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. I’ve worked hard to achieve that. I may not have a perfect system (does one even exist?), but I do have a system that works for me.
You do, too, right? Dare I say my system is “imperfectly perfect” for me?
Now…where does one 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 loved everyone of those photographs and encourage the family to keep sending them, but something needed to be done.
Getting Started with Simple Photo Organization For the Genealogy Researcher
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 how I organize my own digital photographs.
Note: For any photographs that have not been digitized, that is the first step. 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.
When scanning photographs, I recommend labeling them in a consistent pattern. For example, your family photo file name might be “Lester Howard 1942 Guilford Co NC” . The formula is [name] + [date] + [county] + [state].
By using a consistent file name pattern, I can search my files easily by name, date and 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!
Back to organizing/filing those digital photos. I use a hierarchical folder system based on family units. It goes something like this:
- 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 many people, 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 filing system consistent despite the type of files you are organizing will make returning to your needed files easier. Remember: Keep things simple!
Keep Photo Organization Simple
Here is a condensed version of the photo organization steps I use:
- Digitize any photographs that have not previously scanned.
- Create any needed folders in my hierarchical files system.
- Start placing digital photos in their correct folders.
Now that you have digitized and organized your old family photos….
Back your photos up!!!
I cannot stress enough the importance of backing up your digital photographs.
Having your photographs of all 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. Dropbox is another good option, too.
- External Hard Drive – I back up all of my genealogy files including my old family photographs on an external hard drive.
- Other Family Members – I back up copies of my digital photos on thumb drives and distribute them to other family members.
One of the ways I chose to back my photographs up was with Picture Keeper. I simply plugged the little flash drive in my computer and let it do its thing. Picture Keeper scanned my computer for all photo files and backed them up. Picture Keeper even maintains my organization system and even skipped the duplicates! Backing up those photographs really was that simple!
Here was a bonus I never even thought about. Like many genealogists, I use Dropbox to back up many of my files. As part of my Dropbox system, I have the Dropbox app on my laptop and on my smart phone. Dropbox syncs across all of my devices. When I take a photograph on a genealogy research trip, I file it in the appropriate Dropbox file. When I back up my photographs with Picture Keeper, photos from my Dropbox app synced on the laptop are also pulled and backed up! Backing your photos up in multiple places is a good thing.
The first time I plugged in my Picture Keeper into my laptop, it backed up 2956 photos! 647 duplicates were skipped. [Why in the world did I have that many duplicates?!] This was a complete surprise! I started with the 4GB size, but obviously needed a second one! I should have just started with the 8 GB or the 16 GB.
Picture Keeper comes in a variety of sizes: 4, 8, 16, 32 GB. 4 GB is plenty big, but I think I should have started with the 8 GB. The good news: Once one is full, simply plug in a new Picture Keeper and it picks up where the other one left off. No remembering where you stopped! Picture Keeper even has a version for your smartphone.
When I purchased a new laptop recently, I plugged in Picture Keeper and easily loaded all of my photos onto my new laptop. Easy, breezy.
Share Your Family Photographs & Introduce Your Family To Their Ancestors!
You have been organizing old family photos and 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.
[If you are related to me, skip on down. Birthday gift spoilers alert!]
Copies of heirloom photographs also make great gifts. I have not ordered any of the specialized custom gifts such as cards, magnets or pillows yet, but Picture Keeper offers that ability, too. I’ve got my eye on the cutest magnet set……
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