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Organize Your Family Photos

Six steps for tackling those piles of old pictures once and for all

Pile of family photographs on table, overhead view

Yevgen Timashov/Getty Images

Once you've gathered all family photos together, you can begin to sort by major category.

Do you have decades of accumulated photos, slides and negatives stored in a variety of places around your home? As a professional photo organizer, I have met many people who have so many images — some have come to me with 25,000 printed photos to sort — that they have no idea how to start organizing and saving the best of them. One of my clients was so daunted by the sheer volume of photos she had stored in different albums, boxes and folders that she told me she’d rather spend a day doing manual labor than face the mess.

If you feel the same way about your own collection, I have some suggestions.

1. Start today

Let’s face it, chances are good that your photos have been on your to-do list for a long time. It’s time to tackle your pictures and get the memories back into a format that makes them easy to celebrate and share. I can tell you, from experience, that if you put this project off until another day, years will fly by and you will have an even bigger project on your hands. 

2. Bring all of your photos together in one place

Collect all of your photo albums, boxes, etc., together in one room, preferably on a large table, before starting to sort. It’s very difficult to efficiently organize photos when you continue to find more in other places. 

3. Sort photos by major categories

Once you've gathered them all, you can begin to sort by major category. I generally sort photos by decade. Then once I have sorted by decade, I sort each decade by year. (Another tip: All school, family and church portraits should be set in their own category.) Remember that this is not the time for reminiscing. I have seen photo-organizing projects take more than two years when clients become emotionally involved with sorting pictures. If you can be objective, you will move faster.

Set slides aside to be handled at another time. Negatives should only be saved if you aren't sure you have the prints. As a curator of your family photos, your job is to save the pictures that capture the moment or event and the important people who were present. Duplicates, repetitive photos, landscape scenes can be tossed. We want to save photos that tell the essence of what life was like, not every moment ever photographed.

For each person, the number of photos saved can vary. A frugal, efficient photo sorter will end up with one shoebox per decade of photos, or roughly 100 photos per year. Another more sentimentally attached photo sorter might end up with a shoebox for every two years, or 500 photos per year.

Vintage photo of boy and birthday cake


You can also send your photos to an online scanning company.

4. Scan photos at high speed 

After categorizing the photos, you can scan them. Flatbed scanning won't cut it: You will need a quality, high-speed scanning system to quickly digitize your organized photos. If scanning the photos yourself isn’t a realistic solution, then find a local business to scan them. Another option is to send your photos to an online scanning company.

5. Back up your digital photos 

Once your photos have been digitized, you'll want to back up the original digital files in two places — one inside the house and one outside the house — to ensure nothing is lost to time or disaster. Backup options include external hard drives or a cloud-based backup. DVDs are no longer recommended as a backup solution.

Some people hesitate to throw the old printed pictures away after scanning and digital backup are completed. If this is you, consider purchasing an archival quality photo box for safe storage. 

6. Enjoy your memories again

Now you can create photo books, slideshows and much more with your digital photos. I have seen men and women moved to tears as they reconnect with moments and people long forgotten — easily shared with family once they’re in digital form.

Bottom line: Just do it. You'll feel relief in getting a dreaded job over with, and delight in knowing your photos and family history are preserved for generations to come.