box and they all pop up. Yes, it does take a bit of time to do this, but it makes sense for me. If you want to be able to organize your photos beyond just the default date it was taken, this is the way to do it.

Organizing my photos is just a small part of one of my long running resolutions to simplify and declutter my life. Digital clutter can get just as out of hand as physical clutter!


If you’ve been wanting to get a handle on your photos here’s my best tips:

  1. Get photo management software for your photos like Adobe Lightroom, Photos (successor to iPhoto for the Mac), Windows Live Photo Gallery, Picasa (only the first one is a paid program, the other three are free);
  2. Make sure to upload photos from your camera or phone on a regular basis – at least once a month. I usually upload from my DSLR after every photo taking session just because I’m excited to see the photos. I upload from my phone maybe once a week or every two weeks. If you intend to upgrade or change phones, be sure you’ve backed up the photos or any other important data. I know someone who lost all her photos because she was not in the habit of connecting her phone to her computer to perform any backups and she had never set up her automatic backup on iCloud. For Android users there’s G Cloud.
  3. Be sure to have a local backup of your photos – external hard drives are pretty inexpensive for the amount of storage you can get. Pair your external with an automated backup that you set up to run in the background to keep the pressure off you to remember to do it (i.e. Time Machine on the Mac). Some external drives come with free automatic backup software. *An additional note, a local backup is essential. It should be your primary backup. Please don’t make the mistake of having the sole storage of your photos on a photo sharing site. One reader wrote me heartbroken over the loss of all his videos and photos that he had stored on a well-known photo sharing site. Some glitch caused him to be unable to access his account and all the images and videos he had been storing for years disappeared. The company was at a loss as to what happened and he had no local backup. Companies (even well-known ones) can be sold or go out of business. If their servers get shut down cause they’ve run out of money or a successor company changes its storage policies, don’t let your photos become a casualty of a shuttered or reorganized business. This goes for your photo book projects as well (hence I have purchased my own photo book design software as I would never want to lose my photo book designs) but that is another story!
  4. Be sure to have a second backup of your photos offsite – make an extra backup on a small portable hard drive and give it to a relative or friend or keep it somewhere offsite (in case of flood or fire) – update the backup at least once or twice a year (remember this is a “worse-case scenario” backup so you if you don’t get to backing it up that often at least you won’t lose all of your photos going back eons;
  5. Think about using a cloud-based backup. Another type of “offsite” backup is a cloud service. You can also set a cloud backup to run automatically. I reviewed some cloud services such as Flickr, CrashPlan etc. in my four-part series on photo and data backups that I mentioned earlier. Some sites offer free storage up to a certain amount and some are paid but offer unlimited storage – just depends on your needs;
  6. Make an annual photo book! Also known as a Year in Review, 365 Project or family yearbook – whatever you call it, you have to get those memories off your computers and into your hands. Make it an annual tradition to gather your best photos from the year and print them. It can be as simple as picking the top 100 photos and lay out a single photo per page. It’s the most streamlined, cleanest looking format to do and better yet, most companies will have an auto layout function that sorts the photos chronologically for you. Captions or no captions – it’s up to you – either way just get it done! My favorite way to do a year in review, is a calendar. I make calendars for family every Christmas and they enjoy it the whole next year! I am never at a loss at what to get for everyone at holiday time and I never worry about my gifts getting returned!

wood-man-people-menWPNow that I got over the hump to getting my digital photos organized (and I hope you will too) I’m on to tackling all those printed photos and photo albums. I’ve dumped all my old slip-in photo albums (and the sticky ones too)! Check out my plan for getting a handle on old printed photosEven if you do just one of the tips above, you’ll be on the road to a better year in photos for 2016! Happy Decluttering!




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  1. Ann
    Posted February 1, 2016 at 3:05 pm | #

    Good reminder, on all counts. Can I ask what software you are using for designing your own photo books? I lost access to my 2015 photo book at Shutterfly with only 2 weeks of the year left. 100+ pages and 100+ hours which may never be recoverable. I am good about backing up photos, my it never occurred to me that I would lose a book while working on it.

    • photobookgirl
      Posted February 2, 2016 at 2:04 pm | #

      Ouch! I’m sorry about you losing your book – was customer service able to help? When I’ve gotten nervous before, I’ve sometimes clicked on the “duplicate or copy book” function that Shutterfly and many other companies have to just have a version of the book “backed up” that I don’t make changes to. I do this after I’ve done a decent amount of work that I want to be sure to save. Then I continue working on the original or copy so just in case something gets corrupted I can still go back to an earlier version. You shouldn’t have to do or think about all of that though. I would be so nervous to do a long term book using software that’s not on my computer. I use Lumapix Fotofusion. I have a series of reviews here: http://www.photobookgirl.com/blog/category/photo-book-software/ Some software is under $100 and some are in the couple hundred dollar range, but given that a single book can cost about $100 or more for a bigger book, I think the investment is worth it if you like to make more than a couple photo books a year or make a big one every year. Best!

  2. Posted February 3, 2016 at 9:47 am | #

    Thank you for a very well thought out blog on backing up and organizing your photos! Though it may seem like a lot “to do” at first, creating multiple backups, it is the best insurance policy against losing your photos. A few years ago I finally took my own advice and backed up my photos on an external hard drive which was attached to my laptop. But someone broke into my house and stole the computer and the attached back up drive. I lost an entire year of my families life! I also love the concept of an annual yearbook – the best back up is still a printed photo! If all this seems overwhelming, you don’t have to do it yourself, you can hire a personal photo organizer to help at http://www.appo.org

    • photobookgirl
      Posted February 6, 2016 at 6:39 pm | #

      When I was thinking of offsite backup, I only thought of fire and flood as reasons, not theft. Oh no – I hope you were able to recover some photos of that year from Facebook or family and friends. And thanks for making me aware of your organization. I’m sure a lot of folks could benefit from having some professional help with their photos!

  3. Posted February 6, 2016 at 6:03 pm | #

    Don’t forget to the step of digitizing those old photos so that they can be backed up and organized! We are media transfer experts with local labs in LA, San Diego and Irvine, CA, as well as in Denver, CO. Even if you don’t use us, get those old prints (as well as film and video) transferred to digital formats. Thanks for the great article for me to share with our customers!

  4. Posted March 3, 2016 at 5:52 am | #

    Thank you for the tips! I haven’t experienced a crash, but I know I would actually cry if it occurred.

    I currently use Crashplan to back up my computer and 2 EHDs and I love it. It was the only unlimited plan that made sense to me. I just wish file sharing came with it, but I have flikr and dropbox for that purpose.

    I have had Lightroom for about a year now and NEVER used it. THANK YOU so much for telling about its capabilities. I will make that my priority project and store my photos and organize it. I just read yesterday that it is a wonderful program to organize digital scrapbooking files too.

    • photobookgirl
      Posted March 3, 2016 at 11:40 am | #

      You absolutely have to dust off your Lightroom! I had a professional photographer friend just singing its praises for the longest time and I finally got out of iPhoto and made the switch. It’s so much easier than making individual edits than the Photoshop I was using before! Good luck with your organizing! Best!

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