Genealogy How Tos · Photo and film scanning · Photo History

The family picture scanning project: how I digitized 3000 images in my spare time

This is a story about a family project. You may have a similar project mouldering away on your To Do list. In this story, I’m going to talk about how and why the project got started, the steps to getting the project done, and the unexpected bonuses I found.


When my grandmother passed away in 2013, she left piles of photo albums, boxes of negatives, and hundreds of printed rolls of film still in their paper envelopes. The entire collection filled  four whole apple crates. What on earth were we going to do with them?

My uncle volunteered to drive them home, a province away.

I volunteered to scan them all.


 – The contents of one apple crate. Now multiply this by 4. Copyright 2018. Past Presence. All rights reserved.

Several months later, I sat in my basement looking at the boxes. I had no idea how I was going to do this. My grandparents had photos from the 1930s to the 2000s. Each time I opened a box, I’d get lost flipping through the photo albums. I was daunted by the thousands of photos with no names or dates. How was I going to organize this mess?

My grandparents were both social and frugal – they’d fill a photo album with photos from one occasion, then fill the remaining spaces with random photos that fit. This method obviously worked for them, since they knew the people and the places, but without that intimate knowledge, I was lost.

I put the project away again.

I did this a few times before thinking, hey, I bet someone else out there has had this problem and already solved it. That’s when I found Curtis Bisel’s site Scan Your Entire Life.

It was a lightbulb moment.

The gear: A flatbed Canon Canoscan 8400F, two backup drives and a PC running Windows 7. Copyright 2018. Past Presence. All rights reserved.

It’s now four years later. For 2.5 years, I made great progress, scanning ~100 at a time in 34 scanning sessions. The hardest part was getting started: organizing, sorting, and making decisions on important basics such as scanning resolution and filename conventions. I also needed to decide what to do with the photos once scanned – how to store them long term and on a budget.

The next hardest decision was what to scan first. Open a box and choose at random? Pick an album? Do all the colour prints first? I opted to do the ones that most appealed to me: the old black and white photos.
Sample 1940s era photo of 2 stylish women, Vancouver, BC.Copyright 2018. Past Presence. All rights reserved.

In hindsight, I don’t recommend this, because despite all the prep work, I inevitably refined my processes as I went along. Then again, I might not have found the project as fascinating, and might not have continued. Hard to say. In the end, I did spend time rescanning and revising filenames. By the end of the second scanning session, I was on a roll, happily spending weekends and evenings immersed in the past. I worked from oldest to newest, and scanned just over 3200 images: all the tiny black and whites, all the white bordered 60s & 70s prints with fading ink, and the majority of the old family photos.

Then my scanner died and I didn’t have the cash to replace it. The project was put on hold.


I kept a journal to track my scanning progress, but it became a place to gather my questions about the family.

In the absence of dates, research and logic became my go-to tools for solving the mysteries I was uncovering. When I found my grandparents’ wedding photo, I wanted to know everything about it: where and when did it take place, who was in the photo, and even who was the photographer? I found a few answers by searching the online archives at the Royal BC Museum for the marriage licence, and the BC City Directories for the photography studio.

Other photo mysteries are ongoing. I found dozens of photos from the 1930s and 40s, all addressed to “Dora”. Who was Dora? I learned that Dora was my grandfather’s sister, and that Dora was her English name. So far, I’ve tried and failed to find an original document that has both English and Chinese names, which would confirm which of my grandfather’s two sisters was the girl named Dora who loved exchanging photos with her pen pals.


Thanks to a generous Christmas gift, I’m back on track. I’ve ordered a hi-speed photo scanner, brought up a box of photos from the basement, and begun the task of sorting all the photos in it. This box is nearly all travel-related. It’s taken me two nights to sort, but I’m not in a hurry. Besides, I love the stories unfolding in the photos, like a super slow-motion video. Also, I found that my grandfather was diligent about recording travel dates and locations on the cheap plastic holders that came free with film processing, which hugely helps organizing and sorting.


So I’m not quite halfway done, but the new high-speed photo scanner will make a huge difference in my projected completion date: from ~Spring 2021 to December 2018. That’s something to celebrate.
Copyright 2018. Past Presence. All rights reserved.

Another reason to celebrate: I’m learning that a project like this – scanning an entire family’s photos over the course of 5 years – can become a powerful genealogical search tool. Pictures resonate with life and vitality in a way that words and documents cannot, and in the days before Photoshop, it was once true that a picture never lies.

Lastly, this time spent poring over images has given me a rich mental picture of what life was like back then. When I close my eyes, I can almost stand beside my grandfather in front of his store, looking onto Main Street and thinking about the future.
A police officer stands outside a Vancouver Chinatown shop. About 1925. Copyright 2018. Past Presence. All rights reserved.

This has been a huge help in my genealogical journey, helping me make intuitive leaps over the gaps in the document trail. The search for Chinese Canadian genealogy feels like detective work because it is a search to find marginalized and misunderstood people living on the periphery of society. If you think that’s a bit harsh, then I gently remind you that the Chinese were not considered citizens in this country until granted the vote in 1948. See my posts on it here and here.

It’s like wall climbing – the path up is the expert line, and progress can only be made by getting stronger, taking big leaps of faith, and pushing the limits.


Do you have boxes of loose photos from the past 50 years and no clue how to organize them? In my next blog post, I’ll share my tricks for getting the job done.

10 thoughts on “The family picture scanning project: how I digitized 3000 images in my spare time

    1. I’m so glad! I know I felt very alone during the first few years of this project – alone, and overwhelmed. Rest assured, as you get going on your project, that I’ll be following along. I can’t wait to see what discoveries you make.

      Some people suggest that you should not bother scanning the photos of people you don’t recognize. For myself, I’m a believer in scanning everything. For one thing, those photos are a record of your family’s Friends, Associates, and Neighbours, or the F.A.N. Club as coined by Elizabeth Shown Mills. In my family, my grandfather had a younger sister who died in her 20s. Her loss was so hard, he never spoke of her, so she was a mystery when I found the photos of her, long after he was gone. There was nobody I could ask. By scanning the hundreds of photos and cards, I eventually worked out who the mysterious “Dora” was, and by posting a few of those photos on a FB group, people recognized their own relations and were kind enough to ID them. In so doing, I found more clues about the mysterious Dora, my grandfather’s lost little sister. Without those photos of people I didn’t know, to a woman I didn’t know, I doubt I’d have found her at all.

      If I can help you at any point duriing your project, say the word! I’m excited for your future discoveries.

      1. Thank you so much you are providing me with lots of inspiration and just as important lots of confidence. I am a firm believer of scanning all connections to both my living and deceased family members, they are all a part of the fabric that helps to make up who I am today. I also think its important for my children and eventual grandchildren to know who their ancestors were. I have printed off all your wonderful blogs and links today and will sit down and have a read later. There is so much there and its so kind of you to share all this with me and its very much appreciated. I am sure that I will call on your expertise at some point as I progress through my project so thank you for the kind offer of help, best wishes Paul

      2. You are very welcome and please feel free to ask me anything that comes up for you as you go along.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.