Thursday, January 16, 2020

Day 16: Organize Your Photos

It's one thing to worry about organizing genealogical documents, each of which may have a date on when it was produced, information about what the document is about, and the names of your ancestors to suggest where to file the document.

But what about photographs? Did you inherit boxes of photos? Photos with nothing written on them. Photos that display images of people you can't identify. Photos that have faded or changed color since they were originally printed. Is it a lost cause to organize family photos?

Start by digitizing all of the printed photos. Use a flatbed scanner and a setting of 600 dpi, and save them as digital files in TIFF format. Use a soft pencil and write on the back corner of each photo a sequence number (001, 002, etc.) that you can keep track of using a spreadsheet or some other software so that you can use that as part of the digital file name. Then take the physical photos and store them in archival safe storage materials, and then store them in the place in your home that is cool, dry, and dark.

You are also going to use that same spreadsheet or note-taking software to write down as much as you can learn about the photo, either from what you yourself might know about the image (who is in it, when it was taken, where it was taken, what the event was, etc.) or from what other family members might know. Because you've digitized the photos, you can save them as JPG files (which are smaller than TIFF files) and email the JPG copies to everyone you think might have any info that can help you.

If the photos are faded or their color has changed, run the digital images through something like Vivid-Pix RESTORE. This can help bring out additional details that can help you or other family members figure out more information about each photo.

As you remember or learn anything about the photo, add that to your spreadsheet or other tracking software so that you'll have a more permanent record of what the photo is about. Finally, back up all of the digital images as well as the tracking file, using a cloud-based solution (Backblaze is a good choice). You don't want to run the risk of something happening to your home (natural disaster, burglary, etc.) and losing not only the physical copies but also the digital copies.

You can also add some of the discovered information to the digital file name, such as the name of a key person, location, and/or year. For instance, if I find a World War II photo of my father, I might call it 015_Smith_George_England_1943. Don't worry if the photo has more than one person in it. Remember that you can add any additional names and other details to your spreadsheet or note-taking software, which you can then search as needed.

Finally, get copies of books and read blogs by genealogists with a lot of experience organizing and preserving photos, such as my friends Maureen Taylor (the Photo Detective) and Denise Levenick (the Family Curator). And look for the new book by Margot Note just published by the Society of American Archivists, Creating Family Archives: A Step-by-Step Guide to Saving Your Memories for Future Generations.


  1. What are the underlines for in the picture description of your father's picture?
    Thank you

  2. A practice dating back to the days before file names could include spaces.