Gone Are the Days of the Shoebox—So How Are Millennial Mothers Preserving Photos for Their Kids?

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When I checked my camera roll this morning, I winced: There are 91,505 photos on it, a sky-high number that’s made possible only by the $10 a month I pay for Apple’s cloud storage services. (“Worth every penny,” my photographer friend convinced me years ago.)

But a recent piece in the New York Times got me thinking: While I can, in theory, call up my digital memories at a moment’s notice, what would I do if—poof—something happened and all my photographic memories were gone?

To be fair, I’m a member of a certain generation with a photo library that spans two very different organizational eras. I’ve got shoeboxes under my bed (negatives included!) sorted by tabs, in addition to hard copy—and carefully curated—clear sleeve albums. This is a total contrast to my digital library, which resides in chaos across computers (old and new), backup drives and the aforementioned camera roll, which saw an explosion in growth after the birth of my son.

My intentions to document my life are pure, but as a millennial mother, if I can’t get a grip on photo organization and the sheer volume of images I snap, will all my efforts be for naught? (Not to get too deep here, but the lack of digital order feels cyclical—unless, ultimately, I just hand my kid the password to my cloud account and say have at it? That doesn’t feel right.)

So what’s the solution? Miss Freddy, a professional photo organizer (who, btw, came highly recommended by a number of brilliant mothers in my orbit), says the first step is to remind yourself that your photos are not a burden. “They document your blessings and your memories,” she says. “We need to stop assigning such anxiety to the number of images on our camera roll.”

The next step: Set up an organizational practice and get intentional about printing and enjoying your favorite photos. Here are a few ways to do this, courtesy of Miss Freddy and my aforementioned photographer friend, Ana Gambuto.

1. First Things First: Assign Your Photos a Purpose

Maybe it’s an annual album that captures your year in review. Maybe it’s a pocket-sized memory book of a family trip. Heck, maybe all you want to do is build a gallery wall full of beach memories. The sky’s the limit, but narrowing the scope can help you get started, Miss Freddy says.

Let’s take the annual album idea for example. Both Miss Freddy and Gambuto are champions of this idea. Gambuto limits herself to 300 pics and sets about choosing what to include from her favorites album on her iPhone 14. (She has a daily practice of hearting her favorites—more on this later.) “It’s not a small job, but it’s a project I look forward to and something that helps me cull my memories from the year with a focus in mind,” she says.

Miss Freddy, meanwhile, says she regularly prints small batches of pics—like the ones from her annual Christmas card photo shoot—and surveys the photos in her frames to see if they deserve valuable wall space.  

2. The Next Step: Digital Housekeeping

About Gambuto’s hearting technique—she’s got two kids and a ton of pics on her phone. Years ago, she instituted a daily practice where at the end of the night, she spends no more than five minutes tapping the heart icon below her most album-worthy images. Then, she can always access her “favorites” when she wants to look back. (Beyond that, she ignores her camera roll total—her favorites album is the only digital log she references.)

Miss Freddy seconds this strategy. “When we have a finite amount of time to devote to a task like camera roll cleanup, far too often we harp on the negative—deleting the pics we see as junk,” she says. “Instead, we could have spent that hour prioritizing what’s great.”

Miss Freddy also swears by the iPhone’s search features for best results. For example, you can type “2012, photos” in the search bar if you want to see photos, but not videos, from that year. You can go even further to build search terms like “2022, Olivia, photos” or “2022, beach” or “2022, Coney Island.”

You can also use the Notes app to categorize screenshots. “Your camera roll should just be your camera roll,” Miss Freddy says. “On the latest iPhone, when you take a screenshot, it opens that editing pane and lets you save it right into a note, so a recipe goes into a recipes folder, or a school supply list goes into a school folder, etc.”

3. So, What’s the Shoebox Alternative? We Asked Real Millennial Moms

For moms of my generation, worse than a lack or organization is the thought that a technical glitch means literal memory loss. Which is why so many of us feel we should have shoeboxes or albums, rather than camera rolls or digital subscription services.

The truth? You probably need a combination of both.

Angela Pares, mom to a 1 year-old in Boston, understands this well. She pays $20 annually for Google Photos, uploads the pics from her iPhone library, then deletes them from her camera roll to prevent her phone from getting too full. But she also swears by Artifact Uprising’s photo printing services. (She regularly orders their everyday print set using their app and rotates those hard copy pics into frames around her home.)

Gambuto agrees. In addition to all her hearting and searching, she also likes Artifact Uprising, specifically their Modern Wall Tile, which allows you to rotate the photos you choose to frame and where you hang them thanks to their adhesive backing. (Mixtiles offers something similar.)

More services that we personally swear by:

For photo sharing, we like Tiny Beans or Honeycomb, which allow you to caption pics for loved ones to enjoy. Apple’s latest iOS also comes with enhanced options for image sharing and viewing—for the first time, you can create iCloud libraries for up to six people to collaborate, add to, edit and enjoy.

For photo printing, in addition to Artifact Uprising, Miss Freddy relies on Printique for high quality pics printed on archival paper. We also love Chatbooks’ monthly minis for quick-to-produce albums and Mootsh as an easy-to-use subscription service for premium quality prints.

For photo displaying, Framed and Matted is an investment, but one that delivers best-in-class results. (It’s also one of the more affordable ways to create custom frames that perfectly fit your space.) Another option is the Aura Frame, a digital album that looks like an iPad—you can display all the pics you’ve hearted into a favorites album with a couple of taps and regularly update.

Still, it all comes back to knowing yourself and what will work for you. “All photo organization efforts start with doing what feels realistic,” Miss Freddy says. Once you have your goal in mind, you can commit to it and it all feels a lot less daunting. Maybe even fun.

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Royal family expert, a cappella alum, mom

Rachel Bowie is Senior Director of Special Projects & Royals at PureWow, where she covers parenting, fashion, wellness and money in addition to overseeing initiatives within...