Tips for Archiving Old Family Photos

how to organize old family photos

Woooo I’m knee deep in stacks of old photos right now.  Since we’re technically proficient and, of course, value photos, the Wood Box Studios team has basically become the official archivists for our families.

I’ve written before about how archiving our modern family memories means making sure photos get off the computer and onto paper.  Today, I’m writing about going the other way when we take care of old family photos–digitizing pictures that have long sat in boxes in grandma’s basement.  We have grandmas that are great at keeping things, and we have thousands of pictures on our hands that we want to make sure we don’t lose them.

1. Organize the originals

If your family photos look like this you might need to start your digitization efforts by putting the maaaaaaaaaaany piles of old photos into some sort of order.

I think it’s easiest to start by organizing loosely by decade.  Use sticky notes to make piles, for example 1950’s, 1960’s, etc.   Especially if you are dealing with thousands of images, don’t let the desire for perfect organization make this task feel impossible.  Get close on dates, and if images are slightly out of chronological order, that will be just fine.

As you’re organizing, feel free to throw some things out.  We found a lot of blurry images, duplicates, and pictures of friends or colleagues that no one remembers any more.  It can feel painful to toss family pictures.  But, if you whittle the stack down to exclude images that aren’t meaningful to anyone in your family, you make it more likely that the important images get appreciated rather than getting lost in the sheer number of photos.

scanning old photossorting family photo heirlooms2. Make digital copies

We started this process as a way to help our grandparents organize their prints, but also took the opportunity to digitize the images while they were freshly organized.  Now, we have them available for future photo books, slideshows, and #throwbackthursday, of course.

We DIY the scanning, using a simple scanner that lets you scan both prints and negatives.  The quality is good but the pace is SLOW.  It takes me about 30 seconds an image to complete scanning and saving.  Usually, when I’m in the middle of a scanning project I’ll have boxes of photos and the scanner take over the living room for a few weeks, and try to knock out 100 photos or so a day.  If you’re not committed to spending many hours on a scanning project, you can hire someone to do this.  It gets pricey, though, we found prices average around $0.50 an image in our area.

If you’re doing it yourself, do some research before you choose the quality of the scan files you’re creating.  Scanners are capable of incredible photo quality, but if you scan huge image files, they are going to be difficult to share.  We save at 300DPI (dots per inch), which is necessary to create files that work for printing, but limit the size of each scan to 500KB.  We aren’t printing any of these images bigger than 8×10, so this is a good balance for us between manageable file sizes and quality reproductions.

I already suggested getting rid bad or duplicate images in step 1, and you might decide to narrow down the images again here.  Some pictures we kept in paper form, for example pictures of grandma’s old friends, but we decided not to digitize because we didn’t think other members of the family wanted access to those images.

archiving family pictures

3. Share the digitals

This is the part that makes the many hours of work worth it!  Now everyone in the family can enjoy the pictures that they haven’t seen in years.

Duplicate backups and easy access are critical, so I think the best approach is to give USB drives, discs, or if it was a ton of photos external hard drives with the archived images to each member of your family who would be interested, and to also make an online gallery that people can access indefinitely (we use Google Drive in addition to our professional subscription service). There are also potential options to store lower resolution copies on services like Google Photos or Amazon’s Prime Photo (if you are a Prime subscriber), which have the option to avoid using paid online storage.

4. Make photo books

I’ve written before about our approach to using on-line photo book services to get the most out of our photos.  We use the same strategies for archiving and sharing old images of loved ones.

One of our favorite Christmas gifts for family is photo books of family keepsake images.  We leave the albums with the original prints with our matriarchs, and then we give Picaboo photo books to other family members.  We typically add captions to images to the best of our ability based on labels on the backs of prints and conversations with people who were there.  How cool would it be to take a few extra hours on this project and write down some of the old family stories that go with the images and add text to your photo book?  This has been too ambitious for us in the past (my motto is don’t let perfect be the enemy of done!), but it’s on my list of goals for future books.

organizing old prints

If you’re embarking on the old photo organization journey, good luck to you!  We’re always so glad when we finish one of these projects and I think our extended families would tell you they’re glad we’ve done it, too.


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