Here’s your complete guide to digitizing ALL of your printed photos and VHS/CD videos. We’ll walk through how to get started, what tools you need, and how to keep up with ongoing photo organization. You can do this!
If you’re anything like me, you have bins and bins of photos. Most of them are undated and all are definitely out of order. When my parents downsized a few years ago, I offered to take the thousands of photos, mis-matched photo albums, random picture frames, and an entire box of VHS tapes. I ended up with all of my childhood photos, my parents’ wedding album, random photos from their childhoods, and on and on. I’m not sure what I was thinking- adding all of this physical “stuff” to our tiny city apartment- but some part of me thought this was a really great idea. And I’m so glad I did!
Initially, it’s a very overwhelming and daunting project. It’s a lengthy one, too. Once complete, however, it’s something that will give back to your family for generations to come. Imagine all of your family’s photos in one place- all files are easily accessible, and within seconds you can locate whatever photo you’re looking for. First family beach trip in 1990? Check. Christmas morning of 1993? You got it. 9th birthday party at the ice rink? They’re all right here. Imagine finally importing all of your photos from your phone and not dreading the process. Imagine the legacy you are creating- what a gift it is to share photos and videos- snapshots of life as we know it- with the next generation. This was my motivation for the entire digitization project.
In today’s digital world, having all of your photos and videos in one place makes it easy to share files and upload to electronic picture frames/TV screens (so you actually see them) and frees up so much physical space. No more bins to organize around and less real-life clutter (yes, I threw everything away at the end of this project!). You’re more likely to look through organized photos and actually do something with them when they’re easily accessible and digitized. And if you really need a printed copy of a photo, you can reprint whichever photos you need. Trust me on this one!
Remember, the goal of this project is to turn your complicated mess of photos into a simple system that works for you and your family. What I suggest worked for me, but it may not be best for you- read through these ideas, pick and choose and alter to fit your needs. PS: I am NOT very technologically savvy and am not a professional in any way.
Step by Step Guide to Digital Photo + Video Organization
Step 1: Inventory – Gather all of your photos, photo albums, videos, CDs, etc. ALL of them.
Place them in an unobtrusive area- someplace where you can keep them out and eventually begin to organize them (and somewhere that can be cluttered for a while). I used our kitchen table because we always ate at the island- and in our small apartment this was the only space we had. The goal of this step is to figure out what you’re working with- do you have a combination of photos/videos or just photos? Do not start organizing yet!
Step 2: Necessary Technology Items – Here are all of the technology items I used throughout the organization process.
- MacBook Pro Computer – you’ll need a place to import your files after scanning them. I have the 2.3GHz Quad-Core Processor 256GB Storage version. Any computer should work.
- Photo Scanner – you have a decision to make. You can use a service that will scan photos for you, or you can do it yourself. The cheapest option I found was about $0.10-$0.12 per photo – which doesn’t sound like a lot but when you have thousands to process it adds up quickly. I also chose to scan them myself to have more control over the organization system- more on that later. The scanner I purchased is pricy- but I’ll continue to use it in the future for any mementos, art projects, etc. It was also vastly less expensive than sending my photos out for scanning. I LOVE this scanner- it scans about 30 photos per minute (the tray holds 30 photos at a time), has the ability to scan the front and back of each photo (to capture any writing on the backs), and automatically labels each image based on what you set up as a labeling system. This scanner hooks up directly to your computer (check specifications to ensure this is accurate for your situation) so I was able to save all of the scanned files to my desktop.
- 4 Terabyte Hard Drive – you’ll need a place to store your photos once they are imported from the scanner to your computer’s desktop. I didn’t want to keep photos on my desktop- I wanted a separate storage place specifically for photos and videos. I did not want to use an online storage option such as the cloud, Amazon photos, Google Drive, etc. out of pure control. I don’t trust that files will stay in those places forever (things like this are constantly evolving) and didn’t feel like going through a file conversion process down the road. I purchased TWO hard drives- one to keep at home to update as I take more photos- and one that is in a safe deposit box that I upload on an annual basis. That way, if something happens to the one at home, I haven’t lost all of our photos. *Make sure you order a hard drive compatible for your computer. There are Mac and PC versions. Here is one for a PC (the one above is for a Mac). I chose 4TB because it was the biggest size available and I wanted to ensure all of my files would fit on one drive.
- External CD/DVD Drive – some of my photos and videos were on CDs. My computer does not have a CD drive, so I purchased this drive to import files from the CDs to my desktop.
- USB-C to USB Adapter – I used this adapter to connect the hard drive to my computer (and possibly the scanner to my computer- I don’t remember!). This is specifically a Mac item so you might not need this! My computer does not have a regular USB connection. Either way, you’ll need some way to connect the scanner and hard drive to your computer so check to be sure you have the correct connection cords.
Step 3: Watch Videos – Make sure the VHS tapes contain video footage that you actually want to convert to digital files.
Make it a family night! Watch the VHS tapes and create a pile of the tapes you want to convert to digital files. I was shocked at how many home videos had been taped over. It makes me sad to think about BUT at least we have some footage from back in the day! This process simply ensures that you are digitizing only tapes you want to hold onto. *I didn’t have a VHS player, so I borrowed one from a coworker.
Step 4: VHS Video Conversion to Digital Files – I could not do this myself so I outsourced this process.
There are many places that will convert VHS tapes to digital files. I used a company in Minneapolis called Saving Tape Media– only because we were living in Minneapolis when I began this project (their service was excellent!). I think Costco offers this service, but do some research and see what options are near you. I have mp4 files of my VHS tapes but talk to whichever company you use- I am no expert and I’m unsure of the various types of files! *Personally, I would not mail VHS tapes because if these tapes are lost in the mail, you’ll likely never get them back. I chose somewhere local where I could physically drop off my bin of VHS tapes.
Step 5: Create a Photo Organization Plan – Decide how you want to organize your photos.
Think about how you want to organize your photos. Do you want photos organized by decade? Year? Month? This is 100% up to you- decide what works best for YOU. I have a combination of decades and years.
Our photos from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s are organized first by decade- the decade is the main folder label on the hard drive. I made subfolders for each year of photos in each decade.
Photos from 1990-2019 are sorted by year- the year is the main folder on the hard drive. I made subfolders for each month (or season, special event, etc.) of photos in each year.
On your computer desktop, create a folder for each decade/year/month (whatever you choose). Then, create subcategories in each folder. These will live on your desktop until this photo project is complete! You will drag and drop files from your scanner/CDs/mp4 video files (when you have them back) into these folders.
Step 6: Import CD Photos – While your VHS videos are being converted, begin importing photos/videos from CDs.
I was able to quickly gather all of the CDs with photos (simply because they were easy to find in the midst of the physical photos). I started with CDs instead of physical photos because I wanted to feel like I was making some forward progress. Insert the CD into your computer (or use the external drive) and figure out what is on each CD. Following your organization plan, begin sorting these photos. Drag and drop files from each CD into their appropriate folders on your desktop. See step 5 above.
Step 7: Physical Photo Organization – Now it’s time to tackle the piles of photos!
Clear a large space for stacks of photos. You’ll make one stack for each year. Use pieces of paper to organize your photo stacks- essentially “paper labels” for each year. My stacks were organized like this: 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990-2018 by individual year. These labels will become your digital labels. Think of each paper label as an overarching folder on your computer. You can always adjust and change things up, but start somewhere. ANYWHERE. I chose to start with photo albums because these were most likely to be organized in some way. I removed the photos from each album, threw away the physical album, and placed the photos next to the corresponding paper label. Continue this process until your photo albums are finished. You’ll start to have little stacks of photos emerge!
Begin sorting the bins/boxes/folders of loose photos. It’s a very tedious process- I think it took us a total of 2 months to go through them all. This means our kitchen table was covered in photos for 2 months (photo below). We would work through as many photos as we could when time allowed, but we didn’t obsess about finishing this project in one day. Place photos next to the corresponding year’s paper label. *It was really funny to work through this process- I had a bowl cut in the early 90s and many of the photos were undated, so we used the “evolution of the bowl” to figure out which photos were from which years.
Once all of your loose photos are organized, you can begin scanning OR take it one step further. I chose to organize each year by month (and if month was too difficult to distinguish, then season). I simply took each stack of photos and began sorting them in chronological order. This involved a lot of guessing and simply trying my best to put them in order. It doesn’t need to be perfect- remember the photo mess you just organized? You have made so much progress already!
Step 8: Scan Photos – The fun part!
Watch all of your hard work come to fruition before your eyes! Connect your scanner to your computer and begin scanning the photos. There’s a way for the scanner to automatically label each photo, so definitely go through those steps before beginning. This option should pop up right away when you connect the scanner/begin scanning. *Each scanner is different- I am not an expert on this.
Move the scanned photo files into each appropriate folder on your desktop. Repeat until all of your photos are scanned and sorted on your desktop!
Step 9: Import Digital Video Files
I received a thumbdrive with all of our digital video files. Plug this into your computer and copy each file into the appropriate folder. You might receive files via email or link. You’ll download the video files and proceed as normal. *I decided to keep the thumbdrive of videos just in case something were to happen to the hard drives. I made copies of the video files and pasted them into each folder instead of moving the actual file off of the thumbdrive. I keep this thumbdrive with my second hard drive in the safe deposit box.
Step 10: File Transfer to Hard Drive
Label your hard drive (Original). Plug in your hard drive. Open your hard drive. One by one, make a copy of each folder on your desktop (just command C) and paste that folder into the hard drive. Do this for every single folder. This process takes a while- you are copying ALL of your files. Be patient!
Don’t delete any photo/video files from your desktop yet!
Step 11: File Transfer to Backup Hard Drive
Repeat step 10 using your backup hard drive. Label this hard drive (Copy). That way you know which one stays with you and which one goes into safe keeping.
Don’t delete any photo/video files from your desktop yet!
Step 12: Finalize Digitization Project
Make sure your files open. For about a week or two, plug in your hard drive and open random files. This is to double/triple check that you are able to open all of the files and there are no compatibility issues.
Once the photos and videos are safely on the hard drive(s) and you trust that everything has been imported successfully, now is the time to delete all of the files from your computer’s hard drive. You can also discard any physical photos that you do not want. *This is entirely up to you and your comfort level. I was confident in the photos on my hard drive so I threw away everything. EVERYTHING. It was very scary and I second guessed myself for about a week. Now, over a year later, I don’t regret that decision at all. I am not recommending you throw anything away- you do you and what works best for you.
Step 13: Regular Photo Uploads
Now that all of your photos are organized, make it a point to regularly import your photos from your phone/camera/etc. onto your Original hard drive. This should be a happy process, not a scary one! I set a calendar reminder to do this on the 1st of every month.
Every year, update the backup (Copy) hard drive with any new photos/files. Do this by plugging in your Original hard drive and copying any new folders onto your desktop. Eject the Original drive. Plug in your Copy drive. Drag the copied folder(s) onto the Copy drive. Your desktop should be clear and those files should now be on the Copy drive.
Whew! If you’re reading this, I applaud you. You made it! This is quite possibly the longest post I have ever written. I hope you find this helpful as you begin your photo and video digitization project. Please let me know if you have any questions or would like more information about this process!