Even those of us who aren’t genealogists usually accumulate a lot of photographs over the years. Some of them end up in albums, others are scattered in digital folders, shoe boxes, and even empty drawers. Genealogists gather even more photos than the average person, through inheritance, gifting, sharing with other genealogists, and a sense of needing to photograph nearly everything to document special and even average family moments for future generations. Taking photos and accumulating them is an important part of genealogy, and it is easy to do. What is not so easy is organizing them. Yet, if you don’t organize them, the identities of those in the photos may be lost to time, and the photos themselves challenging to find when you want to look at certain ones.
There are many different ways of organizing family photos, and you really should do what works best for you. The two most important things to remember are to always label the photos and to keep them organized in a sensible way, usually by category and date. If the photos are physical ones, you should label them on the back with a soft-tipped pen that is marketed as being safe for photographs. If they are digital photos, typing in a name for the photo file will do it. Make sure you include the names of everyone in the photo, their positions in the photo, the place the photo was taken, and the date it was taken. If the photo is from a special occasion, indicate that in your labeling, too. Never neglect to label your photos.
When it comes to organizing them, you have a lot of choices at your disposal. This is the method I use, and it allows me to always be able to find any photo I need quickly and easily, be it a digital photo or a physical photo.
Organizing Physical Photos
I use acid free albums with plastic sleeves for each individual photo. You should never use the old albums with adhesive backing or any album that requires you to glue or tape in your photos, as this can damage them over the years. Each photo is labeled appropriately on the back. I organize the photos by date and by family branch.
I’ll dedicate one album to one branch of the family, then put photos in them in chronological order, starting with the oldest ones, working up to the newest ones. I do this with the general photos that don’t commemorate any specific event or activity. In the back of the album, or in an entirely different album, I organize the photos for that family branch by event type, in chronological order from oldest to newest. Some albums have many clusters of “event” or “activity” photos in them.
Once the photos are organized in an album, I type up a label for the spine of the album indicating the family branch, the years covered (if I had to make more than one volume to keep all of the photos), and the events included (for event or activity photo albums). That way, I can easily read the labels to see what albums contain which photos, and can grab the album I need and flip to the photo or photos I want without any searching required.
Organizing Digital Photos
Organizing digital photos is similar to organizing physical ones, except you do it on your computer with a variety of labeled digital file folders. I create a master folder for each family branch for which I have digital photos. In each master folder, I put sub-folders. I also distinguish between contemporary photos of people I know, and ancient, ancestral photos. Contemporary photos have sub-folders indicating the individual or group of individuals whose photos will be going in those sub-folders, as well as the years the photos in the sub-folders cover. I make additional sub-folders within the sub-folders for photos of special events or activities pertaining to that person or people. Sub-folders for individuals or groups of individuals will go in their master family line folder. All photos are named beginning with the date the photo was taken (or approximate date), who is in the photo, and where it was taken. Sub-sub-folders for events and activities will have those events and activities in the folder names.
For ancient ancestral photos, I do the same thing, except I also include sub-folders for photos of genealogical documents. For each master family line folder, I include sub-folders for photos of birth certificates, death certificates, marriage licenses and certificates, military records, newspaper clippings, census records, land records, and any other genealogical documents for which I may have photos.
If I have one main ancestor for a master family folder, I also make sub-folders for branches of that main ancestor’s family. These master folders can accumulate hundreds of photos if you have done a lot of work on the family line. For example, I have a Moneymaker line I’m researching. I’ve been able to trace it back to the original German immigrant in the late 1700’s. My photo organization of the digital photos for this family looks like this:
- A master folder named Moneymaker Family
- A sub-folder for the original German immigrant, labeled The Luis Moneymaker Family
- Within the Luis Moneymaker folder, I have sub-folders for each of his 7 children, each labeled with their name, such as The Jacob Moneymaker Family
- Within the sub-folders of Luis’s children, I include sub-folders of their children, and so on, down to the present day Moneymaker family
- Within the sub-folders for each person, I include sub-folders for regular photos, organized in the same way I organize and label physical photos
- The sub-folders for each individual person also include sub-folders for all the types of different genealogical documents I have pertaining to them
You’ve got to sometimes click-through a lot of sub-folders to get what you want, but once you do, all you have to do is look through the dates on the photo names, going from oldest to newest to find exactly what you want. You can find what you’re looking for quickly, and no photo ever gets lost this way. Your photos are labeled and organized in a way that makes sense and makes even a single photo among hundreds simple to locate any time. Be sure to back up your digital photos and their folders and sub-folders to one or more external hard drives and keep at least one drive away from the house, so your photos won’t be lost if your computer is broken or stolen. You’ll always be able to get them back again. Back up each time you add new photos, and use the off-site hard drives to back up what you’ve collected at least twice a year, or more if it’s convenient for you.
As you accumulate more photos of both the digital and physical kinds, just label them appropriately and add them to the proper album or digital file folder and/or sub-folder. Do it as soon as you get them, and you’ll never have an accumulation of photos to organize again. Just get them organized once, then organize as you go. You will enjoy your photos more, your research will be made easier (especially when it comes to sharing photos with newfound relatives), and future generations will thank you for doing it, as you are creating wonderful heirlooms that will mean something to the generations of the future, because they will know who is in the photos and the significance of each one.
This is just one method of many for organizing photos, but it works really well for me. It will work for you, too.
Will Moneymaker founded Ancestral Findings back in 1995. He has been involved in genealogy research for over 20 years. The thrill of the hunt, the adventure, and the excitement begin when he started investigating the meaning of his surname. Why I Love Genealogy (And You Should, Too!)