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10 Easy Steps to Organizing Family Photos (part 2)

If you haven't already, please read 10 Easy Steps to Organizing Family Photos (part 1)

  10 East Steps to Organizing Family Photos part 2

And now on to the last 5 steps of your organizational project!

Step 6: Time To Do Your Second Sort

Now we will work on one box at a time so choose one (don’t cheat – choose only one!) you want to start with. This is a good time to put the other boxes away out of sight until you are ready for them. A large project will seem less intimidating and overwhelming if you break it into smaller chunks.

For this step you choose one box and re-sort it into more focused or precise categories. So for example I took the box I had categorized in my first sort as Mom and her family. I then sorted those photos into 3 more specific categories:

  1. mother from a baby to marriage
  2. mother’s father and his siblings and ancestors
  3. mother’s mother and her siblings and ancestors

A question might arise at this point – what to do if some of the photos have, for example in the photo below, my mother is a child with her sister, her mother and father (my grandparents) and several of her aunts and uncles). I must make a choice as to which person in the photo is my main focus or the closest generation to me. In this case I chose my mother because she is the closest to me generationally. That photo went into category Mother from baby to marriage. It’s a personal choice and up to each individual to decide on what works for them.


Photo in collection of Lorine McGinnis Schulze taken ca 1920 Guelph Ontario Canada
Photo in collection of Lorine McGinnis Schulze taken c. 1920 Guelph Ontario Canada

 Another question that may arise during this step is what to do with photographs of houses, pets, cars - in other words photos without people in them. You can assign them to the person or family who owned the object in the time period you think the photo was taken. You may also have such photos where you do not know who owned them. It is important then to note where the photo came from – who gave it to you or whose house it was found in? You may end up with one box of unidentified photos such as this but keep them as you may eventually find out the story behind them. This can also be the case with photos of people who you don’t know.

The photo below shows the gold watch given to my grandfather on his 21st birthday. It will go in the box the photos of his life from baby to marriage.


Photo by Lorine McGinnis Schulze of Charles Fuller's Gold Pocket Watch
Photo by Lorine McGinnis Schulze of Charles Fuller's Gold Pocket Watch


You might also want to decide at this point what you are going to do with duplicates. Are you keeping them? Are you giving duplicates to family members? I kept large padded envelopes at hand and every time I spotted a duplicate photo I made a quick decision as to who it should go to. Then I put it in an envelope labelled with that person’s name. Any duplicates going to my children went into a box for each of them. That worked well for me and I can decide if I want to give them their box of photos now or wait for a future date

Step 7: Third Sort

Each sort becomes more and more refined. The number of times you will need to sort depends on how many photos you have and how you are categorizing them. For example, I have very few photos of my father and his family before he was married. So I will be able to skip Step 7 and move on to Step 8 which is the final sort. For my mother’s family I have hundreds of photos on both her mother’s and father’s side so I am going to have to do Step 7.

For example in Step 6 I created one pile of photos for my mother’s mother (my maternal grandmother) and her family. As it happens I have close to 100 photos of my grandmother, her parents, her great-grandparents on both sides, and so on. So I am going to have to do a more specific sort by families, surnames or years.

Step 8: Final Sort

Step 8 is to take one of the piles you have from Step 7 and arrange the photos in some kind of order. I chose to arrange them by chronological order, so for the pile of photos of my mother from a baby to marriage I arranged them by years or by estimates of years. You might arrange them by surname or by individual. The choice is yours.

Chart by Lorine McGinnis Schulze
Chart by Lorine McGinnis Schulze


 Step 9: Labelling Your Photos

I suggest you add information such as name(s) of those in the photo, a location and a year on the back of each photo. Be careful to write lightly and along an edge so that your writing will not damage the photo if it presses in too far. I don’t advise using pen or marker but a Standard #2 graphite pencil should be fine. You can purchase archival pencils but they are expensive and they may not be in your budget.

Archivists will no doubt disagree with me. In a perfect world we would not take a chance on altering or possibly damaging a photograph with a notation but the reality is that photos fall out of binders. They get dumped out of storage boxes. When they are passed from generation to generation eventually (and very quickly!) there will be no one who knows who is in the photo unless they are labelled.

How often have we seen photos for sale in antique stores or at flea markets and no one knows who the person is. They are lost forever and that is heart-breaking. So I have made a personal decision to do the best I can to safely preserve my treasured photographs while making sure they are not only accessible but notated for others.

Step 10: Done!

When you finish one pile of photos from one box, you can put them away in your pre-chosen binders or storage boxes. Then you start all over again – keep sorting and organizing one box and one pile at a time until they are all done.

Once all your photos are neatly organized and labelled in their boxes or binders you can sit back, relax and think about what a great job you just accomplished! Then it’s time to think about scanning and sharing them. I will talk about digital organization of photos in a separate blog post.


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 for part 2! I tend to agree with identifying the people & dates on the back of photos. One box I went through was well-labeled and made sorting MUCH easier. Sometimes, the info on the back seemed so important that I scanned BOTH front and back making sure the file name is the same for both and a -front or -back to keep them together in my digital files. One of my special treasures is a photo of my maternal grandparents arriving in the location where my mother was born just a few months afterwards. I would never have known that info had it not been labeled as such on the back!

I wish I had your articles before I started this massive project! I just started scanning & did my sorting with the digital files. In cases where there are multiple possibilities of where to put them, I often copy the picture to more than one location (One of me as a baby with my mom might go into both folders, etc).

I appreciate all the effort you are putting into these articles!

My organizational scheme is much simpler.

1) Scan them all. Don't sweat the order. Give each picture a unique name that has nothing to do with the contents. (I use "10234-Front" for the front of the 10,234th picture I have scanned).

2) Look closely at each picture and write notes about each one ("#10234 is Lorine McGinnis Schulze and her mother XXXX; it appears to be taken in 1954 in front of their house on Maple St. On the back is written "Me and Mom at Easter").

3) Put the pictures away in some good long term storage - organized so that given a picture number, you can find the picture again.

4) Organize the images. Since they're images, not physical photos, you can put them in more than one folder.

5) Share the images with your family. I make a DVD every christmas with several hundred images (and the notes) that I have scanned during the year. Now everyone has a copy.

I very much appreciate this series. I've got hundreds of photos from various family sources. They're all helter skelter in bins and my resolution is to finally get them labeled and scanned. Time marches on for me and I am the last person living who knows who some of these people are. :)

Carol I think that's why I've really sped up my organization - I'm the only one in my generation who knows who many of the people in the photos are! And I'm in the next generation to go.

Marshall thanks for sharing your method here! I actually find it as complex as mine :-) I would worry about only having the images organized and labelled digitally. Technology changes rapidly and at some point those CDs won't be viewable. I like to keep my photos in several formats - the originals, paper copies, digital files etc. But to each his own!

Maggie I am glad you are scanning front and back. You're right that it can be important, especially if you have older photos that have a photographer's mark or logo on the reverse. Using that you can often narrow the date the photo was taken. In your case, that's great that someone labelled that photo of your grandparents in that specific location! You've reminded me that I have a photo of my mom and dad walking down the street which my mom told me was taken while she was pregnant with me. No one else in the family knows that so I need to get that one labelled quickly :-)

I like your idea of putting copies in more than one folder. I am very guilty of that!

Thanks for your comments about my series.

Lorine -- I agree that down the road the DVDs won't be viewable, but I consider those to be one of many backup schemes (as well as way to distribute them to other family members) Obviously, I don't *just* keep them on DVDs, I have them on my local hard disk (and on a backup disk, and another backup off-site).

The point is that files on the computer are much easier to organize than prints. Making copies is quick and easy, both for filing in multiple "groups" and for sharing with other people. I frequently send pictures via email with a question "Who are these people?" or "Do you think that is Aunt Sadie on the left?"

Marshall - I agree. Multiple copies in a a variety of formats saved in various locations is a must.

In fact I am working on a future blog post (or 2?) on digitizing photos. I did not want to get into digitizing in my first 2 posts as I was already throwing a lot of information and detail at readers.

Good crowd-sourcing ideas to ask family members if they know who is in the photos. I ask my 93 year old auntie if I'm stuck :-)

The alternative, Lorine, is to organise them by 'provenance': This is how an archive would do it, and with good reason.

Hi Tony,

I'm not personally comfortable with this organizational method but thank you for the links. It may very well suit others quite nicely!

Very nice explanation of a logical sorting order for your photographs. I also feel that digitization of your photos is very important. Once family members know you are interested in managing old photographs, it seems that everyone wants to give you their multiple old boxes of pictures. We have accumulated thousands of photos this way. One key point you make is to always keep track of who you acquired the photos from. You should also make sure this info gets included in the metadata when digitizing them (I use the 'Source' metadata field for this). By digitizing old photos, you make the pictures more accessible to a much wider audience. I find that sorting the photos in the manner you describe prior to scanning makes the digitization process go more smoothly. It becomes much easier to date and add appropriate metadata to pictures when they are in the context of similar photos.

I'm not concerned at all about obsolescence of my digitized photo files. As standards evolve, I've always found it easy to upgrade existing data to new standards. The key is to have multiple backups of your data (cloud, offsite, multiple hard drives, etc.) to avoid catastrophic loss.

Hi David.

Great ideas - if you go to my post at you will see that I discuss adding source information (and other identifying info) in the metadata of your files.

Where are parts 4 & 5?? A much needed article . TNX

Mabel - there is no part 4 or part 5 to the organizing series - there were only 2 parts to it.

But you may also want to find Parts 1 and 2 of 10 Steps to Scanning, Preserving and Sharing Your Photos

Really appreciated that these articles have reinforced my need to archive everything now!! As a longterm computer user I have seen different systems come and go and the incompatibility problems that arise. I now keep the original, make a good copy, and also store digitally as a PDF (which hopefully will survive longer than other formats). Always add any information to the back of the photo, in archival pencil if poss, otherwise good graphite, and print the copies with a border so that when you write on the back it lessens the possibility of marks coming through on some detail which may be important for identification. Really thought the info published on this site was terrific.

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