How to Digitize & Organize Your Photos in 7 Steps

Are your life photos scattered? Stored in albums, shoeboxes, your laptop, your phone, and more? If you are like me, you have photos in many different places and formats. Having just finished my ‘photo consolidation project’, I wanted to share my photo journey. As we currently can’t travel it may be the perfect time to curate and upload all of your past photos so that you and your family can easily and efficiently access these memories for years to come. 

This process can be daunting as it involves a variety of steps. Many of my friends have said they keep putting their photo project off as it’s ‘just too much’. I agree it can loom large, but like anything, if you break it into bite sized chunks it’s more manageable. So take one step at a time, and  if you can, designate a space that can get messy for a week or so as you organize your print photos, remove them from albums etc. 

Doing this project was also a great walk down memory lane as I was able to look back, and appreciate, all different parts of my life, recall events, and revisit people and places I hadn’t ‘seen’ in a long time. Plus it was fun to share the memories as I went along, sending off quick photos to remind friends of fun memories we had shared together. And now it’s a great feeling to be done, to have consolidated my images, to have decluttered my home of albums and to know that my memories are organized, safe and accessible. 

Note: I only address photos in this write-up, not videos, nor archiving things like your child’s artwork (check out Artkive for that).

So buckle up, here we go!

Step 1: What is Your End Goal?

Why are you taking on this project? Decide what your goal is in order to plan how to best get there. Declutter? Organize them into one location? Share with kids? Get photos up in the cloud?  Make photo books? Be clear with yourself on this so you can plan accordingly.

My goal was:

  • To have access to all my photos digitally in full resolution, with backups
  • To have all the photos in the cloud, with access available to my family as well
  • To get rid of my albums in order to save space, but to hold onto the photos themselves 

Step 2: Take Inventory   

Before you start you need to know what items you have, decide what you want to include, and know where they are all located. Are your prints in scrapbooks, shoeboxes, or files? Do your digital files live on your laptop, phone, or backup drives? Do you want to include photos that you need to get from your partner, parent, children, or friends? 

My inventory was broken down into 1) prints (pre-digital) and 2) digital images. 

Prints:

  • Over 60 albums of photos I’d taken (and painstakingly curated into photo albums) spanning over 40 years. 
  • Childhood albums passed down by my parents
  • My parents’ childhood albums and photos 
  • Loose photos of grandparents and more distant ancestors

Digital Images:

  • Apple Photos Library: Approx 90k photos from 2000-2017 that were stored via iPhotos (now called Apple Photos)
  • Lightroom Photo Library: I started to experiment with editing in Lightroom in 2014 and finally ripped the Bandaid off and went fully to Lightroom in 2017.  
  • Note: I did not not download my photos from my phone, but these could be included in this section as well.

Step 3: Digitize Print Photos

Time to digitize the prints. I opted not to scan them myself due to the number of photos I was dealing with (approximately 100k). I chose to work with the site Fotobridge (other sites, which I have not personally used, include Costco, LegacyBox, ScanCafe, ScanDigital and many more). Prices depend on the quantity you are digitizing, the service you choose and the features you opt for.

  • Remove photos from albums. I recommend finding a good series to have playing on your laptop in the background as this can be a long process, especially if your albums had a good glue or adhesive process that requires you to be very careful removing the photos so as not to damage them. I tested positive for Covid in March and continued to test positive for over 40 days so I had lots of time on my hands and just hunkered down and dedicated a few days straight to this process! I also culled the photos at this point, which I highly recommend, keeping 5 photos from the kids at the pumpkin patch vs the original 25 in an album. As I removed photos I wrote on the backs of them any names/dates/important info that I wanted to have a record of. You can opt to have images of the back of the photos digitized as well.
  • Organize the photos: I stacked all the photos in shoeboxes in chronological order. I put big index cards indicating the year at the start of each specific year’s photos. I also put an index card before a big trip/event (ie ‘Indonesia 1990’), as that index card would be read as a ‘photo’ and would be recorded when the photos were digitized. 
  • Mail the photos to be digitized: Once all the photos were out of the albums and filed in boxes, and the albums tossed (this took a couple of weeks in itself as 60 albums fill up a lot of garbage can space!), I mailed the photos to Fotobridge, who I used to do the digitization. I ended up transferring the photos from the shoeboxes to large baggies, indicating carefully what the order of the bags were chronologically (bag 1, bag 2 etc) as I could then put the bags in the fixed price mailing boxes that the post office offers. Mailing the shoeboxes would have been incredibly expensive (as I found out after I wrapped them all and took them to the post office before bringing them back home to redo!).  Yes, it is scary sending all of the photos of your childhood off in one fell swoop, whether they are insured or not, as they are truly irreplaceable! Some services send you boxes in which to mail your photos to them.
Off to the Post Office to Mail My Memories!
  • I opted to have my photos digitized in the higher resolution Fotobridge offered, and to have a book made of all the thumbnails, in addition to receiving the standard thumbdrive of the photos. I highly recommend ordering the book of thumbnails as it lets you have a way to efficiently locate a photo and see its identification number, allowing for quick location of the digital image. 
  • I ordered only one thumb drive as I knew I could copy them on my own.

Step 4: What To Do With the Prints After They Have Been Digitized? 

It took a few months for me to get my digital images back, due to the size of my order as well as it being the start of Covid and the disruptions going on at that time. I received back: 

  • a thumb drive with about 10k photos
  • the book of thumbnails
  • all of the original photos 
All those albums fit on this thumb drive!
Books of Thumbnails of Digitized Prints

At this point you have two steps to manage – what to do with the digital images and what to do with the original photos.

For the original prints, you have to go back to what your original end goal was in order to decide what to do with them.  I wanted to keep the prints, wanted them easily accessible and wanted to be able to find specific ones quickly. I didn’t want the photos thrown into a box in the attic or a storage cupboard somewhere to be discovered by my kids many years from now. 

  • Purchase Storage Containers: I purchased photo storage units from the Container Store that are like small little plastic ‘suitcases’, inside of which are 16 smaller plastic cases which can hold about 100 photos each (so 1600 photos approx per ‘suitcase’). They are also available on Amazon. There are also many other acid-free storage boxes available, but these plastic ones are great as you can easily divide and label them by smaller chunks (events, time periods, etc) which makes them more organized and makes locating photos easier.
In Process!
  • Organize the Photos in Containers: I stored the photos chronologically, with each ‘suitcase’ labeled to show what time period it contained.  Within each ‘suitcase’, I labeled each of the 16 smaller cases to indicate the particular time period/event/trip it included. This makes it very easy to go in and find photos that I may be looking for. This process took a day or two, and I used my PTouch label maker a LOT in this section. Very satisfying when it was done!
Individual Cases Labeled
A finished ‘suitcase’ of approx 1600 photos
The Early 90s Were Good Travel Years!


Step 5: Now You Have a Flashdrive Containing All Your Photos. What Do You Do With Them Now? 

The tiny flashdrive (hard to believe that 60 albums fit on this tiny thing!) could be easily lost so I want to ensure that these photos are copied to be in many places – online as well as onto other drives. 

  • Upload to Backup Drives: I uploaded all the photos to 2 separate backup drives, one of which I keep in a separate location (safe deposit box or a relative’s home would be good locations – somewhere safe that isn’t at home).
  • Upload to Google Photos: I uploaded all the photos to my Google Drive, via Google Photos, putting them in folders I created by year. Please note that Google Photos currently allows you to store an unlimited amount of photos for free, but this free option will be ending June 1, 2021. So if you plan to store your photos in the cloud via Google Photos then be sure to upload them soon or else you’ll have to pay for it! 
  • Share Google Photos With Family: I shared the Google Photo albums with family so they can also access them. Be sure to have a family member or friend have the password to the Google account where you have stored the photos, so should something happen to you your family can access the photos, add to them, edit them etc.
  • Share Full Resolution Digital Files With Family: For childhood/family photos shared by my siblings I made flashdrives for them including these pics. For their holiday gift I made a photo book (via Mixbook) of these photos, feeling that they will get more viewing in a photo book than via a flashdrive, and gave them the book as well as a flashdrive containing the photos.

Now that the printed photos are all set, let’s move on to the photos that were already digitized at the start of the project. 

Step 6: Get the digital photos that are stored in Apple Photos into the cloud

I had approximately 90k photos which were stored in Apple Photos, located on a hard drive. These were already backed up on two backup drives as an Apple library but I wanted them in the cloud as well. In order to get them uploaded to Google Photos I needed to 1. export the photos from Apple Photos so that they were jpeg files and then 2. upload them to Google Photos. As my library was so large, and as I wanted to be able to divide the photos out by year I did the following:

  • Create Albums for Each Year within Apple Photos: I created an Album for each year of photos and then selected all the photos from that year and ‘dumped’ them into that Album. So at the end, I had an album of each year’s photos.
  • Curate Albums: Within each year’s Album I deleted any groups of photos that I didn’t want to upload to Google Photos (ie 300 photos taken of a school play for the drama teacher…for example). Any removed would still be accessible to me via my Photos library. 
  • Create Folders by Year on Desktop and Export Photos From Apple Photos to Desktop Folders: I then created a folder on my desktop for the first year – say 2000 – and exported the photos from the 2000 Apple Photos Album into that folder (I Googled how to do this export and it was very easy. One explanation here.). As the Albums got larger this download took more time (up to a few hours or more per album). 
  • Create Albums By Year in Google Photos, and Upload Images From Desktop Folders: I then created an album in my Google Photos for each year – ie 2000. Next, I imported the photos from the images that were now on my desktop in my ‘2000’ folder into the ‘2000’ album in my Google Photos. Be sure before you hit ‘import’ that all of the images are highlighted and on your desktop (not in the cloud). I imported up to 9k in a single batch without a hitch (takes some time though). Again – this storage is currently FREE if you upload your images to Google Photos before June 1, 2021 so don’t delay! If you have a lot, like I do, this is going to be expensive after that.  I repeated this process for each year until all the photos (maybe 100k?) were uploaded. 
  • I also uploaded some older photos not by year, but by larger categories such as ‘childhood photos’, ‘ancestor photos’ etc. Again, be sure to decide what organizational system works best for you BEFORE you start this process.

Step 7: Upload Digital Images from Other Sources (phone, Lightroom, other) to Google Photos.

I had another library of photos in Lightroom, so repeated the process as in Step 6, adding these to the yearly albums already created in Google Photos, or creating new albums as needed.

Had I decided to include all the photos from my phone I would have at this point downloaded them to my computer, sorted them into folders by year, and then upload them to the appropriate Google Photo folders.

So to recap:

1. All the photos that were originally prints at the start of the project are now:

  • Digitally on a flash drive (with a printed book of thumbnails). 
  • In the cloud on Google Photos
  • On 2 backup drives located in various locations for safety
  • Shared with my family
  • The original prints are stored in photo storage containers, labeled by event and chronologically by date.

2. All the photos that were already digitized at the start of the project are now:

  • On my laptop or the hard drive, I use to access them regularly
  • On two backup drives, one of which is stored offsite in a secure location
  • In the cloud via Google Photos

Whew! Hope that wasn’t too detailed, but if you are going down this path then you need all the info! I know there are different ways to do this process, but this is the one that worked for me.

The most important thing is to decide first what your goal is – how do you intend to ‘use’ your photos in the future, who do you want to have access to and WHY are you doing this project. Only then can you take the steps to get to where you want to end up. 

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Chrissie Kremer
Chrissie Kremer

I am a mixed bag traveler - I go the budget route on some things and splurge on others. I love family adventure travel, trips with girlfriends, or solo trips with my kids. I like urban exploration but prefer it coupled with outdoor activity (and when traveling with my kids it's more outdoor activity coupled with a dose of urban). I have been to 62 countries... and counting.

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Chrissie Kremer
Chrissie Kremer

I am a mixed bag traveler - I go the budget route on some things and splurge on others. I love family adventure travel, trips with girlfriends, or solo trips with my kids. I like urban exploration but prefer it coupled with outdoor activity (and when traveling with my kids it's more outdoor activity coupled with a dose of urban). I have been to 62 countries... and counting.

JOIN THE COMMUNITY!

and receive the “Carry On Only Packing Guide”, free. 

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