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How to organize and digitize a lifetime of photos

I recently completed my biggest project to date—organizing and digitizing an entire lifetime of photographs.

My family had 20+ photo albums that have been haphazardly arranged over the past 30 years. I’m so grateful for all of the photos my parents took and printed but they were kind of a hot mess. Lack of organization aside, the biggest pain point about our precious photos was that we only had one copy of the photos and they were all at my parents house. 

My answer to this problem was to organize, digitize, and create photo books so that all of my siblings can have copies of our entire family history.

If you’re thinking about your entire life in photographs and feeling like it’s a HUGE project to wrangle, I hate to tell you that it is indeed a huge project. I spent ~100 hours to look through and organize ~4,000 photos. The amount of time a project like this will vary a lot based on how organized your original photos are and quantity, but I did figure out a few helpful time-saving tips and insight into how to best organize your photos! 

Getting Started

This process is going to be different for everyone, but I started by removing all of the photos from the photo albums. I kept them in organized stacks based on where I pulled them out and wrapped them in pieces of computer paper with notes like “Disney 1996”. In some instances I would rip out any captions that were written in the books and keep those in the piles as well. This turned out to be very helpful for digital organization and I incorporated some of them into the final book design.

A lot of our photos had incorrect time/date stamps, but for the few that had accurate dates were lumped into piles by year and then later organized digitally by month. 

During this phase I also got rid of a lot of photos. Any blurry photos or duplicates were tossed. It was hard to let any of them go at first, but it got easier as the process went along. I had my siblings and parents look through the toss pile to get their approval before really throwing them away. 

Physical Photo Storage and Organization

I had a bunch of little piles of “keep” photos and immediately saw the need for more structured organization. I purchased this photo box that stores 1,600 of your photos in 16 cases. Each case holds 100 photos. 

This system made physically transporting the photos a lot less stressful, and it also made the process of scanning them in a bit easier as well. I love that this case is acid free and plastic to keep everything extra safe. 

Converting from Physical to Digital

Scanning all of the photos in was the quickest part of the process. It still took a while (around 8hrs for ~2,000 photos), but this scanner really helped move the process along. 

The biggest advantage of this scanner is that you can feed the scanner stacks of ~50 photos at a time and they scanned in at ~3 seconds per photo. 

I would recommend scanning your photos in at 600dpi. Photos print best at 300dpi, but 600 will give you wiggle room to enlarge some photos without compromising the original quality.

Tip: I know the scanner is an investment! You can avoid the cost by visiting your public library. Most libraries will have scanners that you can use and some even have scanners that you can rent and take home with you.

Digital Photo Storage and Organization

As I scanned each stack, I created digital folders with names similar to the descriptions I had written on the physical stacks. Most of my photos were organized by year > major events (or months if the photos had accurate time stamps). While I got closer to the end of the organization process, I started to organize by how I wanted the book to be organized. 

Keeping photos organized as you move them into digital is very important. The process of organizing the digital photos takes a lot of time. I promise you’ll be thankful for all of the folders as you go! 

I saved everything on Dropbox so I can easily share the folder with any family member AND I never have to worry about losing them because it is a cloud-based storage. 

Book Design + Printing

After everything was organized, I started laying the book out. I knew from the beginning that I would be making a Hardcover Photo Book from Artifact Uprising. Artifact Uprising has a bunch of ready-made layouts to choose from so you can make a book directly in their editor. 

The Artifact Uprising Editor is very user friendly and a great option, but I used inDesign simply because I know my way around inDesign and I wanted to add some of the captions from the photobooks that didn’t quite fit into the Artifact Uprising templates. 

I exported my InDesign document as .jpgs and then uploaded them through Artifact Uprising by selecting the “Full Bleed” template. There’s more information on that process here! 

When you’re done with adding all of your images/pages, you can preview the book before you send it to print. 

Duplicate the Project

Remember when I said I wanted all of my siblings to have copies of these books? Well, Artifact Uprising makes that process super simple! 

Under “My Projects” you can simply Duplicate the project. Within the new copy, each sibling is able to choose a different cover fabric color, omit spreads (no offense to my little brother but I don’t need all of his baseball pictures in my book), and add pages if wanted. 

This project was a ton of work, but I’m so grateful to have everything in one place now—both physically and digitally organized. 

6 Comments

  1. This is a very helpful post as I am planning to do the same thing next year. Thanks for sharingvyour approach!

    • The hardest part is getting started! It seemed like soooo much to go through but I feel so relieved to have everything properly stored now!

  2. Great post!! Some additional tips from a professional archivist here. The glue in the self-adhesive photo albums is acidic and will ruin photos over time. The photos may have become brittle, so don’t try to directly pull them out. Take a length of unwaxed dental floss and ‘floss’ under the photo, slowly separating the photo from the page.

    If you have fragile photos, use a flatbed scanner as a feeder scanner may rip/destroy fragile photos. Most 80s-00s photos will be fine in a feeder scanner.

    • Such good advice! All of my photos were from 1990 forward so I didn’t have any super brittle photos but I did run quite a few things through a flatbed scanner from the bad scrapbook phase of our life 😂 I definitely encountered those terrible self-adhesive albums as well. They are the absolute worst! The dental floss trick is so clever! Thank you!!

  3. Thank you!!!! For this!

    We have a rubber maid tote just filled with photos and I keep moving to from place to place!

    I have wanted to accomplish this FOREVER

    • Do it!! It’s so satisfying. I found that setting time a couple hours each week was a great way for me to stay on track and chip away at it without feeling completely overwhelmed!


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