Digitise your old photos, negatives and documents with this step-by-step guide

Last Updated: Friday 14 July 2023
Old photos in a box

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Do 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 old photos and documents, you’ll feel liberated (and your home will be way tidier).

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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.
House fire

If your home burnt down would you be relieved or devastated to have lost old photos? | Image courtesy of Canva

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 (grand)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.

Folder of papers

Digitising documents and photos takes time, but it's worth the effort | Image courtesy of Canva

Does it sound 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 those documents 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 to look at those old photos when you scan them. If you haven’t labelled your boxes (or folders) have a quick look at 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 grouping your boxes and folders by priority, so you have some neat piles you can work through (and see results as the piles get smaller/disappear).

Drop folder with papers

Prioritize your photos and documents before you start digitising | Image courtesy of 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) and share them with anyone. 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.

Looking at cloud image

Storing your digitised photos and documents in the cloud has many advantages | Image courtesy of 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 them 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 USD0.50 per item, getting someone else to digitise them, would cost you a whopping USD5,000.

Digitise yourself

If you do it yourself and you don’t have a good scanner, we recommend you buy one. When Paul started to digitise his photos/documents he used a Canon Pixma 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 cost a fortune.

Weighing up between scanner price, functionality and scan speed, we ended up purchasing an Epson Perfection 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 digitise yourself, 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 | Image courtesy of 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.

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 on extremely flexible criteria.

And if you’d like to take organising your newly digitised photos to a whole new level, check out this comparison of photo organizer software.

Rows of folders

Don't forget to organize your scanned photos and documents | IMage courtesy of 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 them 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? Make sure you protect your data and prevent identity fraud. Likewise, you wouldn’t want your very personal photos to end up in the wrong hands.
  • 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/plastic documents such as old passport ID pages, driver’s licenses and expired credit cards.
Shredded paper

Make sure you dispose of your digitized items safely | Image courtesy of 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. It’s also easier to grab in an emergency than a carload of shoe boxes. And if worse comes to worst, you have a copy in the cloud and can apply for a reissue.

Safe Custody Boxes

It may be worth storing some important original documents (after digitizing them) | Image courtesy of 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 something 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.
Piles of papers

Make sure no new paper piles are building up | Image courtesy of 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.

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.


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