How to Catalog Photos, Albums and Negatives

When I started working on the family history, I was confronted with loose photos, negatives and a few half-finished albums covering 3 large tables. The photographs were piled in no particular order, with duplicates and negatives stored in many different places. It took many months to get the project under control, and though I now have a system, the process of organizing the whole mess is still only about 1/3 of the way done.

Physical Pictures

The first thing to do is separate large pictures from regular sized pictures. By large pictures, I mean pictures too big to fit in a regular album. These will need their own home.

Album sized pictures should be arranged in albums. Large pictures, or ones in thick cardboard display folders, should be stored in photo boxes large enough to protect them from being bent. I assign a number to each box, and number each picture. I write these numbers on each image. See more about labeling pictures below.


When choosing an album, choose ones with acid free paper and use acid free adhesives (either in the "magic" self-sealing type of pages, or in the glues and photo corners to place them on a page.) Once the pictures are arranged, I recommend using small labels (I like the little 1/2" white, rectangular ones.) to number each one.

Each album should also be numbered. I use a 3" x 5" index card to write the album number and I use photo corners to affix it to the inside front cover of each album. I recommend that you number the albums and the boxes together, so that you don't have more than one "Album/Box" with the number 14.

After arranging and numbering the pictures, I recommend labeling each one with the following:

  • The names of all the people in the image, in an order that makes sense with the way people are in the picture (left to right, or top to bottom). Include maiden names if known.
  • Add the album number and the picture number on the back, so, you'll know where to return the "loose" picture if you take it out to scan it.
  • If there is a negative for the photo, or more than one copy, I note that on the back as well, and indicate where the duplicate and negative are stored.
  • The place (and date) the picture was taken, if known.

I try to group pictures by family group or theme. (i.e. wedding pictures, or war era pictures.) I also like to organize them chronologically, to show the progression of the family over time. In some cases, I've picked albums that can be expanded with additional page refills, just to make sure to keep all the images of each theme together.


I try to keep the negatives for each roll of film together, preferably in the envelope they were received from the lab. Each envelope should be numbered.

Negatives need to be stored so that they won't get scratches, and are away from heat or excessive light. I use a photo box, and store all the envelopes in the same box. So far, I've not needed more than one box.

Digitizing Your Collection

The best way to permanently preserve your pictures is to digitize them. If you have a film camera, it helps to ask for a CD of the pictures when you have them developed. This will save you the time and effort of scanning them individually.

If you only have the print of the picture, you will need to scan it. But, scanning is just the beginning, and there is much to consider, such as organization, resolution, and whether you want to improve the image's quality, which is a great option for an old, damaged or faded print.

Organizing the files

I organize my digital files according to the same numbering system as the pictures, which means that the numbering system can do double duty. I make a folder on my computer with the same name/number as the album it lives in. Then, I name each file with a name that not only includes the album and picture number, but, with a bit more about the picture. For example, a picture that has no people in it, but, shows a family home, I label like this: House_1895_040011, where 1895 is the approximate year the picture was taken, and "04" is the album number, and 11 is the photo's number. I use the zeros to make sure the files sort correctly. There are two zeros in from of the 11, since I anticipate I'll have at least 1000 pictures in the album. If the image is a person, I put their surname in place of "house." If it's a group of people, I use either the predominate family surname, or I use "Group."

To keep a master record of all the images, I started with an excel document. Sadly, it quickly became too large, and I had to make a full-fledged database. This database came in handy when I went to make CDs of the pictures for the rest of the family, as I could make the disk sortable.


When scanning the images, you'll want to consider the resolution you are scanning the photos. The larger the resolution, the more memory it will take to store it.

If the file's destination is the internet or you have limited digital storage capacity, you may want to use lower resolution. If you intend to print the files, then you'll need a higher resolution.

I've started to have a high resolution version and a low resolution version, so that I don't have to re-scan anything later. Scanning takes time, and memory can be had relatively inexpensively. I use the same file names, but add an "sm" after the number for the "smaller" resolution file.

Improving the Picture Quality

Image editing software can vastly improve the quality of your images. Photographic gremlins like red eye, or poor contrast can be corrected easily with some basic software that can be had for free. Google's photo software, Picasa, is also a very handy tool for organizing your picture files.

Other damage such as scratches or cracks can be smoothed out, making the digital copy of the image an improvement over the existing print.

For "heavy lifting" I use Photoshop or GIMP, which is a available for free. Please note: This software was originally written for Mac computers. To use it on a PC, you'll need to be sure to get the software patch.

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