Organizing Your Family Photos—Part 1

Organizing Your Family Photos—Part 1

by Kerry Scott on 26 February 2010

One of the genealogy-related projects I’ve been putting off for, oh, 10 years or so relates to my family photo collection.  I have nearly all of the old photos in my family, and they’ve been sitting in a box, unsorted, for a decade.  Late last fall I finally decided to tackle them.  It’s turned out to be a huge project, but I’ve finally come to a stopping point (at least with the oldest photos in my collection…the modern ones are a whole other animal).  Here’s how I did it:

  • I sorted the photos by branch of the family they came from.  There’s a little bit of overlap, but not much.  Then I separated the photos that show living people from those that don’t, because I want to make sure I’m not putting photos or information on living people on the internet (which is, of course, a bad idea).  About halfway through the first branch of photos, I figured out that I should have also put them in roughly chronological order.
  • I decided to assign each photo a four-digit number, starting with 1000.  This way, I could easily save the photos without having to worry about how to name them after people with unknown names, birth names versus married names, names with multiple spellings, group photos, etc.
  • I created a spreadsheet in Excel to serve as an index.  It has the following columns:
    • Photo number
    • Subject (including full names of all of the known people in the photo)
    • Date (the exact date if I knew it; a good guess if I didn’t)
    • Source (who gave me the the photo)
    • Back (any notes, marks, stamps, or other information on the back; when I recognized the handwriting as belonging to a particular person, I note that as well, since some sources are more credible than others in terms of identifying people and places in photos)
    • Notes (observations, clues, or other information related to the photo)
  • I started scanning.  This part was no fun at all; it’s just as slow and tedious as you think it will be.  I finally started breaking it down into tiny increments, with a goal of scanning/saving/studying five photos a day.  I didn’t make it every day, but when I did, I felt like I was making at least a little bit of progress.
  • I saved each photo as a .JPG with just the 4-digit photo number as the file name.  Right now they’re all in one big directory, which makes it easier to upload them to the web (more on that later).  I later discovered this post by Miriam Robbins Midkiff, which says I should have saved them as .TIF files for preservation purposes.  I’m still glad I did them as .JPGs so I could share them online, but I may go back and re-save them as .TIFs.

Part of the reason this took so long is that I found that working with the collection all at once gave me a unique opportunity to really study each photo.  When you look at them all as a group, you can more easily see patterns…which houses are in the background, which photos show a particular woman wearing the same hat or necklace, etc.  Next , I’ll talk more about the clues I found throughout the project.  Then I’ll share some of the tools I found helpful as I tackled this project.

Photo by purple monkey dish washer

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{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Debi February 26, 2010 at 9:25 am

Ugh. There’s many, many boxes of photos at my mother’s that I’m going to start going through next time I’m visiting. I want to do that while she’s still with us as her brain holds important information. I find, though, that she can only help for about an hour and then she grows tired and doesn’t want to think about it anymore. So I have a long way to go before I can even think about scanning them. But your organization advice here is great and I’ll be duplicating it when the time comes!

I love your ‘new’ blog – more exciting to talk about dead people than looking for a job ;-)


Kerry Scott February 26, 2010 at 9:33 am

Debi—actually, one hour increments is probably good anyway. If you do much more than that, they’ll start to get fuzzy in your brain to (or at least, they do in mine). Even one hour per visit is better than nothing.

Plus, if you can get your mom to agree to it, how cool would it be to video tape you and her going through the photos together? That way you can do more of them faster, because you don’t have to worry as much about note-taking. Plus, what a cool thing that would be for your grandkids.

(and I totally agree–dead people are way more fun than talking about unemployment!)


Susan Tiner February 26, 2010 at 11:27 am

I finally gave up and spent $1,339.63 with tax to have 2500 photos scanned. It is the best money I ever spent.

I’m intrigued by your comment about sharing photos/information about living people. Martin and I were talking about this over breakfast, because I would really kind of like to include some photos of both my parents, but my mother is still living, and I don’t want to ask for permission. I did think of doing it then asking for forgiveness later, but I the adult in me knows that’s probably not a good idea.
.-= Susan Tiner´s last blog ..1. My Dog Jello had Puppies =-.


Kerry Scott February 26, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Susan—I’m probably going to outsource the scanning for at least some of the more modern photos. I couldn’t stand to send away the old ones (and they’re all non-standard sizes anyway), but for stuff from the 1980s…definitely. Otherwise I’ll never get them done.

As for the living people…all my time in HR made me into a privacy freak, because I got to see up close all the ways people stalk each other. Plus, although I love genealogy, not everyone in my family does (in fact, it’s pretty much just me). So I don’t want to drag people into my thing. I also don’t want researchers who are working on the same lines as me to not feel comfortable sharing information because they think I’ll put it out there. So for me, no living people on the internet. But every family is different.


Debi February 26, 2010 at 1:16 pm

Kerry – ha ha on the 1 hour per visit. I live in another state and only get to her house every year or so. I don’t think either one of us will be alive long enough to get us through all the photos she has at that rate :-)


Susan Tiner February 26, 2010 at 2:18 pm

I think that’s good advice, no living people on the internet. So how do you handle photos of the dead person if he or she is in the same picture with someone living? Do you gray out the face? Cut the whole person out in photoshop?
.-= Susan Tiner´s last blog ..1. My Dog Jello had Puppies =-.


Kerry Scott February 26, 2010 at 4:08 pm

You could probably Photoshop it or crop it or something. I’m lazy, so I just don’t post photos with living people at all. Most of my photos are pre-1945 as a result, but I like the older ones best anyway, so it works for me.


clobbered February 26, 2010 at 4:24 pm


You don’t want to be putting all that valuable information you have in a separate spreadsheet. You want to embed it to the JPEG file so that it can never get lost or separated from it. You will still be able to search for it if you use a good photo management package. Look into Adobe Lightroom (you have to buy it, but it’s a very mainstream product with support) or digikam, which is a geekier solution, but free.

The advantage of using a photo management product is not only that your comemnts get stored in the file where you will always have them, but also you have a lot of poweful classification options. Then you can do things like say “Export all images from [FamilyBranch] with [NotLiving] tags to my [PublicInternetAlbum]”

TIFF takes huge amounts of diskspace. If you are intending to do post-processing and enhancements, or intend to throw away the originals (ha ha), by all means you should scan to TIFF. Otherwise, JPEG with 95% compression is fine.

You are absolutely right that scanning is terribly tedious, so you only want to do this once. It’s worth spending some time thinking it through before you go too much into it.


JL September 25, 2010 at 8:26 pm

I favor tiff’s absolutely but if you’ve already scanned a bunch as jpg you might not want to start over. I probably would though.

You can embed all the (IPTC) photo info you want to using XnView which is free. A spreadsheet seems complicated and inefficient considering…

Adobe Lightroom is overkill really. For GPS, try Writing GPS with ExifTool. Also free.

Picasa sucks for all kinds of reasons.

I love your blog. I haven’t laughed so much in days.


JL February 2, 2011 at 2:49 am

Update: For GPS, and annotation for that matter, try GeoSetter. ExifTool and ExifToolGUI change frequently and can go over the average person’s head, like mine, at times.


George Farris March 21, 2011 at 2:30 pm

JL, would you know of an equivalent application for the MacOS? Thanks abound, George


JL March 21, 2011 at 3:09 pm

George, I don’t know Mac at all. Some software is compatible with both. My favs for embedding info are GeoSetter (the guts are run by Phil Harvey’s ExifTool and it doesn’t get any better than Phil) and Photo Mechanic. Photo Mechanic costs $150 (sale on for $60 right now) and is well worth it. (Will work with Mac – take a trial – guarantee you’ll fall in love.) Other free one that can embed IPTC, and even in batch mode, is XnView. GPS not included as that’s actually part of the EXIF.

There’s a huge range of IPTC capability in various software, and even the delightful ones that strip it or parts of it out so, if you’re going to do this, I recommend getting it right from the start. I’ve narrowed it down to these 3 as being safe.

If you’re a little bit tech savvy and have the patience, I might go straight to Phil Harvey’s ExifTool which works through the Command Prompt or the slightly more user-friendly version, ExifToolGUI. There’s a little bit of chit-chat about how to set this up on my site at Writing GPS with ExifTool which is just talking about the GPS but it does it all. If you can master this thing, and Phil runs an excellent forum, you’re home free.

Shasta September 10, 2013 at 6:05 am

I recently had a chance to see iPhoto working for the Mac, and it was fascinating. Once you have identified people in some photos, it goes through all your photos and finds other photos that could be the same person! You can simply then confirm the tag. That would save a lot of time. I don’t know if there is a PC version available, but I am holding out for that.

Deb Koons February 21, 2011 at 10:57 pm

I completely and absolutely disagree about not using TIFF – archival standards dictate TIFF format, for one thing. There are several reasons I always scan my old family photos into TIFF format – and at a high resolution, to boot. With enough data, I can enlarge them and even identify people whose faces were too small in the photo to identify, even with a magnifying glass. I can print part of the photo in a nice size to frame. The primary reason I scan as 24-bit (48-bit is probably overkill unless you’re a museum or a professional photographer) high-res TIFF is that we may have Photoshop CS5 now, but who knows what we’ll have in even five more years? And, each time you open a JPG image and re-save it, you’ve lost some of the data.

Storage is CHEAP these days! Some of my scans are 400mb and to archive that off to a CD is CHEAP. You might as well scan that valuable keepsake correctly and taking into account all potential future uses & needs, because repeated scanning can begin to degrade the image (exposure to light and heat). Then store the original in an archival sleeve and in an appropriate environment (not humid, etc.).

As far as scanning being tedious, I am now using a V700 (Epson) and I can put several smaller photos on the scanner bed, select what I want to scan on each (don’t use the scanner’s “automatic” settings, either), and then once I’ve set up each photo, just “select all” and let ‘er rip. I go off and do other things and it scans the photos. Also, always save the raw scan as the archival copy, and work on a copy of it to downsave to JPG, etc. And wow, this scanner is proving to be a FAST little bugger – WAY faster than my older Epson scanner. It does a beautiful job on slides, negatives, and transparencies, too.

And I do like your idea of using a spreadsheet – I do that as well, and for one thing, I can keep track of who I’ve shared it with. I have been struggling with file names, so I love your idea of just numbering them. I would do this for each of my four primary family “branches” with an appropriate sub-number. It’s not a bad idea to work out a metadata scheme to tag into the photo file, but the problem is, you always have to be on the alert for when s/w may begin to not recognize the program you used to tag the photo with that metadata.

I actually add the info directly onto the photo this way: I open the raw scan, downsize it to 150 dpi, and enlarge the canvas area in Photoshop. I type in all my metadata into the blank area under the photo then save it with the exact same filename but adding “data” to the end of the filename. Then I keep those two files (plus any more files I’ve made as I do touchup work to the photos) together in their own folder. And make sure you’re backing up to an external source like an external hard drive as well as a CD or DVD and even look into storage area in the “cloud.” I can post the 150dpi version online and share it, and if someone wants the one I’ve retouched and re-saved after cropping, etc., I can send a CD if they want a large photo to print, or if they want the original archival raw scan. I’m exploring the idea of using DropBox and other sites like this, for sharing high-res photos. Creating a gmail account shared by a few people could work, too – you can attach a file up to 25mb in size, I think, or 28mb, can’t remember right now – to a message and save it as a “draft” and someone else could log in & retrieve it. Free. And this would work if someone just wants a file with enough data to print a 5×7, for instance.

I am a Project Archivist now for a university Special Collections, and have a long career working in color science & digitizing (Eastman Kodak, among others) as well as 21 years’ experience with Photoshop. I also have worked on my family history and preserving the keepsakes, for decades. I just started a Facebook Page for “everyday Joe” with ideas for preserving, digitizing, photographing, sharing, etc. your family keepsakes. I will draw on my digitizing experience and what I’ve found helpful working with my own family keepsakes, plus info I’ve learned while working at Special Collections over the past two years. I also just started working on a huge new project (Gordon Parks’ personal papers collection) so I am just beginning to get content on my Page – but if you’re interested, here it is:

My goal is to share ideas that people who aren’t particularly archivally trained and who don’t have a lot of money, can use to save their keepsakes. Anyone who wants to preserve their keepsakes deserves to be helped!


Kerry Scott February 22, 2011 at 3:16 pm

Thanks so much for sharing this, Deb…great info!


Marian February 26, 2010 at 7:29 pm

My youngest brother inherited all the family photos. He has started using them in milestone birthday DVD’s, which has been nice, but it would be fun to start really going through them. Unfortunately my mother took a lot of the pictures and she was a horrible picture taker! Cutting off heads, not aligning people properly, that kind of thing.

There are also a huge number of slides – remember slides? – from her year in Europe. Because I’m working on her diary from that year, I’d like at some point to be able to get those unlocked from their slide hell into a format that could be used. It also would be nice to see photos of some of the places she describes. And also to see if she does things like take a picture of half of a pyramid or cut the top of the Sphinx’s head off.


Dr. Bill (William L.) Smith February 27, 2010 at 5:48 pm

Welcome to the Geneabloggers family. Hope you find the association fruitful; I sure do. I’m fairly new, as well, and have found it most stimulating, especially some of the Daily Themes.

Keep telling your ancestor stories!

Dr. Bill ;-)
Author of “13 Ways to Tell Your Ancestor Stories”


Kerry Scott February 28, 2010 at 4:09 pm

clobbered—the info that’s in my spreadsheet is mostly my own personal notes, so I don’t have it wedded to the photos because I don’t want to share them. It says things like “need to check 1920 census to see if this is a neighbor” and “she looks about five months pregnant—check MN birth index for 1917″ and so forth. There are also a bunch of references to living people in terms of who wrote the notes on the back. So I needed a separate document for that sort of thing. I do also have the relevant shareable info included as captions in Picasa (which fit my “free” budget). More on that is coming in the third post (probably on Wednesday). I have heard great things about Adobe Lightroom though.

Marian—there are companies that can scan photos for you. I haven’t used them (we have family slides too, although I’m not the owner on them), but I know they’re out there.

Dr. Bill—thanks!


Dr. Bill (William L.) Smith February 28, 2010 at 11:35 pm

Look forward to your next post, and comments there, as well.
Keep these ancestor stories coming!

Bill ;-)
Author of “13 Ways to Tell Your Ancestor Stories”
.-= Dr. Bill (William L.) Smith´s last blog ..Preparation Sunday – Form and Style – Part 2 =-.


Lillian2611 March 1, 2010 at 12:15 am

Thank you so much for this post! I have to do the same thing and I’ve been putting it off since forever.
The advice you gave about sorting and TIFing is invaluable, as is the advice from clobbered.
Thanks for the inspiration. I won’t deny it’ll sit in the back of my mind for a while, but at least it’s in there now. :)
.-= Lillian2611´s last blog ..crisis comes when comfort does not =-.


Paula March 2, 2010 at 12:50 pm

I’m always looking for ways to better organize photos, and I’ve been doing this for a number of years. All of mine are in JPEG format. Here’s what I started out doing and haven’t changed in all these years (except to add new surname file folders):

One folder for each surname, sorted alphabetically, then chronologically within each folder.
Photos identified as follows:
Year Photo taken (or estimated to be taken). Surname, First name (and other identifying info, if needed).
The way I handle overlapping information, e.g., my parents: My mother’s pictures before marriage go into her surname file, after marriage into my father’s surname file. Group pictures – I may put in more than one surname folder, but I number them at the end of each photo file name.
Some of my families have several hundred photos, so within each surname folder I created sub-folders by individual years or by decades, e.g.: 1900-1909, 1910-1929, etc.
The only exception to the “Year Photo Taken” has been: Birth year – death year (of subject), Surname, First Name. I’ve used this format for tombstone pictures and very old pictures when I have numerous families with that surname, or people with same or similiar names.
Something else I started adding to the surname files: pictures of towns, cities, countryside, schools, churches, etc., identifying each with, e.g., Year, Country, County, City, Church Name. I’ve found a number of websites with copyright free photos, such as the Library of Congress. If a picture I really like is copyrighted, I write the owner to ask permission. I haven’t been refused yet. In order to properly credit these photos, I’ve created individual Word docs with small images of the pictures, along with the citation. I include these Word docs in the surname Picture files, so as not to forget about them.
My goal has always been to “write that book” (ha ha) and be able to include representative photos.
Scanning is something I try to schedule, and sometimes I feel overwhelmed. I have albums, boxes, boxes and more boxes – most were saved by my mother, and family members have decided “You should have these.” Agh! Of course, I’m thrilled, because I may find some real jewels…when I have time to look through them.
I forgot to mention that I also do some photo restoration, always saving the original AND “improved” copies…
I guess the key to any method you use is: decide how you’re going to organize and stick with that method. Also, I agree with “Clobbered” that information should not be kept in a separate spreadsheet, for sanity’s sake. And thanks for mentioning the photo management software. I’ll definitely take a look at them, but it may be too late for me, unless there is a “magical import procedure” included.


Kerry Scott March 2, 2010 at 1:11 pm

Great suggestions Paula! I haven’t started the tombstone pictures, but I might steal your idea for those.


Caron November 11, 2010 at 8:43 am

I have been tackling the process in my own way, but using several of the methods mentioned.

I bit the bullet and had all the family slides digitized in hi res and then made copies of the CDs for my sisters. When I scan actual pictures, I do them in TIF and then JPG. Use the surname as the lead, then first names, dates etc. In terms of what order, I have found that I have been doing them as the occasion arises…meeting with out of town cousins, then I scan those that we relate to; Mom’s 8th birthday – all the ones related to that; focus on researching a person, all the pix related to them, etc.

I am thinking about using the numbering system and having my son do the scanning – he will do it if I pay him! ;-) Then I can go back and label at my discretion/leisure.


George Farris March 21, 2011 at 3:01 pm


Organizing my photos has been a ongoing project of some duration. Most recently I’ve been using iPhoto, which likewise has a photo recognition option. However, it strikes me that it isn’t flexible, or intuitive enough for ordinary user. Now, finding your three-part series has been a real heaven-send. I’m going to try your endorsement of Picasa and implement some of JL’s and Clobbered’s excellent suggestions. Your reader interaction has been particularly helpful in determining my own skill comfort-zone.

Thanks abound,


JL March 21, 2011 at 3:11 pm

O, god, George, stay away from Picasa!


George Farris March 22, 2011 at 3:44 pm

Dear JL: You seem far more tech-savvy than I. The principal reason I operate on the Mac platform is that it’s so much easier to use. Ergo, I deduce and concede your ability to understand more of geekdom. However, why so down on Picasa? Kerry seems to give it satisfactory marks.


JL March 22, 2011 at 5:04 pm

First of all, George, I was trying to help you, not confound you, so I apologize for flying way over your head.

In regards to Kerry’s marks given to Picasa – you know, George, this is the Internet not God’s Gospel Truth. It’s an opinion. And, in my opinion, anyone who uses photo archiving and Picasa in the same sentence is a rank amateur when it comes to anything photo related. And she doesn’t stop there. This post goes on to talk about keeping photo info in spreadsheets and re-saving jpg’s as tif’s. I was almost that lost once myself but as time goes on daylight begins to dawn.

I assumed, since you left your question on a post that’s discussing photo organization and annotation that you’re interested in photo organization and annotation. For photo organization I have very little to say. There’s no software anywhere that’s going to do it for you. That part is your job depending on a variety of factors and whatever makes sense to you. Photo annotation is a whole other thing and once your photos are thoroughly annotated that information can be searched which is a form of organization.

How I hate Picasa, let me count the ways:
1.) The Import options
2.) The Backup options
3.) Everything in between

Here’s the general path that Picasa has set up for you: automatically import the jpg’s from your digital camera, throw some tags, captions, map flags at them, upload them to Picasa Web Albums, done. This has sweet zip all to do with archiving old photos. Maybe you’re not trying to archive old photos. Maybe you’re talking about jpg’s from your digital camera. I could go on and on for days but I don’t know what your question is exactly. You said “organizing my photos”.

What I already told you is the best I can do photo annotation/organization-wise: GeoSetter, XnView, Photo Mechanic, Phil Harvey. It’s too bad that GeoSetter isn’t built for Mac. Everything else listed here is. XnView for Mac in beta.


George Farris March 23, 2011 at 4:44 pm

Good Day JL:

No need to apologize for flying over my head, implementation-wise that bar is set pretty low. I’m in the process of looking over the applications you recommended. If I have follow-on questions I hope you will be as receptive to those as you been thus far.

Thanks & Best Wishes,
“A Neophyte in DC”


JL March 23, 2011 at 5:12 pm

George, it depends what you want to do with your photos and what kind of photos you’ve got. Digital? Paper that needs scanning? Oldies? For a million dollars, I can customize a plan.

Really, there’s steps to all this, depending. There’s the scanning, the organizing, the annotating, the preservation of paper and digital and in each of those areas there are things to know and better of ways of going about it.

All I can do from here is be a bit flippant and suggest some alternatives to Picasa that won’t run you up the wrong tree right off the bat.


Kerry Scott September 12, 2013 at 2:38 pm

I’m actually on a Mac, so this is a great tip. I’m less in love with Picasa than I was when I wrote this post, so I’ve been considering switching to iPhoto. Thanks for the tip!


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