We live in an age where digital cameras and cell phones are ubiquitous, and in theory that should make it easier to get control of your collection of family photos.

Digital files are much easier to organize and can be easily transferred into other formats. But most families still end up with a few boxes of random physical photos as well as digital images scattered across a variety of computers, smartphones and tablets.

But all is not lost. It is possible to organize your collection of family photos in a way that not only gets your current collection under control, but also makes it easier to stay on top of the process in the future.

Transfer Everything to a Digital Format

Most families still have plenty old family photos stored away in boxes and in random photo albums.

The first step to organizing them is to scan them into a digital format. Not only does that make the process of arranging them less challenging, but it also allows you to preserve the photos against a fire or other unexpected loss. Digital photos are easy to store on an online backup system or set of CDs that allow the family to enjoy them for generations.

If the number of physical photos you have is fairly small (under a couple of hundred), you can have them scanned by a service that charges a small amount per photo. But for most families, it makes sense to buy a digital scanner that can handle photos, slides and other materials. While the price on the scanners vary according to the features, a good entry level model can be purchased for less than $100.

Decide How You Want to Organize the Photos

One of the biggest decisions in this process is deciding how to organize the family collection. This decision really depends on the photos you have and what makes the most sense for you. One family might organize everything by year and another might find it easier to find photos based on the event (e.g. Christmas, family vacations, etc.)

It really comes down to deciding on a method that best ensures you’ll know how to find that photo in the future. Once you’ve made that decision, it’s time for the organizing to begin. Create a folder on your computer for the photos and begin dropping in the sub-folders and images as you scan them.

Back Up Everything

As you work your way through the family photo collection, it’s important to back-up everything to prevent a disaster if you run into computer problems. Online backup services such as Dropbox automatically back up the folders you want as you work, and they have a free service that includes enough storage space big enough for many families. These online services also allow you to share photos or folders with other people you choose, making it easy to share photos with family and friends anywhere in the world.

Take It One Step at a Time

You are likely dealing with hundreds of photos that have never been organized before, and it is going to be a daunting process to get everything into shape. Be patient and don’t try and tackle too much at once. Grab a small stack of photos to scan or look through a folder of images from a digital camera and then walk away for a bit. Tackling too much at once will only make the process seem impossible, and the only thing worse than having an unorganized photo collection is having one that is only partially completed.

Organize as You Go

As you look at each photo, do a bit of triage as you organize. Discard the photos that are blurry or ones that are just a copy of a photo you’ve already organized. And most importantly, rename each image in a way that makes it easier to find the photo in the future. Searching for an image with the name “grandma_cooking” is much easier than plowing through a folder of images sporting names such as “OCI-346.”

Don’t Let Your Photos Get Out of Control in the Future

Once you’re caught up with your photo collection, don’t let it get away from you in the future. Set a reminder on your computer and cell phone to move a copy of your latest photos to the collection and make sure that you also set a reminder to grab recent images off of your digital camera’s SD card. Keeping your collection of family photos organized is relatively painless, once you have a system in place.

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