If you haven’t read Marie Kondo’s books The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Spark Joy yet and haven’t tidied your home–I suggest reading them and doing that before moving on to digital files. Part of the KonMari method is that you tidy in a particular order (clothes, books, papers, komono/misc., sentimental items) so that you have a stronger sense of which items spark joy by the time you get to the harder categories like sentimental items. Since many digital photos are considered sentimental items, trying to figure out which ones spark joy when you haven’t practiced the method in your home may not work well. Still, if for whatever reason you need to tidy digital photos first, these tips may still help.
After I read Marie Kondo’s book and tidied up my physical belongings last year, the next step was digital files. I found tidying digital documents to be fairly easy to tidy and knocked them out right away, but since I’m a photographer (and have taken way too many photos over the years!), tidying digital photos seemed much more daunting, and I put it off for a long time.
Something about photos also makes them harder to get rid of than other possessions, and since they’re digital it’s even more difficult since you can’t see the clutter. But having a cluttered hard drive can still be harmful–it can make it harder to find the images that bring you joy, it can be costly to save all of the photos on bigger and bigger hard drives, and I’d even argue that holding on to images that bring up negative feelings can hold you back and weigh on your subconscious.
Here are some tips I’ve used while tidying my digital photos:
Before you Tidy
Note: If you don’t have very many photos and can organize them all in a day or weekend, you can skip these steps and start tidying right away. If you have a lot of images and tidying will be a bigger/longer project, follow these tips:
Stop adding to the clutter
The most immediate way to begin tidying digital files is to help your future self out by not adding to the clutter you already have. If you go on vacation and take 1,000 photos for example, as soon as you upload them, look through them immediately and delete any sub-par images–blurry photos, people making weird expressions. etc.
As I’m going through old photos, I keep asking myself, why did I keep so many bad photos and photos that I don’t look my best in?! Getting in the habit of immediately dealing with files will ensure that you don’t end up wasting time later.
If you use Lightroom, another good habit to get into is to add helpful and relevant keyword tags to your images each time you import. Tag people’s names, locations of the photos, what the subject is, etc. This will enable you to easily search for specific images later.
Set up a file organization structure
It’s also vital to set up a file organization structure and follow it consistently, so that all of the files you save from now on are cohesive. There are various ways to set up organization structures–I use one I learned in photography school, saving all of my images to a folder named MyName_Images. Whenever I import photos, I save them to a new folder within my master folder, with the date of import and a short description of the images. So the photos from my latest import were saved in a folder named 20170910_pizzaanditmovie. You can set up your file structure however you want, just keep it consistent.
Once you’ve set things up so that you won’t add to the clutter, you can start tidying. Here are some ways to apply the KonMari method to digital photos:
Tidying Digital Photos
Tidy by category (not location)
When applied to physical belongings, this means gathering all of your items from one category, for example clothes–from your closet, your dresser, from another front closet, from an attic, etc. and laying them all out based on what they are so that you have piles of each thing–t-shirts, jackets, dresses, etc. and then going through them.
For photos, this means gathering all of the digital images you have and putting them together, ideally on one hard drive, and then sorting them into rough categories. This way you can see how many photos you actually have in each category (probably way too many) and see if you have duplicates of the same photos.
For me, this meant moving photos from my old hard drives, my old lap-top, and old photo cds and putting them all together on my main hard drive. I then did my best to gather them all by year or era, so I created folders like 1980s, High School, College, 2010, etc. and did my best to put the files in the proper folders, without spending too much time on it.
Back-up Your Files Before Discarding
Once you’ve sorted files into categories, it’s time to start discarding, which in the digital realm means there is always a possibility that you could accidentally delete something you didn’t mean to. This back-up step is optional but recommended, especially if you aren’t using Lightroom. I use SyncBack to back up my files but there are many different programs or you can do it manually.
If you’re using Lightroom, instead of immediately deleting photos, you can flag them as Rejected, and then when you’re done with a folder, Delete all Rejected photos. This ensures that if you get click happy and accidentally flag something as rejected when you didn’t mean to, you can simply unflag it before deleting.
If you’re not using LR and are actually deleting as you go, you may be able to find it in the Recycle Bin, but backing everything to a separate hard-drive first is the best way to make sure you don’t delete anything important.
Joy Check & Discard
Once you’ve backed up your images, it’s time to see which images spark joy, and get rid of the rest.
In the Kon Mari method, you’re supposed to pick up each object and hold it in your hands to feel if it sparks joy in you or not. This isn’t possible for digital photos, but you can still pay attention to which images spark joy upon viewing. For me, this often means I smile or even laugh when I see an image, or I get a feeling of nostalgia or fond remembrance. These images clearly spark joy and are definite keepers.
The easiest files to delete are the obvious ones–accidentally blurry photos, photos with weird expressions etc. These ideally should be deleted upon import in the future. Other images that I’ve found easy to get rid of are ones that give me negative feelings, for example photos of people I’ve had fallings out with, photos that I don’t look good in, etc.
So there are clearly the best photos, clearly bad photos, but what about the rest? When viewing these photos, I think, would I care if I never see this photo again? For most landscapes, nature shots, and other trip photos that don’t include people, my answer is no (especially for all of the photos before I studied photography). I wouldn’t care if they accidentally got deleted, so I delete them, only keeping the occasional one that stands out.
Going through my photos has made me realize that the ones with people I care about are the ones that stand the test of time. Years later, I don’t really care about the flowers or mountains or beaches or museum photos unless something about the photo is exceptionally beautiful or nostalgic (for example, photos of my grandparent’s house and yard.) This may not be the case for you though (especially if you’re a landscape photographer, for example!), so do what works for you.
It’s up to you how many photos you discard and how many you keep–there’s no rule. In some cases, I deleted entire folders or 80% of the folder, and in some folders I barely deleted any. Some people argue that you should keep all photos(even bad ones) so you can learn from your mistakes, but I don’t really agree with that and don’t like to keep bad photos. And even in that case you could keep one or two, you don’t really need a whole folder of blurry photos from five years ago.
Organization & Storage
In the Kon Mari method, you’re supposed to discard first before storing and organizing. Once you’ve deleted images, you can decide how you want to organize them accordingly, though they may already be somewhat organized from when you gathered them by category. Depending on how many you have, you can organize (or re-organize) them in folders by year, event, decade, etc. and incorporate them into the structure you’ve already set up for future images. I’m still working thorough mine, but since I name folders YYYYMMDD_subject, I’m creating folders for my old images similarly, for example 2000s_middle_school, 2000s_high_school, etc.
Once you’ve deleted images and are only left with the best, you can also add relevant tags (as explained above) so that you can easily search for images. In the above image, I searched for 3 star pizza images.
Tidying my photos is a huge project for me, but even the lengthy process brings me some joy. I found it very satisfying to delete entire folders of bad images I took in my first photo class back in 2011, for example. I also find it cathartic to delete old blurry selfies, photos of people who I don’t know anymore, and any photos I don’t like. And of course, going through old photos also means seeing so many lovely memories.
Have you tidied your digital files? How do you organize them? Have any tips? Let me know in the comments!