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How to organize your travel photos like a pro

Follow these steps to manage and protect your smartphone photos and other images, so you can revisit your favorite travel destinations time and again.

Like most people, I’d rather be taking travel photos than organizing them. But stuck at home with nowhere to go, tackling that long-overdue task seemed like a good way to satisfy my wanderlust. Until I started counting …

More than 20,000 in my iPhone, 5,000 on Google Drive and DropBox, six file boxes of prints–and more photos scattered across other devices. Help!

“Photo organizing is overwhelming for everyone,” says professional photo organizer Cathi Nelson, CEO and founder of Hartford, Connecticut–based The Photo Managers.  

Smartphones have made it possible to obsessively document every aspect of our lives and travels to the tune of 1.2 trillion photos a year worldwide, according to market research firm InfoTrends. Not surprisingly, our camera rolls and closets are bursting at the seams.

“The average person has 15,000 to 25,000 photos on their phone–not to mention 10,000 print photos stashed away somewhere,” according to Nelson, author of the self-published book Photo Organizing Made Easy (2017). “Some even have 20,000 photos from just one trip!” 

While most of us prefer exploring the world to tending bits and bytes, there’s a good reason to manage that mountain of memories right now: If your phone is lost, broken, or stolen, or if an external hard drive crashes or your home is subject to a natural disaster, you could lose precious memories forever. 

Plus, organizing travel photos can be fun. Sorting through photos of a babymoon in Hawai‘i or a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Seychelles lets you relive happy travel times–and plan for new ones. It’ll also be easier to revisit your favorite memories time and again. 

Ready to take charge of your photos? Here are six expert tips to get it done.

Step 1: Set achievable goals

“Approach photo organizing like eating an elephant: one bite at a time,” says Nelson.

For travel photos, think location, date, or theme. Do you want to memorialize a recent wine-tasting trip to Italy? The year you traveled through Australia? The memorable road trips you took as a child? 

Start with the most recent trip, Nelson advises. That’s because that trip will be the freshest in your memory and it will be easier to locate the photos. Then work backward and tackle earlier trips. 

Step 2: Find your photos

It takes detective work to find photos scattered across multiple platforms, devices, and media. And no single software program or app can map where they are stashed, either. 

“There are so many places where photos can be buried,” says photo organizer Rachel Arbuckle, owner of San Diego–based 2000 Paces Photo Organizing. “We give people a checklist of places they can look.” 

Your smartphone photo app can identify camera roll photos by date, location, or event. But other photos may be hiding in email, texts, and social media. Images can also be “forgotten” on old hard drives, thumb drives, digital camera SIM cards, and other external devices. You may also have images stored on photo-sharing sites, such as Shutterfly and Snapfish.

As you find photos, put them in a dedicated folder on your computer with the project name, such as “Driving California State Route 1” or “Hiking Big Bend National Park.” Within that folder make subfolders organized by date and category (such as “Day 1” and then “Places We Ate” or “People We Met”). Put print photos in a cardboard box labeled “to be scanned.” 

Don’t sort through or delete photos during this search, because that might lead to “reminiscing” and derail the process. “No picking and choosing right now,” says Arbuckle. “Just copy all the photos from that trip into the folder.”

Cloud-based apps such as Adobe Lightroom, or the native programs on Apple or Android smartphones, also can help you store and organize images as you find them. But they can be overwhelming or frustrating for new users. 

“If you don’t have time to learn one, then a traditional file structure is easiest for maintaining all your photos and projects,” says Nelson.

Step 3: Sort your photos

Start by decluttering: Delete duplicates (there may be more than you realize, thanks to the “burst” function on your phone), blurry images, screenshots, and those accidental photos of your foot.

These fee-based apps can help you ditch dupes. PhotoSweeper for Mac or Duplicate Files Fixer for PCs are two popular programs that scan photo files, identify identical copies, and produce a list for removal.

Next, select the “keepers.” But be ruthless. Is the image interesting? Does it include people? Is there a funny story to tell about it in text or voice? “You don’t need 1,000 photos of the Grand Canyon sunset,” advises Nelson. “Pick just one or two photos that best represent the experience. Even better if it includes people.”

Sorting photos takes time, so turn it into an adventure for the whole family. Let the kids do the first pass on iPads or tablets, marking or “hearting” their favorites. Other family members can weigh in, too, so everyone’s experiences are represented. 

Several apps can make “favoriting” easier. Slidebox lets you swipe through and select images, similar to the functionality on dating sites. 

To keep your “travel story” organized, create a time line or storyboard, as you might for a movie. “Every story should have a beginning, middle, and end, so select the shots that will represent those points on your storyboard,” says Nelson. 

How many photos per project should you have at the end? For a photo book, Nelson’s rule of thumb is 50-250 images. 

Once the final photos are selected, add metadata to each digital image. Those are tags and keywords that describe each photo. This can make it easier to sort and search for them later. Metadata can include location, date, events–even people’s names and faces. 

Your phone or computer photo program may automatically add that data. Just make sure those tags match your organizing categories–and update the metadata if they don’t. You can add face recognition tags to track people in photos.

Step 4: Back up everything

Even if you’re not organizing your photos right now, at least back them up. Device failure, file corruption, theft, loss, or natural disaster–one of those is bound to happen eventually. 

“We have a number of clients who came to us after losing photos to fire or during a move or who have a real fear of losing these important memories,” says Arbuckle. Her team helps clients across the country, including California residents who want to prepare and protect their photo collections from the threat of wildfire. 

Photo organizers and photography pros follow the 3-2-1 backup rule of thumb: 

  • Have three copies of your photos stored in different locations. This allows your assets to be restored from another device in case of loss. 
  • Store two of those copies on different media. This can include your computer and an external hard drive. 
  • Keep one of those copies as a backup in an “off-site” cloud-based storage system such as iCloud, Google Drive, DropBox, or Backblaze. Third-party sites–such as SmugMugForever, and Mylio, a free photo organizer for Mac and Windows–will also store and organize your photos. 

For one-off projects, the free storage space you get with Google Drive or Amazon Prime may be enough. But most people need more than they think, and that can get expensive. (All the more reason to organize and whittle down your collection.)

Avoid using Facebook and Instagram as your de facto storage system, Arbuckle says. Social media platforms tend to compress images into smaller files, so they load more quickly. If you upload images from these sites to online photo-book makers, the photos won’t display as crisply as the originals. You might also lose any metadata associated with those photos. 

Photos stored on a smartphone might also be optimized for storage and have similar quality issues. “Always use the original high-resolution images from your computer, not the phone,” Arbuckle advises. 

Step 5: Display your photos

Congratulations on making it this far! Now it’s time to enjoy and share your photos. 

Decide how you’d like to display and share your photos. As a bound photo book for holiday gifts? A digital slide show at a family reunion? A wall hanging for your daughter’s dorm room? Or maybe you simply want to curate assets for a later project? 

Photo books and high-tech photo frames are the easiest and most popular way to display travel photos. 

Wall gallery kits in every possible shape and size are another option. You can also print photos on wall calendars, luggage tags, jigsaw puzzles, greeting cards, and even postage stamps. If you can imagine it, you can display it.

Here are four ways to show off your travel snaps: 

Photo books: On ShutterflySnapfish, SmugMug, Artifact UprisingChatbooks, and other photo-sharing sites, you can create personalized bound albums that are printed and mailed to you. Choose from a variety of templates, styles, and cover types. Quality and prices vary; many sites offer discounts. 

Digital picture frames: Smart-frame makers such as NixplayAura, and Feelcare let you upload and display photos via Wi-Fi, using desktop software or an app on your cell phone. Screen size, functionality, and price vary across frame makers. Some brands allow uploads directly from social media platforms. 

Galleries: Got a wall calling out for travel photos? Check out Pinterest and Etsy for some inspiration. You can make or buy a wall hanging from wood, twine, and mini clothespins, or create a fridge gallery using imprinted magnets. Wall gallery kits–including those shaped like a state, country, or world map – can be purchased from Target, Umbra, and Mixpix.

Mixed media: Printing your photos on metal, wood, or canvas is a hot trend offered by photo-sharing sites and niche brands such as MpixBay Photo, and Prints on Wood. You can also “hire” an artist at Paintru to paint your photo in oil, acrylic, or watercolor.

6. Or turn to a pro

If organizing your photos is too time-consuming, hand the task over to a pro. The Association of Personal Photo Organizers (APPO) lists 700 certified photo organizers nationwide. Let them drive the project while you sit back and enjoy the scenery. 

Whether you DIY or hire someone to do it for you, organizing your travel photos is a powerful tool for connecting with the past, and inspiring future adventures.

Laurie Berger (@BergerBites) is a former travel editor at Consumer Reports and former travel columnist for the Los Angeles Times. She takes way too many photos of food, sunsets, and gekkos.

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