Is Sorting and Organizing Your Photos After Scanning Actually Better?

by Curtis Bisel
updated: February 16, 2024
Curtis Bisel
February 16, 2024

Whether you have yet to start scanning them or began the project long ago but paused for various reasons, now is the perfect time to revisit your collection of old family photos. This is particularly true if you reside in a colder climate and find yourself spending more time indoors.

One of the biggest hurdles I hear from people I interact with and help in the Scan Your Entire Life Membership Community forum is they need help figuring out where to start with their photo projects because all of their original photos are currently in such organizational disarray.

It’s common to hear you all mostly feel you must have a nicely organized and sorted collection of photos before you can even begin scanning them into your computer. This thought process could be compared to how one wouldn’t want to take their car to a full-service car wash with the floorboards, passenger, and back seats filled with personal stuff. You tell yourself, “They can’t possibly clean and vacuum in there unless I get all that stuff out of there, and it’s clear!”

Sorting Before Scanning

There are definitely some perks if you can spare a bit of time before diving into scanning your old prints and film. 

First off, you can trim down the stacks you’ll eventually scan by tossing out the ones you’re absolutely sure you don’t want included. You know, the blurry ones, duplicates, or those endless shots of landscapes you have no emotional connection to.

Plus, there’s something about holding those old prints in your hands, feeling the texture of the photo paper — it’s like a throwback to before everything went digital. It’s a tactile experience that brings back memories, you know? Each photo you handle feels like a little journey back in time.

Also, concerns about computer proficiency drive some folks to organize original prints manually before scanning. They perceive digital file management as too intricate and worry they won’t be able to navigate it effectively.

Whatever kind of sorting and weeding out you initially do before scanning, my advice is to set a limit to your time. Your goal shouldn’t be to “perfect” a chronological viewable display order but rather to create manageable groupings of photos to facilitate your scanning process. Getting stuck in endless sorting might slow you down and make it hard to actually start scanning. Remember, having an unorganized digital collection is still better than having no digital collection, right?

But if you have yet to start your project because you never see yourself doing what seems like a massive job of sorting and culling, let me put your mind at ease. Let me point out three of my favorite reasons why doing these tasks later can actually work to your advantage.

wood table with several piles of photos, photo albums and folders of photos — all in watercolor style

Uninterrupted Space

First things first: Do you have enough table space to spread out your photos safely without them getting shuffled around for other activities like dinner or homework? It is best to have a dedicated area where you can focus on sorting through your collection without constant interruptions.

Sorting these photos into any order is a significant challenge that demands considerable time. Memories captured in these photographs span decades, with events, places, and people mixed haphazardly — birthdays alongside vacations and family gatherings intertwined with various outings. Deciphering the timeline or themes feels like solving a mystery, requiring close examination of dates, identifying unknown people, and collaborating with family members to connect all the dots.

The longer you spend sorting photos, spreading them out, and returning them to their containers amid interruptions, the greater the risk of burnout and procrastination.

two medium-sized stacks of colorful photo albums and photo boxes — all in watercolor style

Original Location Challenge

Before I volunteered to scan them, my family’s photo collection survived for many decades, stored in plastic shopping bags, mixed-sized photo albums, random shoe boxes, and sometimes even the original paper or cardboard envelopes they came in from the developers. This is all very common.

Suppose your collection remains stored in its original containers, and you plan to invest in new ones sometime much later. In that case, you’ll probably put the photos back into their current containers post-scanning. However, rearranging the photos to fit back into their original containers will most likely be extremely challenging.

Each photo was initially placed based on personal logic or convenience, and the physical constraints of the containers may not accommodate the newly sorted collection. Oversized or mismatched prints may no longer fit neatly within the confines of their former homes. This makes restoring order to the collection before scanning a logistical challenge better addressed through digital organization on your computer.

computer with large colorful thumbnails of photos on the — all in watercolor style

Digital Organizing Inevitable

Are you absolutely certain you have every single photo at your disposal right now? I’m talking about every last one, including the ones tucked away in old albums, forgotten shoeboxes, and dusty drawers. Perhaps your siblings have some stashed away in their homes, or other family members are holding on to precious memories they promise to share with you someday. 

Now, imagine you’re nearly finished sorting and organizing all of the photos you have when a family member calls you up and offers to finally hand over several more boxes of photos, ones taken in much of the same time periods as in the photos you just organized. Integrating these new photos into your existing system will likely be extremely challenging. It means backtracking and reorganizing everything you’ve sorted so far.

You’re bound to stumble upon new photos along the way; it’s just part of the process. Life keeps us busy, and photos have a knack for popping up when you least expect them.

The decision to hold off on doing much of the organizing, sorting, and chronologically ordering your photos until after they have been scanned and made into digital files isn’t just about making things easier – it’s about saving yourself from unnecessary stress and hassle down the road.

Most folks will find that once you dive into organizing your digital photos, in no time, you’ll get the hang of the software and realize how simple it is to sort everything out on your computer. In fact, it’s usually as easy as selecting a few photos and dragging them into their respective folders on the left-hand side of the screen.

So, instead of stressing about organizing every single photo perfectly right now, I challenge you to embrace the disorder. Trust that you’ll tidy things up later on your computer with ease. And if your plan eventually involves archiving your original prints and film in new storage containers, remember, you can always go back and mirror the chronological order you’ve established digitally onto your physical prints. It’s all about working smarter, not harder.

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