A Guide to organising Family Photos – Part 1

Do you have a photo project?

  • Genealogy?
  • Family History?
  • Community Project?
  • Your Personal / family photos?
  • Just to tidy up a horrendous mess of photos in drawers, boxes, envelopes and albums?

It’s  always tricky to sort out photos into some kind of order.  It’s more complicated than it seems, and can feel very overwhelming.  This post will provide you with some ideas, and help save your treasured memories for generations to come. Follow these steps to order:

1. Make a Plan.

What is your goal? Do you want to digitise your photos, present them to family members? Make DVDs out of them? Photo books? or perhaps you want to divide the originals up, or perhaps make digital copies to share.  Do you want to just tidy them up and get them all in one place?  Working out your ultimate goal is important.

2. How will you store your photos?

Even if you’re digitising your photos, ultimately you will want to store the originals. Perhaps you intend on dividing them up, or giving them away.
So do you want them to go into albums? Archival Photo storage containers?  Acid Free Photo storage boxes, or perhaps plastic folders or acid free sleeves.

Look online to see the many options.    I liked pocket slip albums for my direct family (old paper) photos so I could still enjoy looking through them, but I preferred cardboard photo boxes (acid free) for my Family History photos, since our family wouldn’t be often be looking through the photos.
See my post: Those Damn Photo Albums – what to do? to help you decide what to do with old photo albums, how to safely remove photos, what to do with the photos, and the problems and damage albums can cause.

3. Where will you do your project?

Ah….this makes a mess.  It also takes a lot of space.
Worse, if your toddler comes and spills porridge on your piles of photos or your dog pees on them, or the wind blows your carefully crafted towers of photo paper….you might have an aneurism.  We don’t want that.  So, find a table or piece of floor big enough for a few piles of photos and quite a few shoe box sized boxes.  Make it a place that you won’t have to tidy up if Uncle Bill comes for dinner.  Make it somewhere you can fit a chair.   Mostly, make it somewhere that you can leave the way it is, without it being disturbed.

4. Organise your first sort.

This might sound a bit kooky….but if you’ve got TONS of photos like I had (literally thousands upon thousands)  make the job much more manageable at this stage.

The first division of your photos should be into broad groups.  There are many ways to do this and if you have family photos (as opposed to community or public historical photos) then the easy way is by broad Chronological Eras.  Other choices are: by location, by event (such as births, weddings etc), by years or decades, or by subject (such as education, churches, farming.)   The choice is yours.

I did mine by Generations and Family (as I was doing both my husband’s and my families.)  This is what my list looked like:

  1. My (Jenny) immediate family –  Me, my husband and my two children.(From 1994 engagement/wedding – to the present.)
  2. Jenny’s family photos pre marriage (from birth 1963-1994)
  3. Jenny’s parents’ meeting, engagement, wedding. (1958-1960)
  4. Jenny’s mother’s family (from her birth 1936- pre dad)
  5. Jenny’s father’s family (from his birth – pre mum)
  6. Jenny’s Grandparents’ and earlier…..

And the same for my husband’s photos, though he had far fewer than me…thank goodness!

  1. Husband’s family photos pre marriage (from birth 1960-1994)
  2. Husband’s parents meeting, wedding etc.
  3. Husband’s mother’s family….
  4. Husband’s fathers’ family….
  5. Husband’s Grandparents and earlier……

So, without even trying, I had 11 groups. I liked this because I had so many photos to go through.  It made sense to sort them into generations. You may prefer something simpler:

  • You, your childhood and family.
  • Your mum and family.
  • Your dad and family

5. Organise your sorting area.

You can make use of new photo boxes at this stage, or alternatively collect some shoe boxes or similar sized containers.  They can’t be too deep or it makes it awkward to sort through.
They need to be able to sit, side by side, on your table, labelled so you can ‘throw’ photos into them, easily without much effort working out where ‘Baby Gordon, 1932’ goes.

  • obtain your boxes.
  • write your categories on cards or paper in front of them.
This is only for ‘show’ but it’s what I mean.  Shoebox sized boxes, with labels infront of your categories.  A nice large area (in this case my floor!) where it won’t be disturbed.

6. COLLECT all your photos, albums, boxes and envelopes.

You need to find all the photos you have, wherever they are.  Scrounge around in the garage, look through your drawers, look in boxes, in envelopes.  Dig out all your albums.  If you’re eventually going to digitise, you may even want to borrow your parent’s or other family albums.

TIP:  If you’re digitising and would like to borrow someone’s photos – occasionally you’ll come up with a bit of resistance.  Photos ARE precious.  I can suggest that you offer the owner a receipt, detail of what you’ve taken, when you took it, and a date when you will return it. (say 6 months).  Give the receipt to the owner.  Copy it for yourself or write that in your diary.

7. Start Sorting!

Now you have a massive pile.  Don’t be dismayed.  This will take a while…but it’s worth it.

  • If you have albums that fit wholly within a category (like I do above – I had “mum’s family” ones and “dad’s family” ones) then pop them under the corresponding category box.
  • Next, start with envelopes – photo sleeves – like the yellow ones in the picture. No need to empty them if they’re all of one date.  Sort those into your categories.
  • (isn’t it good that you can just leave this project whenever you want?  you’re so organised!!)
  • Now for the loose ones.  Ergh.
  • Don’t worry about putting them in any sort of order ‘within’ the boxes.  THIS is your first sort.
  • Continue until you are finished.

NOTE:  While you are doing this, you are going to throw away all the blurry, unrecognisable, uninteresting, ‘don’t know who this is’, ‘this is so ugly’, quadruplicates of photos.  Be brave.  Have a bin next to you and toss them….you really don’t need them.  
Would you frame it? …..No? = Toss it.

Good work! You’ve completed your first task.  The hard part is done!!


See part 2 of A Guide to Sorting Family Photos, coming soon on Hocus Focus.

and then : 10 Steps to organising your digital photos. For good.


6 thoughts on “A Guide to organising Family Photos – Part 1

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