Is Organization Preventing You From Starting to Scan Your Photo Collection?

Are you someone who is just itching to have your entire photo collection converted to digital images on your computer? I mean, you know you want to do it – badly. You know you should be doing it – you can see all of your aging photos over there in a few boxes in the hall closet. But there’s just something holding you back.

Shipping envelope of loose photographic prints
Shipping envelope full of loose prints I brought home from my parents’ to scan

I wanna take a guess and say if it’s not a lack of enthusiasm, what you could be experiencing is frustration trying to imagine how you could ever get all of your original prints and negatives chronologically organized and in one place at the same time.

It’s sort of like cooking. For those who still practice the seemingly lost art – how often do you start cooking without already having all of the ingredients? Very seldom I imagine.

We are creatures who like to complete all of one step before moving on to the next. For example we mow all of our front yard before starting on the back and we put on both socks before putting on a shoe.

So it makes sense that for many of us, the thought of not gathering up every single last one of our photographs first (from every closet and every relative), then organizing them (e.g. sorting by date or events), followed lastly by the process of scanning, seems illogical, inefficient or maybe even flat out impossible.

Just Start Scanning

But what’s great about digitizing your photo collection is that you don’t have to be so structured. Make it fun. Like digital video recorders allow you to watch television on your own schedule, image managers of today (like Picasa and iPhoto) allow you to work through your collection at your own pace and in your own way.

Whether you know it or not, you actually have three choices – not just one. You can:

Organize before you scan
All done by hand with prints and negatives probably spread across your dining room table

Organize while you scan
Some done by hand and some done on your computer

Organize after you scan
Little to none done by hand and almost all of it done on your computer

Any of these methods will work. But just know that trying to do all of the sorting in the beginning puts a tremendous amount of work – not to mention pressure – for you upfront before you even scan your first picture. It could easily paralyze even the most passionate person from getting started digitizing their collection.

That would be such a shame if you had a feeling of defeat before you really even got started. But you know, once you get into it, moving pictures around in your image manager is not only really easy, but it’s also very freeing. It gives you the ability to leverage time by getting the scanning process done quicker.

I say… just get them in your computer, broadly sorting as you go, and finely sorting them later when it’s convenient and fun for you.

My Own Experience

I personally have been scanning completely out of any kind of rational order. This is not only by choice, but also out of necessity.

United States map with another photo of a stack of photo albums over california and a photo with bin of photo albums over Kentucky
(Left) My entire collection of photos that I currently have to scan at my house. (Right) A bin full of albums I haven’t scanned yet stowed away in Kentucky.

My parents live in Kentucky and I am way out here in sunny California. My parents have most of the family collection safe with them. I describe it as “comfortingly inconvenient” for the purposes of my workflow.

When I visit them, I return west with shipping envelopes or nice sturdy shopping mall bags full of pictures. I am still just not comfortable shipping any of our photos through the mail. I know, I know – but insurance won’t replace the irreplaceable. And to take it a step further, I don’t even let the airlines check them in with my bags. To date I have only brought home with me what would fit in carry-on bags.

So I am without any sort of a complete collection. When I feel like a scanning session, I grab an album full of prints I brought home or an envelope stuffed with loose photos and start scanning.

What’s cool is once I type in the date the photo was taken using my 3-part filenaming formula, all of these newly scanned photos in my favorite image manager “Aperture” (“Lightroom” if I were using Windows) suddenly line up chronologically and by event.

For me, this method is so much easier than the time and madness required to have my entire collection physically in one place and in chronological order before scanning. Of course, I still want to organize my original prints and negatives. But by doing it this way, I am free to do it at a slower pace knowing that all of them are safely digitized and backed up for the future.

Screen full of scanned photo thumbnails out of order
A project folder full of photos from my latest scanning session. The only order in this batch was most of them were taken in the 1970’s. (Aperture 3)

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My Top 6 Favorite Tools I Use to Scan My Photo Collection (Including My Scanner)

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17 Comments on "Is Organization Preventing You From Starting to Scan Your Photo Collection?"

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Ha. Ha.
That top Green Album in the bin on the right?
My parents have the same exact album : )
They must have shopped at the same store…in the same year!!!


…and the photos are cemented into it!

ugh. that album, in particular is really adhesive.
we have some of our nicest family portraits in it…and there is no way they are coming off those pages without damage.
Haven’t tackled scanning it yet, still working with the boxes of loose prints.

Mary Gilbert

If you are careful you might be able to remove the photos in a magnetic album using dental floss. If you can get a corner started you just put the dental floss behind the photo and use it to cut the glue on the back. It can tear the photo go slowly and stop and move the floss to a different corner if it starts to tear.

There is a scanner called flip pal mobile scanner. It’s only about $150. You can use it to scan album pages, and things too large for a normal scanner, in parts and then stitch them back together on the computer. It looks great to take with you while visiting someone who does not want to let their treasures leave their home. I have not tried it, but I would love to own it some day.


[…] It’s sort of like cooking. For those…(continued at Is Organization Preventing You From Starting to Scan Your Photo Collection?) […]

Iain Lyon

I scanned 12000 negatives into my computer and then went through each one and added a date by inputting my best estimate in the field called “date created” using Lightroom.
When I finished and tried to sort into chronological order I discovered that,
Lightroom and several other types of software I tried, use the date scanned not the date I had entered.

ADD A DATE AS YOU SCAN OR IN THE file name because as far as I can discover there is no way to to it the way I tried.



I’ve inherited a large number of my parents’ photos. Most of these are out of any order and are literally envelopes full of prints (many of random print sizes). I’ve been scanning them in the order I find them, but then also archiving the original prints in that random order. I bought a large number of archive quality photo storage wallets from Each wallet has a number eg 0101, 0102 etc and then within that each photo has a number eg 0101-01, 0101-02. 0102-01 etc. That way I can always refer back to easily find the original print if I ever need to rescan. The only organisation of the archive is by print size as each wallet hold prints of a certain size.

The actual organising is done digitally in Lightroom using Collections. Digitally I can organise in whatever order I want. By event, or by person etc etc with a lot more flexibility of keywords. The original prints are just an archive, not an album to be browsed (although it takes a while to get used to that idea).

Otherwise, if I was trying to organise before scanning, or whilst scanning, I’d never make any progress. I’d suddenly find a photo from an event and start to reorganise or renumber the archive creating a nightmare!

Thanks for setting up this site. It’s a great resource.

Ted Lusky

Thank you for your article on filenames. It’s given me the confidence to start into that jumble of photos I my closet.


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