Now could be the time to start digitizing your life

Simplify your life: How to digitise old photos, negatives and documents

Paul Ryken and Sandra Rosenau Last Updated: Friday 18 September 2020 Discover Minimalism, Limit your footprint, Work from anywhere Leave a Comment

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You want to simplify your life but have boxes upon boxes of old photos, photo albums, and even some 35mm negatives gathering dust in your attic or garage? What about those piles of old documents in your office and the recipe clippings in your kitchen? Isn’t it time you did something about them?

If your answer is a resounding Yes, followed by a quieter but, how do I go about it? don’t worry. We’ll guide you every step of the way. We don’t promise it’ll be easy. But we do promise that once you’ve digitised your life (old photos, documents and all) you’ll feel liberated (and your home is way tidier).

First up: Why bother

Before we jump into the how-to, let’s briefly talk about the why.

Imagine yourself coming home one day, and your home is no more: destroyed by fire, a flood or an earthquake. How would you feel about your old photos and documents?

  • Would you be devastated to have lost those precious mementoes? Your why is right there. Make sure you preserve them.
  • Would you be relieved because you don’t need them anyway? Don’t (bother). Just chuck them all out. You will save yourself a lot of work.
If your home burnt down would you be relieved or devastated to have lost old photos? | Photo by Michael Held on Unsplash

For most of us though it’s not that simple. It’s not one or the other but a bit of both. Hence our first step below, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Whether the why is to preserve family history (for yourself and your kids) or simply to have more space in your home and less to dust off… if you don’t do it (now) you only postpone the inevitable. When you need to move to a retirement home or (one day) pass away, it’s those who come after you that need to sort out what you couldn’t be bothered to do. Do you want to leave that legacy?

By the way, if you ever want to be truly location-independent, digitising your life is a MUST!

Also important: Manage your expectations

The (initial) digitisation process can seem like an insurmountable task, especially if you’ve got a lot of documents, photos and/or negatives to take care of.

But don’t fret: You can do it, and the rewards far outweigh the pain.

When we started, we had two bookshelves full of folders and boxes with photos, negatives and documents (mostly belonging to Sandra). Within a year, we reduced this to a thin folder of valuable originals we keep in a safety deposit box. We digitised on rainy weekends and many evenings after work. Once you get started you’ll develop a routine which makes you faster as you go along.

Digitizing documents and photos takes time, but it's worth the effort | Photo by Jana Schneider on Pixabay

All sounds reasonable? Okay, let’s get started.

Step 1: Prioritise

Before you get started, assess what you have and prioritise – box by box, folder by folder. What works well are post-it notes or stickers with numbers: 1 = most important, 5 = no longer needed.

  • Most important are for example birth/marriage/graduation certificates and those precious photos you’d be most upset about losing.
  • No longer needed would be documented way beyond the time required to keep for tax purposes, receipts that you can’t read anymore, old school workbooks, etc.

A word of advice: Don’t go through your boxes and look at EVERY. SINGLE. PHOTO. You’ll get sidetracked, reminiscing about times gone by, and won’t get anything done. You’ll have plenty of time looking at those old photos when you scan them. If you haven’t labelled your boxes (or folders) have a quick look what’s in them (and write it on the outside). Then prioritise and move on to the next box/folder.

Finally, if you have the space we recommend to group your boxes and folders by priority, so you have some neat piles you can work through (and see results as the piles get smaller).

Prioritize your photos and documents before you start digitizing | Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash
Prioritize your photos and documents before you start digitizing | Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

Step 2: Determine your storage solution

While a lot of people still seem to use (external) hard drives, we recommend storing your scans in the cloud: Microsoft OneDrive is our favourite. Other consumer-based options are iCloud, GoogleDrive or Dropbox.

The advantage? You can access your photos and documents from anywhere (which is great if you need a copy of your passport in case you’ve been robbed while travelling). The likelihood that a data centre burns down or is destroyed by floods (without any backups) is also minuscule in comparison to an (external) hard-drive corrupting. The other advantage of storing your data in the cloud is that you can easily add storage as needed.

Storing your digitized photos and documents in the cloud has many advantages | Photo by Rawpixel on Pixabay
Storing your digitized photos and documents in the cloud has many advantages | Photo by Rawpixel on Pixabay

Step 3: Digitise

Depending on how many photos and/or documents you have to take care of and whether you have a deadline looming/how much time you’ve got, you have two options:

  1. Engage someone else to digitise for you; or
  2. Do it yourself.

Get someone else to digitise for you

This might be your only option if you are (truly) time-poor. It may also be a viable option if you can’t or don’t want to afford the equipment required to digitise. Here are some professional providers you may want to check out:

However, be aware this option can be costly, and it can easily cost you more than buying (and subsequently selling) the equipment. Professional digitisation services usually charge per photo/document. Let’s assume you have 10,000 photos/documents. For $0.50 per item, getting someone else to digitise them, would cost you a whopping $5,000.

Digitise yourself

If you do it yourself and don’t have a good scanner, we recommend you buy one. When Paul started to digitise his photos/documents he used a Canon Pixma TS6320 Scanner. However, since Sandra had a whole box of 35mm negatives, we needed to look for another option: The Canon couldn’t handle negatives, and getting those negatives scanned professionally would have been exorbitantly expensive.

Weighing up between scanner price, functionality and scan speed, we ended up purchasing the Epson Perfection V370 Photo Scanner in Australia. We sold the scanner after we digitised all our old photos, negatives and documents for the same price in New Zealand. So, all it cost us, in the end, was our time. If you’re looking for a scanner that’s right for your needs this scanner review might help you.

Slowly work your way through all boxes and folders, starting with those labelled 1, and then moving to 2, 3 and 4. Digitising your old photos, negatives and/or documents is a great task for rainy afternoons (and grizzly, cold winter weekends).

Pick a scanning solution based on your needs | Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash
Pick a scanning solution based on your needs | Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

Step 4: Organise

Whether someone else digitises for you or you do it yourself, you will need to organise your (digitised) photos, negatives and documents yourself.

Create a filing system

First, create a digital folder system that makes it easy for you to find your scanned documents and/or photos. Then determine a naming template that works for you, for example, YYYYMMDD_Description. If you have several photos capturing the same thing you could add a run number at the end:

  • YYYYMMDD_Description_001,
  • YYYYMMDD_Description_002, etc.

Embed metadata in image files

Windows Photo Gallery allows you to tag people, geotag the location and add the date a photo was taken – without changing the file name of your scanned photo. The metadata you enter is embedded in the image file.

Why could this be useful?

  • You can keep all your photos in one folder, and just use a filing system for your documents.
  • Embedded metadata allows you to filter by location or person and sort by date – enabling you to quickly access photos of your children from birth to today (great for that slide show at your son’s 21st or your daughter’s wedding).

To make your life easier, there is also a Bulk Rename Utility which, as the name implies, allows you to easily rename files and entire folders based upon extremely flexible criteria.

Don't forget to organize your scanned photos and documents | Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash
Don't forget to organize your scanned photos and documents | Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

Step 5: (Safely) Dispose

As you scan your photos, negatives and/or documents, place the ones you’ve processed (and don’t want to keep) into a box labelled 5 (no longer needed). When the box is full dispose of its content… SAFELY!

Why is it important and how do you dispose of safely?

  • Why: Imagine you chucked old bank statements, ID documents or utility bills with your name and (still valid) address into your household bin. How easy would it be for someone to steal your identity and open a credit card account in your name? Likewise, you wouldn’t want your very personal photos to end up in the wrong hands. Make sure you protect your data and prevent identity fraud.
  • How: Void your processed photos, negatives and/or documents by burning them (fully) or shredding them. We shredded all our processed items using a Home Office Shredder – including CDs with medical images, laminated documents such as old passport ID pages and drivers licenses, and expired credit cards.
AmazonBasics 8-Sheet Capacity, Cross-Cut Paper and Credit Card Shredder, 4.1 Gallon
  • Cross-cut shred size: turns paper into small confetti-like pieces measuring 3/16 by 1-27/32 inches (5 by 47 mm); meets security level P-3 standards
  • Sheet capacity: shreds up to 8 sheets of 20-pound bond paper at a time (no need to remove staples or small paper clips); also destroys credit cards (one at a time)
  • Run time and thermal protection: 3 minutes on / 30 minutes off; if shredder runs continuously beyond the max run time, it will automatically shut off to protect the motor from overheating
  • User-friendly design: 3-mode control switch (auto, off, reverse); overheat LED indicator; 8.7-inch paper-entry width; easy-to-empty 4.1-gallon bin with see-through window
  • Support and warranty: please refer to user manual, troubleshooting guide, and instructional video before use; the user guide on this detail page covers issues related to the shredder turning on
Make sure you dispose of your digitized items safely | Photo by Hans Braxmeier on Pixabay
Make sure you dispose of your digitized items safely | Photo by Hans Braxmeier on Pixabay

Step 6: (Safely) Retain

There may be some important documents (for example, birth and citizenship certificates, marriage and divorce certificates, graduation certificates, etc) you may want to retain as originals (after you digitised them).

To safely store those few documents (and any valuables we wanted to keep), we decided to hire a safety deposit box in a bank vault, which costs us NZD200 a year. You may have a safe at home and could store them there. If neither is an option for you, even storing them in a single folder, protected from the elements in plastic sleeves might be a better solution than you have now. And if worse comes to worst, you have a copy in the cloud and can apply for a reissue.

It may be worth storing some important original documents (after digitizing them) | Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash
It may be worth storing some important original documents (after digitizing them) | Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

Finally: How to remain paperless

With digital photography now commonplace, most people won’t have any further physical photos to take care of once they’ve digitised their old ones. If they do pop up (for example, when your parents pass away and you want to preserve some old family photos for future generations) then simply follow the same few steps above.

Our recommendation for handling documents going forward:

  • Reduce paper: Opt to receive any communication from banks, utility providers and the like via email (or access statements and invoices as needed online). Save important communication in your filing system in the cloud. Reducing paper is also better for the environment.
  • Avoid new piles: If you do have anything that needs to be scanned, do it straight away. These days, you don’t need to wait until you are at home to scan an invoice/receipt or other documents. We use the Office Lens Smartphone app that allows you to scan with your phone camera and upload your scans straight into the cloud. Make sure though you still dispose of those processed items safely.
Make sure no new paper piles are building up | Photo by Ag Ku on Pixabay
Make sure no new paper piles are building up | Photo by Ag Ku on Pixabay

Interested in further readings? Scan Your Entire Life is a dedicated blog that can answer questions you didn’t even know you had.

SaleBestseller No. 1
Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World
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Bestseller No. 2
Digital Minimalism: Discover How to Clear the Clutter So You Can Regain Your Focus, Passions and Live Life Again
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Digital Minimalism in Everyday Life: Overcome Technology Addiction, Declutter Your Mind, and Reclaim Your Freedom (Mindfulness and Minimalism)
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If our guide helped you digitise your life we’d be stoked to hear from you. If you used a professional service, who did you go with and how much did it cost? Please leave a comment below.

Feature photo by Christopher Flynn on Unsplash

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Simplify your life: How to digitise old photos, negatives and documents
Simplify your life: How to digitise old photos, negatives and documents
Simplify your life: How to digitise old photos, negatives and documents

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