7 Steps to Organize, Narrow Down, and Select The Best Photos for Photo Books

In working with clients, I’ve found I love taking on a lot of memories. 

A project that covers a lengthy period of time ensures that only our most impactful memories make the final cut. 

Narrowing down which photos to include in photo book projects can be challenging, for sure.

But the result of that effort is a concise history driven by story and chock full of meaningful moments.

There's little room for fluff or superfluous detail.

How to select organize, narrow down, and select photos for a photo book

And if you haven’t tackled your memories and they’re years-old, no worries! Hindsight is great when it comes to the memory-keeping process.

Hindsight gives us perspective, enabling us to see more clearly which memories withstood the test of time, which memories shaped our future.

When we’re in the moment, we’re just too close. It’s hard to see the forest for the trees.

The result, for me at least, has been that I end up documenting too much, and those projects are just too detailed to convey a more meaningful, overarching narrative.

If we allow ourselves to let go of the need to document every single memory, the big picture will come into sharper focus, and we can forgo some quantity of detail without sacrificing the significance of the story itself.

So let’s say you’re on board. 

You want to simplify your memory-keeping, maybe work on a “catch up” project that documents several years and encompasses countless memories.

Here are the steps I use to approach the hardest part of the memory-keeping process: selecting the photos.

  1. Begin with the end in mind

  2. Choose a format

  3. Determine how many photos you will include

  4. Break up your project into chapters

  5. Set photo quantities for each chapter

  6. Select the photos one chapter at a time

  7. Pick only photos you love

Read on for the details.

How to select organize, narrow down, and select photos for a photo book

1 | Begin with the end in mind

What period of time are you documenting? And what’s the final project you want to hold in your hands?

Let’s say you want to do a legacy project documenting your father’s life in total, and you want it in one photo book. 

That will seriously limit what you can include, but you don’t have to sacrifice meaning or story to do so.

One of my personal UFOs (unfinished objects!) is a single photo book documenting the seven years my husband and I spent together before we had kids.

Again, seven years in one book is a lot of memories, but I envision just this one book for that period of time. No more, no less.

Another project in the works is our time in Europe. So many photos, so many memories. 

For those years, I’ll have four books, two from each year. That might sound like a lot or a little to you, but it’s what I envision for the years we lived there. 

I could document every trip we took in Europe in individual books, but that would leave me with about forty photo books! It’s just too much. No one would ever flip through them, and the overarching story would be sacrificed for too much detail.

So, consider which story you want to tell and how you want to tell it. How many photo books do you want in your home that tell that story? 

Push yourself a little here. 

Don’t worry about the photos yet, just decide what you want in your hands at the end of the day.

2 | Choose a format

I print my client projects using Milkbooks premium photo books. They’re a significant investment, but they’re worth the cost for my clients since they’re paying for a custom service.

Do a little Googling or check out Pinterest and find the photo book vendor you want to use and the format you want to print.

I like Artifact Uprising’s hardcover and softcover books. I’ve had good luck with both formats.

I also like Blurb’s hardcover books, and they have a layflat option as well.

I personally prefer my book layout to be either square or portrait (vertical). I just prefer the look and feel of flipping through those sizes of books, but choose a format that makes sense for you.

How to select organize, narrow down, and select photos for a photo book

3 | Determine how many photos you will include

I read a book on decluttering about ten years that changed the way I think about space in our home, in our garage, on our devices, and - yes - in my photo books.

Peter Walsh wrote (and I’m paraphrasing here) that we can’t readily expand the space in our homes, so we should only keep what can comfortably fit in that space.

Same goes for our photo books. They are always limited on the number of pages a printer can include, which means you can’t include an infinite number of photos.

If you’re going for a look that’s minimal and lets the photos breathe, then you have to limit the number of photos you include. 

Here’s how I recommend setting your photo count.

Once you’ve selected your format, look up the maximum number of pages allowed in that book. 

Choose the highest page count allowed by your vendor that fits in your budget (or choose a different vendor if it gets too pricey).

Then, I take that number (the max pages allowed) and multiply by two to get the maximum number of photos I plan to include in the book.

That means an average of two photos per page (four photos per layout). 

If you like the look of pages that have one photo on them, or the look of pages that have one photo per layout, then you’ll need to limit the number of photos you include.

Some pages will have a collage of photos on them and some will only have one. That keeps the book visually interesting, but I promise some of your favorite pages will be the ones with a single photo on them.

For example, the premium photo books I print for my clients have a max page count of 160. I always print the maximum number of pages, but I set a limit of 300 photos. 

I know it’s hard to get to that number sometimes, but I also know that if we include too many more photos, we’ll have too few of those gorgeous, single-photo layouts in the book. 

Those are the showstoppers.

I also know that too much detail doesn’t serve the story. We need to include journaling and title pages and simple layouts that don’t distract from the memories themselves.

So, take the maximum number of pages allowed in your format of choice and double it. That’s my rule of thumb for determining your photo count.

4 | Break up your project into chapters

If this is a book, it needs chapters. So, consider your subject and then determine how you want to break it up. 

For example, here are the sections for a legacy project I did for a client, documenting her father’s entire life:

  • Childhood

  • Military Service

  • Marriage

  • Children

  • Grandchildren

  • Memorial

For a book on our time in Europe, I’d break the first six months into sections based on the big trips we took plus a couple of seasonal sections on life in our apartment and at home.

For a book on our first seven years of marriage, I’d probably break it up into

  • Dating

  • Wedding

  • Honeymoon

  • Sections for each year leading up to getting pregnant with our first

Outline the project in a format that will make sense when you’re flipping through it (and feel free to get creative!).

How to select organize, narrow down, and select photos for a photo book

5 | Set photo quantities for each chapter

Now, take your total number of photos and divide by the number of chapters you’ve outlined.

If your photo count is 300 photos and you have 12 chapters, that’s an average of 25 photos per chapter.

If you’re documenting three months of your baby’s life or a vacation where you took 500 photos, 25 might not seem like a lot.

But as you start to go through your photos, you’ll begin to identify the favorites, the ones that really and truly convey the story of that trip, that child, that period in time.

It’s counterintuitive, but the fewer photos you include, the more significant they’ll be.

Think about your closet: how can we think we have “nothing to wear” if it’s stuffed to the gills and we can barely squeeze another hanger onto the rod?

The same is true for our photo books. Too many photos risks detracting from both the story and the design.

There’s a place for collages in a photo book, definitely. But it’s not on every page!

There may be sections where you’ll have more photos and fewer photos - that’s fine! Set a rough photo count for each section. 

Just make sure you assign a maximum number of photos for each chapter and that the total doesn’t greatly exceed your maximum number of photos for the book.

Although if you don’t mind the look of lots of photos on most of all of the pages, then by all means set a photo count that works for you!

6 | Select the photos one chapter at a time

You’ve got to break down the photo selection for a big project like this or you’ll be totally overwhelmed.

Good news: you’ve already done this.

Start with one “chapter” or section of your book.

Track down where those photos are on your phone or old computer or Cloud account and stick with the pics that are relevant to that chapter.

On a first pass, mark your favorites or move favorites to a separate folder or album. Don’t worry about selecting too many on this first pass.

Then, go through and edit your choices. 

  • Which ones are duplicates? 

  • Do you have too many photos of people and no details or landscapes?

  • Did you include 12 close ups of your kiddo’s face?

  • Or 15 photos of your entire family taken from a distance?

Try to mix up the types of photos you include for each chapter. That will help the book flow better and it will vary the photos on each page. 

Narrow down your choices for that section, omit duplicates, and then put those photos in a folder or album you’ve named for the section. 

FYI: When I’m naming the folders, I like to include a number to keep them in order, a name so I can easily spot where photos belong, and a photo count so I can easily see my goal number (i.e. 01-pregnancy-20photos, 02-birth-15photos, 03-0to3months-30photos, etc).

How to select organize, narrow down, and select photos for a photo book

7 | Pick only photos you love

Photo books are expensive to print and time-consuming to produce. They’re not worth the time and effort to include photos you feel kind of “meh” about.

Here’s how I think about selecting photos:

  • Pick only photos you love, only photos that tell the story.

  • Pick a variety of types of photos and avoid duplicates (unless you’re creating a collage with them).

  • Pick photos that make you smile or bring back a special memory of a place, person, or experience.

  • Include photos of extended family and friends, candids and more formal shots. 

  • Include photos that remind you of that period in your life, photos that bring back a memory.

You can always fill in the details with captions and journaling, but your book will feel lighter and more welcoming if it’s not stuffed to the gills with too many photos.

So choose your favorites for each section and give yourself permission to let the rest live on your hard drive or in a slideshow or up the Cloud (wherever that is).

I know this process can be overwhelming, and I’m happy to help. Sign up for my emails or jump on my client waitlist to be the first to know when I open my client calendar.

And feel free to reach out and say hi or ask a question. I’m over on Instagram.

What do YOU think?

Do you like the idea of limiting the number of photos in a project or are you in the “the more the merrier” camp? I’d love to hear your thoughts.