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10 Easy Steps to Organizing Family Photos (part 1)

10 Easy Steps to Organizing Family Photos by Lorine Schulze

Most of us have them. Family photos stored in dusty albums, or in shoeboxes in a closet or stuffed into desk drawers. At some point we need to sort, organize and digitize those treasured family memories, but where do we start? For many the task can seem overwhelming. Having been in this mess myself, I’ve come up with 10 easy steps to create order out of disorder and to preserve and pass on your family photographs.

  Blog Organizing Photos 1

Step 1: Create Your Plan

Before you begin, decide what your goal is for your photos - what is the final outcome you want? Do you want to scan them? Do you want to share them with family members, and if so, do you plan to share digital copies or originals? Do you want to share them now or at some point in the future? Are you ready to toss those blurry snaps of Niagara Falls or the picture of Uncle Harvey’s dog?

Step 2: How Will You Store Your Photos?

Are you going to store your original photos in archival storage containers? In binders? In acid-free sleeves? If you can afford it, you will need to purchase archival quality boxes or sleeves to preserve your original photos. At some point you have to decide on how you want to organize your digitized (scanned) photos, and where you will keep them.

It is a good idea to make an estimate of what you will need for your project whether that is binders or boxes. You can do an internet search to find what is available. I used an online company - GetSmartProducts. Your choice will also depend on your budget. Perhaps you can’t afford archival quality binders, or storage boxes or sleeves. In the real world we do the best we can, given our circumstances.

Step 3: Decide how you will organize your first preliminary sort.

Yes I said “first” sort. You should do a general, very broad-based sort first. This is a fast way to begin. It also allows you to organize your massive project into smaller chunks that are more easily manageable.

Your first sort should be based on categories – you can choose to sort by families, by years, by events such as weddings or family reunions, or any other category that suits you.

The choice is personal. It also depends on how many photos you have. I have thousands that go back many generations, so I wanted to do a more specific sort to start. Here’s my list:

  1. Lorine from childhood to first marriage, including siblings and parents from their marriage to death
  2. Marriage #1. Photos from wedding day to divorce
  3. Marriage #2. Photos from wedding day to death of spouse
  4. Marriage #3. Photos from wedding day to present
  5. Dad and his family.
  6. Mom and her family
  7. My grandchildren

Bog Organize Photos 2

My husband’s first sort was quite different. He sorted his family photos into 3 very broad categories.

  1. His mother. This included any photographs that were of her ancestors or relatives.
  2. His father. This included any photographs that were of his ancestors or relatives.
  3. Himself from baby to present day.

Step 4: Choose a spot in your home where you can leave your project undisturbed.

You will need a fairly large table and you need to be able to leave your storage items and photos for long periods of time. Organizing, scanning and preserving these photos is not an overnight task. You also need room to spread out and look at your photos to make your first choices of keep or toss.

Step 5: Start sorting!

First write your categories on pieces of paper and place them in front of each storage box. This enables you to quickly spot where that photo of Aunt Sally at her wedding goes.

  Bog Organize Photos 3

Take all your boxes and albums of photos from their hiding places and put them all on your table. Try not to be overwhelmed as you see the piles. You are going to go through them methodically and in an organized way. It will not seem such an onerous task once you get going.

Start with one shoebox or album. Remove each photo and decide whether you are going to keep it or toss it. That’s right – you are going to finally throw out those blurry holiday photos and the photos of every animal you saw at the zoo 20 years ago. 

Trust me, you will feel great once you've done it. Mine went into a large cardboard box for burning.

  Bog Organize Photos purge

Any photos you are keeping go into the categorized boxes. Don’t worry about getting them in order or right way up, just place them in the appropriate boxes. Remember this is your first sort. It’s very broad-based and you will get into refining this sort into further sub-categories later

If there are photos you are unsure of, if you can’t decide whether to keep it or toss it, I advise you to keep it for now. You can always toss it later in this process.

Part 2 of 10 EASY STEPS TO ORGANIZING FAMILY PHOTOS will be published soon.

For other ideas on organizing Family photos I advise you to use your favorite search engine to find articles of interest. There are dozens and dozens of articles available about this topic.

All photos are credit to the author Lorine McGinnis Schulze


Lorine McGinnis Schulze is a Canadian genealogist who has been involved with genealogy and history for more than thirty years. In 1996 Lorine created the Olive Tree Genealogy website and its companion blog. Lorine is the author of many published genealogical and historical articles and books.










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Thanks, these are great tips! peggy

I created a file and scanned into it Other People's weddings (mostly candid snapshots) But instead of destroying them I intend to post them to the 'subjects' (ior at least those I am still in touch with) this Christmas

I have basically sorted my pictures into families - years ago and they have been residing in their boxes for years. Now I need to figure out what to do with them. Can't wait for part two!

Thank you for the help, one step at a time.

Glad it has been helpful Linda - Part 2 is coming soon!

Hi Yvonne

Digital preservation is on my "to-do" list for another blog post. A huge question is always to toss or keep after scanning!


Perhaps before removing photos from albums, the pages of the album should be photographed or scanned. Sometimes, the arrangement of an album's contents provides a useful chronology of events.

What do you do if you have a photo with several different families represented in the photo - where does it go ????

I used the free boxes from the post office to do my sorting. Labeled the front of each box with a post-it note so I would remember what pictures I was putting in the box. Also put the boxes in ABC order.

Great ideas. Waiting to see part 2.

Great ideas Sandee! I love learning how others are managing this.


That is always a difficult choice WSS. It's a very personal choice but I would decide which person is most "central" or "important" to me. And then I would put the photo in that box. For example I have photos of my mom and dad together on dates before they were married. So the question is, do they go in my mother's box or my father's?

I am putting it them in my father's box - again, it's a personal choice. Just try to be consistent.


Jan that is very true and it is important. I always photograph every page of my older albums (ones I did not create) before removing the photos.

But for albums I created I remove the photos as I know I will be notating each photo later with the information as to dates, names, locations etc.

Thank you for mentioning this important point. I will be talking more about that in my blog post about scanning and digitizing photos. Meantime you may want to take a peek at how I do my antique albums. Here is how I approached my mother's cousin's WW1 photo album. A WW1 Photo Album is Discovered at

Great to know I have started on the right track! Looking forward to part 2!

Thanks, Lorine! I've been doing most of what you suggested over the last few months. It CAN be absolutely overwhelming! So far, I have been sorting by album or where the photos were discovered. (Mom's album, Dad's album, My album from school, Cherry cabinet drawer, etc...) I scanned the pages, then cropped them down to individual photos using software. Then I add text below the photo to identify the people and/or dates etc. So far, I have nearly 1500 photos filed digitally. I found several instances where there are duplicates and have placed them in their own box for others to pick through. I MAY burn CDs of certain files to give to the family members involved (but not until I'm sure I'm done.) Looking forward to your part 2!

Maggie thanks for sharing your method of sorting. I love hearing how others are sorting or have already sorted their photos. I like your idea of sorting by album and wish I'd started my organization way back when I first inherited various albums over the year. Then I could have tackled one album at a time instead of all my hundreds of photos at once!

Part 2 should be published soon, hope you enjoy it as much as you enjoyed Part 1!


PS I'm currently working on a blog post about digitizing photos and digital organization and preservation.

Thanks for the info. I hope this will add my e-mail to your distribution list.

Hi WSS, sorry about the delay in replying but I have only just read the article. When you have printed copies or slides you need to sort them into a single folder. Which one will differ from person to person. Once you digitise them by scanning you can have a copy in each person's album. For a Windows computer you can copy a photo from one folder into another. The original stays in its original position and the copy goes to the new folder/album.

On a Mac machine, it keeps only once copy of each photo but you create albums and there are links in each album back to the original photo.

Once you have scanned them you may want to back them up to some sort of Cloud storage. The best I have found recently is Google photos. You just need to make sure that each photo is less than 15 megapixels.

Sorry if that it might be getting ahead and will be in Part II.

I have accomplished this first stage of family./friends/decades/ shoeboxes in alphabetcial and date order. I have 6 huge albums and 4 flipover narrow albums which relate to holiday, travels, scenes, etc. and which will be of less interest to family later on. These albums tell the story of our travels and contain postcards as well as photographs. They also relate to music conferences in Europe, Africa, Finland, Austria, after which we always took tours - Northcape, Spain, British Isles, South Africa. I think it better to leave these intact as they could be discarded more easily later on. They do take up space, but at least are of even size and shape a look reasonably tidy. Do you agree that it is best to leave them alone, finding a comfortable spot to view them. In our old age,m they are heavy to life from the bottom shelf. Thank you for the series it will be interesting to follow.

When I first obtained all my mothers photos, she had not written on the backs at all. She remembered who was in her mother's photos, but hers were iffy. Her memory was slipping but she knew in some where she was working in New York at the time. She had kept all her tax returns from the 40s forward believe it or not and her address books. I sorted all the photos first based on where she was working, which gave me an approximate year based on the returns. Her old address book helped with the names. The photos ranged from the early 1900s up to 1950s. I put them in an archival album at that time with the stories she remembered. As her alzheimer's progressed, she loved to look at the album. Glad I got that project done and did not put if off. Now to get mine done.

We had scary event happen a few years ago on a sunny beautiful Sunday afternoon, A state patrol car drove down our driveway and the officer told us that the forest about a half mile down the road was on fire and it may reach us shortly if the wind shifts.

Thus, please vacate you property within 15 minutes- the fire fighters will try to save your home if the wind shifts --but they will know that we are safe from harm!

Wow--The only things that could not be replaced by insurance were the family pictures-in shoe boxes and pictures on the wall and tales.

Thus photos, pets etc. evacuated the property

The good news the wind did not shift, the fire was put out , and photos returned into storage.

The project--Scan all the family photos--the scanner assigns a number (mark the number on back of photo) --this takes a long time but there are services that will do for you.

The second project in the computer -- Identify (name) photos --When (date) Who,(names) What (activity) Where (place) a number (from scanner or camera)

Typical 19561226DonRobnWeddingHolyFamily5687

I've been working on my family photo project for a couple of years. Every suggestion is spot on. However, I came across a lot of photos of friends of my parents when they were young and the first home cameras came out. I love genealogy and to date, was able to track down the children and grandchildren of those WWII basic training friends from Illinois and hometown friends whose children have left the area many years ago. I figured that if this person in the photo was important to my family members then; it is just as important to get the photos back to their original owners. The surprised and grateful voices and words of the family members still resonate. I happen to have a scanner and photo editing software. In addition to sending the original photo, I scanned and edited each photo, named the file with the person's name and approx date and location taken and burned at least 1 CD per family. This way, the family members were able to continue to share the photos with their siblings and touch even more lives.

Such helpful steps, Lorine! But I can see you do not have a curious cat in the house... :)
For those who do, I have found that putting a large towel over top of what I'm sorting helps somewhat (their claws get stuck in the towelling... my cat walks around and around the towelling... clearly annoyed!
Looking forward to the next steps.

Celia, thanks for the expert cat advice! :-) I don't have cats and my dogs don't get up on the table so I'm good, but if I did have a cat I'd probably close the door to the room!

Very nicely done Betty!

Donald, my husband I often talk about that - what if an event occured that meant we had to evacuate quickly. I've told him to grab my boxes of photos, my framed picture of my dad with his WW2 medals, the chalk monkey my dad gave me when I was 10 and I'll grab the dogs and we're gone!

Unfortunately he noticed that my plan did not include any of HIS treasures :-) So it's time to rethink that. I will be talking about scanning and digitizing photos in my next blog post.

Patty how wonderful that you took that time and that care to organize your photos that way. What a special gift you gave your mother.

Emily it is such a personal choice. I believe that you should do what you feel comfortable doing! If you want to keep them in binders then do it. Who knows you may change your mind in the future and if you do, you can tackle the job differently at that time.

I have organized and re-organized my photos and genealogy files more times than I want to count! I find a system that works for me for awhile and then I rethink it and start over. :-)

It is all in what suits you and your lifestyle

Hi James

Very interesting. Part 2 was published last Thursday and I will be talking about scanning and digitizing photos (and organizing them as digital files) in December. Thanks for your ideas.

I have just begun the thinking of how to organize old photos. Your hints and other comments will be a high help in actually following through with this task. I look forward to part 2. Thank you for posting valuable information.
Shirley Rainey

Shirley, Part 2 was posted back in November. See You may also want to find Parts 1 and 2 of 10 Steps to Scanning, Preserving and Sharing Your Photos

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