U.S. Markets closed

Tips for Organizing Your Most Priceless Possessions: Your Photos

Geoff Williams

Consumers as a group may spend thousands of dollars on plasma TVs, living room sets, bedroom furniture and toys for the kids - but when there's a fire, flood or another emergency, what's the one thing everyone tends to grab? The family photos.

But these days, photos are becoming increasingly difficult to grab. They're spread out on a blog or Facebook page, scattered as attachments in an email inbox or squirreled away on a tablet or smartphone - not to mention stuffed in a shoebox. Your digital photos may be safe from fire or flood, but since they're dispersed throughout social media accounts and on a smattering of devices, they're also easier than ever to lose track of, or lose altogether.

[Read: The Dangers of Posting Photos Online.]

For some people, it's the opposite worry: They have boxes and boxes of photographs, but nothing is stored digitally.

So if you've been thinking about how to organize your photos, here are some products, services and strategies to help you get started.

Start small. "Pick one album, collage or project to do at a time, or one a year. Looking at the totality of your photos is overwhelming," says Lisa Woodruff, a professional organizer in Cincinnati.

Storing photos offline can be harder than it looks. Yes, most people have a good sense of how to store and organize non-digital photographs, but it's still worth mentioning a few tips. For instance, your family photos are safest in a part of the house that doesn't get too humid or wet, so think beyond the basement or attic. You may want to keep your most important photos in the front hall closet, which is probably warm and dry - and conveniently located near the door, so you can grab them quickly if you're dashing out of the house during a disaster.

What should you store the photos in? Allison Flinn, a professional organizer in Raleigh, N.C., suggests using albums with acid-free plastic sleeves. Why? Because there's a chemical, lignin, in paper and wood that will eventually break down into an acid and turn photos yellow and crinkly; acid-free sleeves will protect, or at least help protect, the photos from that sort of aging. Flinn also recommends plastic photo boxes, if the thought of putting together albums seems overwhelming.

Storing photos online? Use the cloud. Most, if not all, organizing experts and photographers will tell you to use cloud-based photo storage. Store a ton of photos on your PC, and they'll take up memory and possibly slow down your computer. Store them on an image-hosting and sharing site, and you won't bog down your PC, tablet, smartphone or other device.

Still, it can be challenging to decide which website to use. Some of the most popular include Flickr, Picasa, Snapfish, Shutterfly, PhotoBucket.com, PicsArt and DropBox.com. Each site has special features. For instance, PicsArt is a popular photo editing app for people with Android and iOS mobile and tablet devices. It allows users to take photos, edit them and share them on social networks, and it has tools, like text and clip art, that help with digital photo organizing and scrapbooking.

[Read: How to Manage Your Digital Afterlife.]

While Flickr and Picasa are popular among people who love to share photos, Snapfish and Shutterfly are often embraced by consumers who want to print out their photos (these sites will ship photos that you upload to your home, or, depending which site you use, you can collect them at various stores like Walgreens, CVS and Target; for a 4-by-6 photo, Snapfish will charge as low as 9 cents, and Shutterfly, 15 cents).

Nick Barron, who runs a media marketing company in Washington, D.C., is a Dropbox disciple. Like the other sites mentioned, Dropbox is free (as long as you don't use more than 2GB of storage, and then it's $9.99 a month).

Barron has a Dropbox app on his iPhone and iPad, and on his devices, he has something called Camera Upload (a Dropbox feature). Every time Barron takes a photo, it is automatically uploaded into Dropbox.

"Before using Dropbox and Camera Upload, I had images all across my devices," Barron says. "Now I have folders for each location I visit, with all photos taken at that location, in my Dropbox and organizing in this way takes a handful of minutes a week."

If you're worried about your computer crashing and losing all your photos, you could use PictureKeeper.com, a site that makes backup copies of digital photos. Its PK4 product is $29 and will hold up to 4,000 photos, based on the average size of 1 MB per photo. It goes all the way up to the PK Pro, which will hold up to 250,000 pictures for $189.99.

Consider bringing in the professionals. As you've likely noticed, many big-name photo developing services offer help beyond simply printing photos. They will also turn your pictures into photo books and transfer slides and home movies to DVD - and many of these retailers (i.e., Costco, Walgreens, Wal-Mart) will let you manage your photos on the store site for free in the same way cloud-centric photo sites like Picasa and Flickr do. But read the fine print because some stores require you to make at least one purchase a year.

[See: 50 Smart Money Moves to Make Now.]

You could also hire someone to organize photos for you. "Professional organizers charge between $40 and $75 on average for their services," says Woodruff, who charges $60 an hour. "I have found the more experienced and specialized organizers charge more - but work faster."

Meanwhile, Amanda Scudder, an organizing consultant with Abundance Organizing, which is headquartered in Richmond, Va., offers the advice that if you're elbow-deep in pictures, not every photo is worth saving. Some you may want to give away to family members or friends and some you may actually want to send to the circular file.

"Trust me. It is okay to throw away photos," Scudder says. "Don't feel guilty. Your heirs will thank you someday when they don't have to go through mountains of your duplicate, blurred photos themselves."

More From US News & World Report