With the explosion of digital photography and ubiquitous cameras, “sorting all my photos” has changed from a rainy weekend task into a full-on life goal. Nevertheless, I decided to tackle the job during my ‘midlife gap year.’ Here’s how I did it.

Just the Digital

For my purposes, I stuck to digital curation. I’ve been all-digital since the turn of the century, moving from a lowly Kodak DC290 camera through prosumer Nikon DSLRs and several point-and-shoots (Canon PowerShots, mostly chosen for their easily-available waterproof cases). And then, we moved into high-megapixel smartphones and GoPros.

Before that, my go-to film camera was the classic Pentax K1000, a couple of anonymous 35mm compacts, and a few disposables. I’m not going to dwell on film since everything before 1990 is my family’s job to sort, and the 2,000 or so prints I have covering 1991 to 2000 are a trivial job compared to what came after it — the digital flood.

My Old Filing System

In the pre-Flickr era, almost 20 years ago, I organized the photos on a network drive by topic or event. I would use things like Picasa to brand them with keywords. When I got a network-attached storage drive, I started just dumping the photos quarterly in bulk folders, expecting I’d use some management software on top of it. But for years, I just managed them as files on a drive. I didn’t like most of the solutions; they were either overkill (pro packages like LightRoom) or too ‘lite’ for my purposes. So I managed it manually. I also mirrored everything to a cloud bucket to have a backup if the local copies disappeared.

But even that got out of hand as the number of photos grew. Even if I chose a tool to manage the collection, I still had to cut it back. No matter how many you store, you must thin the heap at a certain point.

Starting With 145,000

According to some math with file sequences and logs, I took about 145,000 digital pictures over the last 22 years. That’s literally every shutter press since late 2000 when I went entirely digital. This breaks down to around 130 photos a week or almost 20 per day. It’s a staggering number. Staggering until…

Now Down To 41,700

Most of these pictures were curated out of existence almost as soon as they were created. You can see duds in the viewfinder and delete them. Especially lately, with high-resolution screens, almost any flaw is easy to see and trash. This natural culling process (and a few false starts in the past) brought 145,000 down to 41,700 photos.

Aiming for 12,000 

Currently, I am keeping about 25% of photos, moving from oldest to newest — which will eventually net me just above 12,000. I’m unsure if the rate will go up because on-device curation was challenging with a 2″ LCD. Or will it go down because the instinct to save shots persisted well into the digital age?


Sorting 41,000+ photos is a big job. But, if you spent 30 seconds looking at each, that still takes almost two months of full-time work. So you will need shortcuts. Here are the ones I used:

Emotional Distance. If you’ve just had a baby, you will generate 300+ pictures a week and won’t want to throw away a single byte. So don’t do this when you’re in a super-sentimental mood. Still on vacation? Grieving relatives? Homesick? You have to have some distance or else you’ll keep everything.

Delete Duplicates. Duplicates are easy. Computers can detect literal duplicates and sometimes even very similar items. Frequently, other apps drop a copy of anything you edited or posted on social media –voila, there are more duplicates. Between duplicates, try to keep the ones with the most picture data attached — which is often the original file, at the largest size. Most albums let you see tags and camera (EXIF) data in a popup or sidebar.

There are also ‘close’ duplicates; for example, you took 15 pictures of the sunset in one sitting or 34 of your infant sitting up one afternoon. Try flipping through just once and pick the one your gut says is best. If that doesn’t work, an even better shortcut is: if the first one is in focus, it’s almost always the best.

If you don’t want to leave it to your gut, try to remember what singular thing you were trying to capture at the time. For example, I took hundreds of pictures of sunsets at our cabin on Mirror Lake, trying to catch the “mirror” quality of the lake. So I picked the one (possibly two) in each sequence that was most mirror-like and dumped the other 5 (or 15!)

I noticed Apple Photos recognizes famous landmarks and will sometimes add the correct GPS data. For example, I took a sequence of Golden Gate Bridge pictures in 1999, pre-GPS days, and for each image, it figured out precisely where I was standing when I took it (on both sides of the span.) I expect the other ecosystems do similar things.

“If You’ve seen one tree…” Landscapes, sunsets, lakes, cityscapes, mountains, and especially undersea pictures (I dive) were everywhere. You must be brave here and dump those that don’t mean anything to you. If there’s no clear subject, or you can’t tell where or why it was taken, and it’s not poster-worthy, it should go. My dive pics often needed lots of post-processing to look good, but I still made a shorthand rule: I only kept the ones where the subject was obvious and in focus. I could go back later and post-process. For the rest of every sort, they had to go.

“Who is this?” You’ll find pictures of people you don’t know. If it’s somebody you can’t identify, it’s not worth keeping. This sometimes happens when chat apps drop all their attachments in your picture roll — suddenly, it’s other people’s vacations and kid videos. It also happens at parties or attractions — if you don’t know who it is, then it’s probably not going to matter to you later.

Shopping Lists and Parking Spots. Once phones made it easy to take endless shots, I took lots of pictures to remind me of minor things like signs or lists. The device will even read text out of a photo. But remember, documentation pictures that have outlasted their usefulness can go. For example, if you’re moving out of a rental, you might take a photo montage to prove you didn’t wreck the joint. I have 120 snaps from an apartment I cleared out of in 2006 — not only did I get my deposit back in full, but the building has since been torn down. (It sank into the Hudson River, but that’s a different long story.) Like the building, the pictures can go.

If in Doubt

You can always err on the side of keeping photos, but it leads to ‘keeping them all. Think about why you’re keeping them and what they’re for. You keep them because they tell a story. They do this one of two ways:

The first way is when a picture tells its own story. This is where Pulitzer prizes and poster-size prints come from. But out of 145,000 images, maybe only 100 of mine are worthy of mention outside my home. I’ve only printed 2 or 3 in poster size. But not everybody’s personal photos are award-winning photojournalism.

The other way is when photos help you tell your story. So, they are milestones along to way to fill in your narrative, the props to drive home the scene. They should be interesting, important, beautiful, or compelling, but repetition is rarely required.

Extra Credit: The “Year in Review” and the “Greatest Hits”

Cutting down the pile to a few thousand is still a bunch of pictures, but manageable. If you want to go further, take what you have left and pick out the best. My advice here is a bit different: while thinning the heap relies on shortcuts and gut instincts, Leave yourself time to judge the best of the best. You will find yourself dipping into your past, picking up your personal narrative, and you will be tempted to re-live and re-consider these scenes. Let yourself do that, and enjoy it. You’re practicing storytelling here, and the photos can help you refine your narrative. I’m still doing this step.

I do two passes: one is the “best of the year.” For the first 9 months of 2022, my “best of the year” is about 180 pictures out of about 1900 (under 10%). Holidays are usually busier, so I could see it top 230.

The second pass is “all-time greatest hits,” which is more like 50 or so per year. I arrived at this number looking at our Alexa slideshow folder. I had just uploaded our family’s sloppily-curated ‘Best Of’ folder — it’s only about 800 items that we dumped in on gut instinct.

Managing It All

At this point in 2022, everybody in our house has settled on the Apple ecosystem, so I’m going to start keeping everything in the same Apple Photos album and aggressively curate that. While that automatically straddles iCloud and our devices, I’ll also take periodic exports of flattened items for the network drive, which automatically syncs them with one or more (non-Apple) clouds for cold storage. Pro Tip: always spread important info between ecosystems.

This also lets me do ‘lazy curation’: instead of flipping through social media, I can scroll through the photo roll and get rid of extraneous stuff.

Ironically, I also uploaded the “best of” albums to Google Photos because it was far easier to share albums with named users than with Apple’s sharing system. It also integrates nicely with major photo printing services. In fact, the reason I started using it is that Snapfish wouldn’t take my uploads directly but would cheerfully pull them out of Google Photos. Note that the photos are stored in a lossy format but don’t count against your storage quota.

I didn’t go after videos; I expect those will need different strategies. I have about 2,000 clips to go through. I’ll need new strategies for those.

What About Film?

Again, in the end, I expect to keep around 12,000 pictures that go back over my digital life so far. But, as I said, stuff before 1990 is my mother’s job, and of my 2,000 print images, many are duplicates, or were already scanned into the digital pile, or are prints of digital pictures because: grandparents. But that’s for another day.

I also have to add my wife’s pictures; we only diverged when we each got phones. That should be about 1,000 more. But hers don’t need the same amount of curation … she has a natural talent for framing up a shot perfectly on the first try. She doesn’t even think about it and doesn’t really need to sort them.

In the End

The final tally is: I kept 9% of all pictures. And less than 1% made it into the “Greatest Hits.” It will be different for you, but I hope some of the strategies are useful to help get your photos under control.