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Drowning in digital photos? Get organized in four weeks

Let's agree from the outset that we're not going to "organize" your photos.

“Organize” is a chore. “Organize” is a buzz kill. “Organize” is for Tupperware. Photos, on the other hand, are for sharing, cherishing, showcasing.

Still, yours are a mess. Thousands of images jumbled together on your hard drive. Vacations bumping into holidays bumping into birthday parties. Envelopes of prints sitting unframed, unmailed, un-albumed.

Gobbledygook. It’s tough to showcase gobbledygook.

Here’s a plan to untangle the mess. In the span of four weeks, you can sort and label your photos, group them into distinct categories, and learn to share and showcase them with pride.

Week 1: Pick a program.

Your computer likely has a My Pictures folder that can house your photos, labeled by date or other convention. That’s a start. But a whole range of software programs exist to make photo labeling, editing and sharing a lot easier, and a lot more fun.

Picasa, Google’s offering, and iPhoto, the Mac standard, are our two favorite options. Both do the heavy lifting of scanning your computer for all your photos and organizing them into categories. Both offer easy-to-use editing tools. Both help you share, print and create display items (photo books, collages, etc.) with as little as one click.

Picasa is available for Mac or PC (go to picasa.google.com for a free download). iPhoto comes standard on Macs.

If one of these programs doesn’t float your boat, do a Web search for “photo management software.” Windows has several popular programs, including Windows Live Photo Gallery (free for Windows XP users), which automatically sorts photos by date and time.

End of week goal: Read up on software options, download the one you find most appealing and start uploading your photos.

Week 2: Label and group.

No more mindless uploading of your photos. From now on, you’ll give a name to each photo you import and to each folder that holds your photos.

For photos already sitting on your hard drive with those lovely untitled — 10094.jpg descriptors, bite the bullet and start renaming. Spend 30 to 45 minutes each day this week labeling your pictures with the date and a description (YYYYMMDD-subject). So a picture from your Christmas 2008 trip to Disney World would be 20081225-Minnie. As you add photos, keep the naming convention and name them immediately upon importing.

Now it’s time to group your photos. An obvious way to categorize is in file folders by date.

“I recommend naming folders first with the year, then month, for easy sorting,” says Monica Ricci, recurring guest expert on HGTV’s “Mission Organization.” “Photos from March 2010 would be in a folder called 2010-03 and April would be 2010-04. When you name folders numerically, they’ll always stay in date order in your directory tree.”

You also can group your photos by subject. As soon as you launch them, the latest versions of both Picasa and iPhoto scan all the photos on your computer and use face recognition technology to group photos by the people in them.

Picasa creates groups of similar faces and collects them in an “unnamed people” album, which you then add names to. In iPhoto, you select a photo, click the “name” button and type in the name of the person in that photo. Both programs then scan all your other photos, searching for similar faces and suggesting you add them to your collection.

Several programs also offer to geotag your photos, which attaches the longitude and latitude of where your photo was taken, using global positioning system technology. If your camera is GPS-enabled (like an iPhone), iPhoto will geotag your photos automatically. If your camera isn’t GPS-enabled, you can add your own geotags in Picasa or iPhoto.

Most programs allow you to group your photos in a variety of collections, so you don’t have to choose faces or places or folders, you can — and should — group them all three ways. All the better for later searches: “Now where is that photo of Claire at the top of El Capitan from our 2007 Yosemite trip?” Search for “Claire” (faces) “Yosemite” (places) and/or “2007” (dated folder).

End of week goal: Name every photo on your hard drive and place it in an appropriately labeled folder or group.

Week 3: Start sharing.

Now that you’ve got a handle on all the great photos in your possession, the digital bragging can commence.

Pick three subjects to experiment with. Day 1: A photo collage of the kids. Day 2: A slideshow of your family reunion. Day 3: A Web album of your girls weekend to wine country. (That program from Week 1 will walk you through a few very simple steps.) E-mail links to your friends and family, who can add comments and download or order prints of their favorite images.

End of week goal: Learn to create a collage, a slideshow and a Web album, and share them with friends and family.

Week 4: Showcase.

Now the real fun begins. Take an hour to browse your grouped photos and flag your favorites –those worthy of enlarging, framing or otherwise showcasing. But before you wholesale order all your favorites as prints, decide what you’ll do with them once they arrive in tangible form.

“I recommend printing photos only if you have a system in place to store or display them in an orderly fashion,” says Ricci.

If you’ve got frames and wall space in mind, print accordingly. Otherwise, consider creating photo books, which take up less space eliminate the need forthose pesky plastic sleeves.

Photobook prices vary widely. A 5x5.75-inch softcover book with 14 double-sided pages costs $9.99 at kodakgallery.com, while iPhoto offers a 13x10-inch hardcover book with 20 double-sided pages, a photo-wrapped cover and matching dust jacket for $49.99.

End of week goal: Identify your favorite photos and give them the treatment they deserve.