How to Organize and Digitize Old Photos

How to Organize and Digitize Old Photos

We live in a digital photo era but that doesn't mean that your old photos and negatives boxed up in the attic should be forgotten. The first step in preserving these is to get them organized. Next, you need to digitize old photos so they can be easily viewed and shared with others.

Getting Your Photos Organized

Sorting through and organizing a collection of old photos can be daunting, especially when you have albums and boxes stashed in different places in your home. The thought of going through them all deters most people from tackling this important task. The key to success with a project like this is to take it one step at a time. Here are some pointers to help you in the process:

1) Gather All Your Photos in One Location

Having your photos spread across a dozen different storage places in the home makes it difficult to even get started with the project. Select a location where you can consolidate all the photos and work on them as you have time. This can be your home office, a hobby room, or the dining room. The exact room you choose does not matter. What matters is that there is space for you to gather and go through your photos.

2) Decide How You Want to Organize Your Photos

Before you delve into your boxes of photos, you need to consider how you want to organize them. Just sticking them in an album with no structure or order is almost as bad as storing them in the attic. You will still have a hard time finding a given photo when you want to. How you organize your photos is completely up to you. You can put old black and whites of grandparents and generations before them in one collection. You can organize photos of the kids by year. Alternatively, split photos of different family groups into different sets. Giving some thought to your organizational structure will smooth the way for the rest of the project.

3) Go Through Each Photo Individually

This is the more tedious part of the project, but also the most important. Quickly go through each photo in your collection and try to answer some vital questions as you proceed:

  • Is the photo worth keeping? Blurred photos are easily tossed. Photos of random landscapes with no context are also easy to let go of. Multiple shots of the same group of people posing in the same location can be reduced to one or two of the better shots. 
  • Which organization category does it belong to? Vintage photos go into the family history category. Your wedding photos have their own box. Your childhood photos are put into a separate group. Physically separate your photos into their respective categories.
  • Is it a photo that you want to digitize? Ideally, you want to digitize them all. However, if you have a limited budget, being selective about which ones you want to digitize makes sense.
  • Can you identify who is in each photo? You will probably come across a few photos of people you may not be able to recognize. Set those photos aside and ask your extended family for help with identifying these mystery people.

4) Preserve and Label Photos

The last step to organizing your old photos is preserving them and labeling them. If you are going to the trouble of getting all those photos organized, you want to be able to pass them along to future generations in decent condition and with identifying information.

Archival quality albums or boxes make are good storage options to consider. Archival materials are acid-free which helps prevent damage to delicate photos. You can label the backs of photos by writing lightly on them with a very soft lead pencil or an archival pen. Another option is to store each photo in an archival plastic or paper sleeve, and then using the sleeve for labeling.

Digitizing Your Photos

Now that your old photos are organized, it is time to get them converted to a digital format. Here again, you have the option of doing it yourself or getting professionals to handle it.

While doing the work yourself may sound like a good idea, there are certain challenges involved when you try to digitize old photos yourself.

  • Equipment and cost: You need quality equipment to get good results. A flatbed scanner with the required features can cost a few hundred dollars, although it may be possible for you to rent or borrow one.
  • Photo restoration: You will need good photo enhancement software to restore the photos. It may be something as simple as red-eye removal or as complicated as rebuilding a torn or badly scratched image.
  • Time: Scanning photos is a time-consuming activity. For each photo, you can expect to spend several minutes scanning the photo, saving it to the computer, and then running it through the photo editing software. If you have a dozen photos, this is doable. If you want to digitize hundreds of photos, it could take you months to get it done.

Having a professional photo scanning service handle the process makes it pain-free. All you then need to do is send in the photos. The service can digitize and restore each one to its original glory. This way, you get professional results while saving a ton of time.

Laurent Martin's picture

Laurent Martin, Co-founder and CTO of Scancafe (a photo digitization and restoration service) and Photogurus (a digital photo story design service) An avid photographer and windsurfer, he believes in the importance of helping people preserve photographic memories so that they are easier to share and enjoy.

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Scanning is expensive and time consuming. Two lamps and a camera (and maybe a clean glass to keep the prints flat)… it is very faster

Get an Epson Fastfoto FF-680W scanner. A little expensive at around $550 but it scans photos very quickly and does a good job. Granted it is not not a high end flat bed or drum scanner, but it is fine for archiving photos. The extra cost is well worth it when you consider the time that you will save scanning many photos.

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