Where does a genealogy research begin organizing old photos? Go from chaos to order and keep precious family photos easy to find!
Old Family Photos,  Organize Your Genealogy

How To Get Started with Photo Organization of Old Family Photos

Tackling a photo organization project? Tips and tricks to help the family historian organize and preserve old family photos.

I recently shared that I am an organizing junkie….and a flunkie!

I desperately want my genealogy nice and organized.  I want my files easy to find, and I’ve worked hard to achieve that.

I want the same thing for my family photos! Whether it’s the printed photos or the digital photos, I want them easy to find and access! I may not have a perfect system (does one even exist?), but I do have a system that works for me.

If you are still struggling with organizing your “paper” genealogy files, read more about that is this post.

Where does a genealogy research begin organizing old photos? Go from chaos to order and keep precious family photos easy to find!
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Where Does One Even Begin An Old Family Photo Organization Project?

One of the great things about being our family historian is relatives send me photographs when they clean out a closet or a loved one’s home. They recognize the importance of these photos even if they do not know the identity of the individuals.  

So…they send them to me.

As a result, I have hundreds of photographs of my ancestors from multiple family lines. Add to that my own family’s photographs of the current generations.  Add still more with the photographs I take on research trips (think documents, gravestones, etc).

Very quickly I had a problem. Organizing old family photos became a top priority so I could find them in the future easily.

I was drowning in printed and digital photographs! Don’t get me wrong.  I love every one of those photographs and encourage the family to keep sending them, but something needed to be done.

Pile of old family photos in black and white

Steps to Organize Your Digital Family Photos

As with your “regular” genealogy files, you want to organize your ancestors and family photographs using a consistent file system. The actual system you use is less important than  being consistent. Whichever system you decide to use, make it yours.  Do what works for you.

đź“ť Remember: The actual system you use is less important than  being consistent.

Below is an example of my workflow for organizing my own digital photographs.

[For those printed photographs, learn how to store them in How To Store Old Family Photographs.]

Step 1: Commit To Organizing Your Photos In The First Place

Yes, I know this sounds simple, and it is! Simple, but important. 

Commit to organizing your photographs. Just as you write your goal on your genealogy research plan, write down your organization goal.  I keep mine in my planner, so I can see it each time I open my planner.

It’s a quick, easy step that sets the tone for your project.

Step 2: Gather Your Photos In One Place

Gather your printed photographs in one place. For your digital photos, gather them in one file or place on your computer.

I can hear you asking, “I have hundreds of photographs everywhere! How do I even know where to start?”

I recommend you pick one grouping to start with. You might choose a specific family line, an individual person or even a family event.  This helps to narrow your focus and keep you on track.

Step 3: Digitize Your Photographs

Now is the time to digitize any photographs that have not been digitized already. Scanning apps  on your phone  such as PhotoMyne make scanning photos a breeze, especially when you are on the go. A good flatbed scanner in your home office is another great option, but can be time consuming. 

When scanning photographs, I recommend labeling them in a consistent pattern. Think about your future self. 

If you go searching for this photograph in the future, how would you search your files?  

For example, I have a photograph of my grandfather Lester Howard taken in 1942. How would “Future Lisa” search her files for this photograph?  Most likely she will search by his name Lester Howard.

Young Lester Howard in dark suit.

As a genealogy researcher and family historian, photographs can be important to our research, so it’s important to be able to find them. My future research self may need to search those files for family photos taken in 1942 or for family photos taken in Guilford County.

So, when naming that image file, I took that into consideration, too.

I chose to name my grandfather’s photo:  â€śLester-Howard-1942-Guilford-Co-NC” . The formula is [name] + [date] + [county] + [state].

By using a consistent file name pattern or formula, I can search my files easily by name, date or location. For photos of events such as family reunions, I use a formula like “Howard-Family-Reunion-1942-Lee-Co-NC-1”. The formula looks like: [event name] + [year] + [location] + [1, 2, 3,….] with the last being the number of the photo in the series.

If you want to name your file in a different order or include/exclude other information, that is perfectly fine! Keep your future self in mind, and create your labeling formula in a manner that makes sense to you.

Once you have completed digitizing your photographs, don’t forget to store those printed photographs safely.

Step 4: Edit Your Photographs (Optional)

Editing your family photos is optional, but if you choose to do so, this is a good time to do it.

If you find yourself getting distracted by the editing process, schedule a separate time to focus on the editing process.

Many options are available. I choose to use Vivid-Pix Restore for editing my photographs. [I show you how in this post.]

Other options include Photomyne, MyHeritage’s Photo Tools, Canva, and Google Photos (though limited). 

Step 5: Create Your Digital File Folders

I use a hierarchical folder system based on family units, but I do not go too deep into the heirarchy. I use the power of the search function to search my files! 

Staying with my example of Lester Howard, here is an example of my folder hierarchy: 

  • Main Surname Folder [Howard]
    • Head of household Folder [Lester Howard]
      • Includes the head of household, wife (if applicable), children living in the household. [Lester, Cecile, 2 daughters] Once a child becomes their own head of household or marries and enters a new household, their photographs are placed under that head of household.
    • Location [Lee County, NC]
      • Sometimes, I simply have photographs of locations and/or areas where ancestors lived or worked.  Those photographs associated with a family or surname and not a specific individual are placed here.
    • Event [Howard Family Reunion]
      • For photos of an event that might include a number of photos of a particular individual(s), I will add an event subfolder under the main surname.

You will notice this system closely mirrors my genealogy filing system.  That is no coincidence. Learning and using one type of system saves time and ensures consistency.  This greatly reduces the chances I will “lose” a photo in my files.

Keeping your file names and filing system consistent despite the type of files you are organizing will make returning to your needed files easier.  

Step 6: Start Placing Digital Photos in Their Correct Folders

Now you are ready to file!  Start putting your well labeled digital photos into their respective folders!

Once you are done, sit back, admire your work, and do the genealogy happy dance!

Your Photo Organization Re-Cap

Here is a condensed version of the photo organization steps I use:

  1. Commit to organizing your photos In the first place
  2. Gather your photos in one place
  3. Digitize any photographs that have not previously scanned.
  4. Edit your photographs (Optional)
  5. Create your digital file folders
  6. Start placing digital photos in their correct folders.

Yay For Organized Photos…Now Back Up Your Photos!

I cannot stress enough the importance of backing up your digital photographs. Your photos are not safe if you only store them on your computer hard drive.  Computers crash, and no one wants to lose all those photo and image files. 

Part of organizing photos should also include consideration of your photo storage.

Having your photographs of all the generations organized on your computer is fantastic, but you are NOT done, yet. Backing up your photographs regularly is critical. You’ve scanned your photos to preserve and share with future generations. Don’t risk losing them.

Genealogy Tip: Mark a monthly date on your calendar to remind yourself. The first day of the month is a great time to do this. Build consistency by backing up your old family photos on the first of the month, and soon you will have a new habit!

Many options are available for backing up your photographs. I actually back up my photographs in 3 different ways:

Simple Photograph Organization For the Genealogist - showing laptop with picture keeper plugged in

Share Your Family Photographs & Introduce Your Family To Their Ancestors!

You have been organizing old family photos, and they are all backed up, so now it’s time to share them with your family. Pictures are a great way to pique family members’ interest. I use photographs as ice breakers when starting a oral history interview.

You have no excuse for not organizing your old family photographs now. Time to get to it!

Want to learn more about your old family photographs? Check out these other posts:

***Please note that this post contains affiliate links which means I may earn a commission if you decide to purchase a product/service. This does not cost you extra. Be assured I only recommend products/services that I use and think you would like too. Read my disclosure policy and privacy policy.

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16 Comments

  • Bettie Arndell

    Would the picture keeper work on consumer cellular smartphone? If you don’t know, how would one find out? It sounds like a great site.

  • Bill Emanuel

    Thanks for this interesting piece about pictures. Based on my experience of being overwhelmed by family pictures, I would like to add a simple suggestion. Assign a unique number to each picture!!
    Put that number on the picture in some non-destructive way and keep a list by number. Assuming that every picture is scanned into a digital image, make that unique number the beginning of the name of every file containing an image of that picture. Finally, create a list by number, preferably in an electronic format such as a spreadsheet of simple database.
    I was fortunate to inherit a large collection of family pictures, many from the 19th century. I quickly ended-up with very similar names and descriptions assigned to different pictures. Finding the digital images of a particular picture became a confusing and time-consuming process. Unique numbers for each picture and associated images make that far easier. I also keep pictures numbers in a note associated with each person in my genealogy database.

    I also suggest taking a look at the DYMO label makers. I am not associated with DYMO in any way and simply bring this clever printer to readers’ attention because it proved so useful to me. I use the ~$40 Dymo Labelmanager Pnp. The printer makes nice label strips with adhesive backs. The print is thermal, no ink to be concerned about; however, I would NOT attached the label directly to a picture or valuable document. I keep my pictures (and documents) in plastic (non-acid) sleeves and just put the label on top of the plastic containing the picture. And of course every label has that unique picture number at the beginning.

    Best regards.

    • LisaL

      Bill, thank you for the suggestions. Using a unique number for each photo is a great idea! How wonderful you inherited so many family photos!

  • Debby Putman

    Lisa, Thanks for giving me more food for thought when it comes to organizing.
    I would like at add one more thought that I have found very helpful. Some of my wonderful pictures are on loan to me from different cousins. Some have writing on the back and most do not. So I have labeled the picture as best I can and will end the label with the initials of the cousin who provided that picture. ie Nellie (Davies) Chase at Kenwood house, Glendale front klk. Then I scan the back and title it Nellie (Davies) Chase at Kenwood house, Glendale back klk. This helps when I run across the same picture in another cousins stash that may not have been ID’d. It also tells me where to find the original should I want to make a better copy or consider who might have originally written on the back of the picture. I have a source page listing all the initials and the cousins’ names I am using and the year I was given that box of pictures.
    Thanks again, I so enjoy your hints, Debby

    • LisaL

      Debby, that’s an excellent way to keep your photos labeled and organized. I especially love that you have a system to know where to find the original! That’s so important. Thanks for sharing!

  • Toni Bettencourt

    Will PictureKeeper work with Vivid Pix and Memoryweb.me? Is there a software available that does all three: automatic backups, color and other corrections, attach metadata and search for photos based on that metadata?

    Thanks!

    • LisaL

      Toni, yes, PictureKeeper will work along with Vivid-Pix. It’s simply a back up systems. I’m not familiar with Memoryweb.me, so I can’t speak to that. I’ll reach out to some of my professional photo organizing friends and see if there is anything that does everything.

      • Ruth Karcher

        Thank you for getting me started. I am the “family genealogist” and needed guidance on how to start organizing all of these photos – from my filing system by year taken to filing by person – a whole new, more meaningful step. It is overwhelming. Do you have a favorite photo restoration software? I need to do some cut and paste of people to get the best final shot to keep.

  • Cathy

    What do you do for group shots that have members from multiple family groups. We have a lot of party photos that contain a wide range of people

  • L. R. Glosson

    While cleaning out my in-laws house, we discovered hundreds of pictures in drawers, on shelves, and in boxes all over their house, and even in the basement. Most of them we had never seen before. The pictures were of immediate family including their children and grandchildren, of their siblings and their families, and of their many trips all over the country. My mother-in-law, a WWII English war bride, left many pictures of her siblings and their families. We only had thw pleasure of meeting a few of her relatives when they visited. Oh, how I wished she had showed us her pictures, talked about where they were taken and the occasions they represented and that she had written the names, places, and dates in an archival pen on the back. I can only hope I can find e-mail address of the English relative who helped me identify the few pictures my father-in-law gave us years ago.

  • Arthur Van Gerpen

    What do you do with the photos of people (relatives?) that you have not identified yet? (Assuming that you have scanned those photos)

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