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.
Table of Contents
- Where Does One Even Begin An Old Family Photo Organization Project?
- Steps to Organize Your Digital Family Photos
- Your Photo Organization Re-Cap
- Yay For Organized Photos…Now Back Up Your Photos!
- Share Your Family Photographs & Introduce Your Family To Their Ancestors!
- Want to learn more about your old family photographs? Check out these other posts:
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.
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.
📝 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.
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: “Lester-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.
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.
- Head of household Folder [Lester Howard]
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:
- Commit to organizing your photos In the first place
- Gather your photos in one place
- Digitize any photographs that have not previously scanned.
- Edit your photographs (Optional)
- Create your digital file folders
- 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:
- Cloud Storage – I use Google Photos. I also use Photomyne for backing up those on-the-go photos I scan. Learn how I scan on the go in this video.
- External Hard Drive – I back up all of my genealogy files including my old family photographs on an external hard drive. Picture Keeper is another good option! It a thumb drive that scans and backs up photos from your computer. They also have a version for your smartphone.
- Other Family Members – I back up copies of my digital photos on thumb drives and distribute them to other family members, too. They can enjoy them while keeping them safe!
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:
- Tips for Identifying People In Old Family Photos – The MOST popular!
- How to determine the date of an old family photograph
- Where to Find Old Family Photos
- How To Pull Genealogy Clues From Your Old Family Photographs
- Identifying an Old Family Photograph – Who IS That Couple?
- Are You Your Ancestor’s Doppelganger? Find Out What Your Ancestor Looked Like
- How to Date Antique Photographs Using Tax Stamps
- Restoring Old Family Photos – A Vivid-Pix Tutorial
- Best Practices for Storing Heirloom Photographs
- Top 10 Resources for Dating Old Photographs
- How To Find Your Ancestors in School Yearbooks!