Does the idea of having all your family photos organized seem like an impossible dream that might take a lifetime to achieve, or would require hiring a team of experts for a month?
I know it can seem like an impossible task, but it can be done. I’m not saying it will ever be finished, as you’ll always be adding new photos, but you can get all your old ones sorted out so that you can enjoy them more and have them stop bugging you.
I’m not a scrap-booker, and I’m no kind of photo expert. All I have done is scan all my family photos, and all my parents’ family photos. That included photos in albums with the sticky backing which were fading fast and old black and whites with peeling corners. There were about 10 of my parents’ family albums, about 9 albums of my own before digital cameras, lots of packets of unsorted photos and lots of strays. There were also photos in frames and cardboard folders.
There is more work to be done with labeling, looking for the negatives for ones we know are missing, choosing pictures to print and so on, but the feeling of achievement at getting this done was wonderful. I did it while I was pregnant with my middle child and was not working, and it took several months of doing several hours per day. Believe me you get better at it as you go along, but it is tedious.
So, I’m taking a wild guess here, but I’m pretty sure you probably have boxes and boxes of printed photographs, possibly in the packets with their negatives on that old fashioned stuff called film. Some of them might be in albums, getting faded, spaces where favourites have been taken out and not replaced. You might even have a lot of loose photos that are not easily matched to the film, and for which you have no way of knowing when they were taken.
Some families may have very few photos, and others may have extraordinary amounts going back generations. The size of the task will vary enormously. Whether you have very few or a great deal, it’s possible that the amount is a source of emotional discomfort to you, and this does need to be addressed so you can get your job done. I was very aware of the lack of photos from my grandparents, and the poor quality of many of those ‘60s and 70s photos. People with drawers or walls full of lovely old photos of their ancestors might feel despair about not knowing who all these people are or how they can find out.
We have to remember that we, alone, are not entirely responsible for our whole family’s history of photograph keeping, and that photos are just things, they cannot hurt us. Remind yourself of the reasons why you want this project done, and that what you are doing is worthwhile. Feeling guilty will not help you get the task done.
Other emotional things which may come up are that you realize you did not take enough pictures at some periods in your life, the pictures you did take are not very good, you don’t like how you look in a lot of them, or you are reminded of unhappy events or lost loved ones. If you have decided that you are going to tackle this project and you feel ready for it, you are going to have to accept that these feelings will come up, and not allow them to mess up your project. Just keep reminding yourself what you are doing and why you are doing it. All you can do is make the best of what you have, and that is what you are doing. You’re doing it because you care about your family, and because you want it done so you can better use the pictures and not have to worry about it any more.
You might also have boxes and boxes of slides. This was once thought the clever way to keep our photos, and now it just makes it more difficult to sort them out. Slides are even more likely to be kept waiting for years and years to be sorted out than photos.
On top of that, you have digital photos from your newer cameras. Thousands of them, because with digital we can take as many pictures as we like, not having to wait til they’re printed to see how they turned out. Some of us are better at editing them as we go than others.
The end result we want, the desired out come, is:
- We have successfully scanned, to a satisfactory standard, every picture that we want to keep, and backed up the file somewhere safe, or to several safe places.
- We can easily find, identify, print and share any photo from our collection.
- We can reduce clutter by throwing away what we have decided we do not need to keep.
The benefits we can expect from completing this project are:
- We can let go of that niggling, nagging feeling, the worry and the guilt. There is one less huge piece of emotional clutter weighing us down.
- We can enjoy our photos. We can look at them on the computer, sort them on the computer, email them, share them, publish them, print them, put them in digital photo frames, on a slideshow on our computer, on our iPhone or iPod to show people, and many more options that are becoming available.
- We can relax knowing that our photos are safe from fire or flood if we have backed them up to safe locations.
- We can relax knowing that the quality of the photos will not deteriorate any further, and technology will continue to develop new ways of fixing them up.
- If we are scanning our photos and are able to share them by email or post them on a website, so can our relatives. You may be able to get in touch with relatives in the future and fill in missing pieces for each other. If you or any member of your family are studying your ancestry, photos are a great resource.
- Your project is a gift to your children and grandchildren. Not only can they view and enjoy all your photos now, but when you are gone they will not be faced with the task of sorting them all out and deciding what to keep. They are much more likely to keep photos which have been scanned and organized.
Scanning your photos keeps them safe, and allows you to sort them, share them, print them, label them, fix them up if they’re damaged, crop them, make copies of them, and back them up so that they cannot be lost or destroyed by flood or fire. Scanning old photos that you wish to keep really is a project worth doing.
So, as you probably realize, you need a decent scanner, and it needs to be plugged in and working, and you need to learn how to use it. Fortunately, scanners now come as a multi function device included with your computer printer, and are now cheap and high quality and easy to use.
That doesn’t mean choosing and purchasing a scanner is going to be easy. It can be, but it can also be really confusing. What do all those resolution numbers mean? How much will the ink refills cost? How easy to use will it be really? Buying a scanner if you need one is a little project all in itself of course. It’s best if you can visit several different stores and speak to a few different staff members who are willing to explain the products. You’ll need to take notes and do research.
When you have a scanner, it can take a bit of trial and error to get the hang of using it. The quickest way is to follow the instructions right from the start, rather than trying to wing it and then going back to the instructions later. You might want to look at the instruction book before you purchase the scanner.
Scanning a lifetime of photos, or perhaps several lifetimes if you’re tackling your parents and grandparents photos as well, takes time. This could be a project that takes from 3 months to two years depending on how much time you have available and the number of pictures you want to keep.
Whatever information you have about the photo, such as what is written on the back of it, or what you know about it, or what is written beside it in the photo album or on the envelope you got it from, should be entered as you scan the picture. Getting this step right will make your job a lot easier. It’s worth planning ahead for a consistent system for labeling. You might want to start with the year if known, or an approximate year indicated by a question mark before the year, then go on to say who is in the picture, or the location. If they are in batches, you can just label the folder they go into, and easily label individual photos later, but do note anything written on the back of the photo as you go.
A large part of the project will be throwing things away. You’ll need a rubbish bin handy, and make sure you can’t accidentally drop keepers into it. Empty it at the end of each session.
So what to keep and what to throw away. Well, when you look through photos, you’ve probably noticed that you’re really most interested in people. Lots of holiday pictures of places without people in them do tend to get thrown away, and that’s fine.
I have wondered about the possible historical value of things like pictures of streets and cars and buildings and even landscapes in the past. It’s true, they could be of value to various kinds of historians for various kinds of reasons. They could even be of value to costume designers and set designers for movies. But, they don’t belong with your family photos unless, perhaps, it’s of a family home or business. Just think, who, exactly, is this worth keeping for. You could pencil a rough date on the back, throw it in a box with other interesting pictures of places in the past, and forget about them for now, or you could file them in the bin if they’re not really that interesting. If in doubt, file it in the bin.
Not learning to cope with this kind of decision making will hold up your project, get you emotionally stuck, and lumber your grandchildren with the task of throwing it away – and they’re more likely to throw away the good photos too if they can’t find out who these people are. Remember, you’re doing this for yourself and your family. What you want, are pictures of yourself and your family and good friends. You don’t want to waste your efforts on pictures of unknown people, mountains and buildings. You want pictures that mean something to you.
As you can imagine, you need to be reasonably together emotionally to take on a task like this. If you find you’re struggling with it, ask for help. Talking it through with a friend or family member could help you decide that you can cope with it, or that it is best left for another time or to somebody else.
Giving the task to somebody else to do is certainly an option to consider. There might be a member of your family who would be more capable of taking it on. If you have pictures of grandparents and great grandparents, these will be of interest to more people in your extended family. Ask around and see what other family members are doing and have already done with their photos.
If you can allocate some money to it, there are also professional services available now for this kind of project. Somebody who does it all the time will certainly find it easier to wrangle the scanner. The thing is, you might be the only person capable of labeling the pictures.
If you have slides, it is quite likely that you will need professional help to scan them, unless you are a bit technically minded and have the right kind of scanner. You will probably need to source a way of viewing them first, so that you can sort the ones you do and don’t want to keep, and not pay for scanning the ones you don’t want to keep. Slide boxes do often contain lots of landscapes.
Once they are scanned and labeled as well as possible from the information with the pictures and your own memory, you can always continue to label them and re-label them and sub-label them in the future, and you can show them to friends and family who may be able to fill in the gaps.
As well as photos from albums and packets and loose photos, do scan photos from frames also. These are often the important ones to keep, and are in danger of becoming damaged. If you have trouble getting the photo safely out of the frame because of damage, seek professional help.
What about the negatives? Would you like to be able to toss out negatives, but are worried there might be something important in there? Yep, me too. I looked at every negative to see if it had a matching picture. This was difficult because I had already done some editing when I put some albums together years ago. Obviously I don’t want to re-develop a picture of somebody with their eyes closed that I already decided to chuck out. The ones I did keep were those from batches where there was a picture missing from the album, for example given to somebody, and sometimes a little note stuck in it’s place to remind me to get the picture re-printed. This is a real pain, but if you have given away some favourites, you might want to keep the negatives just until you get those missing ones replaced. Obviously, as soon as the picture is scanned, you toss out the negative. Any re-prints will now be done from the scanned picture.
So, imagining that you have managed to scan all your pictures, I know there are many people who still want the albums and physical pictures to look at. That’s ok, and I think that’s a separate article for a time when I have done more with my own.
My project is not finished, and probably never will be, but knowing I have scanned everything I want scanned did give me a huge sense of accomplishment, and I was able to give a copy of it all to my parents and to my brother for them to enjoy. I can give my children copies of their own childhood photos to do what they want with. I can sort them and folder them and label them and sub sort them to my heart’s content.
Once on the computer, I chose to sort them by year, simply a folder for each year, and months within the years. Yes, there are empty months between films, and some of the months are guessed and approximated. Sometimes even the year on the much older ones. I would like to further sort them by person, event, favourites and so on, and this will happen over time and with research on the latest software, which will be another article again as I progress further. It’s great that you can copy them and sort them, so that the same picture can be sorted in different ways, and belong to more than one folder.
For now, I hope I’ve encouraged you to look into doing some scanning. If the task is huge, you can always just do your framed pictures to begin with. Start small and do the most precious ones first. Somebody will thank you one day when you’re no longer here.
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