What To Do With Your Old Photos

photo albums and box of loose photos









This week will be all about photos: culling, saving, storing and sharing. Today’s post is about what to do with your old photos.

Before paring down my hard copy photo collection my photos sat in a photo storage box and three photo albums. The box came with little index cards to separate and identify stacks of photos but at some point I gave up and they were all  jumbled up.

The photo albums were a set. They had plastic sleeves for three 4 x 6 photos to a page. The third photo album was only half full. I stopped doing much with photo albums once I had my own digital camera in 2002.

In some ways the digital age saved me on this project. I am turning 35 this year. My big photo milestones – baby, marriage – have been captured digitally and stored on a hard drive.

What I’m saying is: if you have a lot of hard copy photos paring them down will take some time. Don’t worry. My digital photos have also been a lot of work to pare down. So we’re even. More about digital photos later this week.

How to declutter hard copy photographs:

  • Organize your photos in a timeline. I did mine in stacks like this:

Note:I also included some newspaper clippings and other paper mementos in my stacks. You can too if you’re scanning them or creating a storage system.

  • Cull like crazy. I had to laugh at how many terrible photos I kept. Terrible photos that really had no significance and didn’t help tell a story. At the time it was really important to me to take a photo of the classroom we slept in at the 1993 BC Summer Games. But years later that photo told me nothing. It was the photos of my teammates and friends, laughing, racing, swimming in a lake, those were the ones I wanted to see again. Of course, terrible photos can also be charming and remind you of a different time. Just that fact that we have terrible photos says something. Nowadays bad photos are deleted before anyone can see them.
  • Honour your past but don’t cling to it. What story do you want to tell your grandchildren, your children or your friends and relatives with these photos? It’s a morbid thought but thinking about a relative of mine going through my photos once I am gone has helped me let go of a lot of photos. Maybe a few dozen photos from your youth are enough. I know when I look through my mother’s photos from her childhood I enjoy how precious the photos are. There aren’t that many so each one is studied with care; the photo of her at the age of two on a ship headed to the far east and the one of her as a teenager hugging her father in their garden.
  • Decide if you want to digitize. I recommend getting digital copies of old photos for many reasons. First, it’s a great way to share them. Who doesn’t enjoy getting an email with a blast from the past photo? When I was sorting my photos I took pictures of some of them and sent them to friends. Every friend emailed me back saying they’d really enjoyed the photo. Second, digitizing is a great way to store photos. I’m not one to worry about floods and fires too much but it’s nice to know that I have photos securely stored away digitally in a few spots. I’ll talk about digital photo storage options later this week.
  • Scan or take photographs of your old photos. After putting in some time at the scanner I decided to pay to have my photos scanned. The service was quite reasonable and I am happy with the result. One thing I am not happy about is that the service still hasn’t sent me my photos back. There were a few odd challenges and a postal strike but really, no excuse. It’s been almost a year. Your other option is to photograph your photographs. Once you’ve set up your photo station it’s pretty quick. Here is a tutorial on how to photograph or scan old photos.
  • Decide if you want to keep all of your hard copy photos. I didn’t. So I haven’t been too wrecked about the scanning service not getting my photos back to me. I do have a small collection of loose photos at the moment. They are mostly photos that family have printed off and given me. Yes, people still print photos. They are all copies of photos that I already have the digital file of. It’s okay to keep your photos or toss them once you have stored the digital copies in a few places for safekeeping.
  • Display and share your old photos. Now that you’ve gone to the trouble of organizing, culling and scanning your photos give them their due. Display them in photo albums that are easily accessible in your home. Take the album with you the next time you visit a family member. If you’re going to keep things use them.

One of the reasons I decided I didn’t need most of my hard copy photos was that I wasn’t looking at them much. I have photos in frames around the house and we use our television as a photo album. We don’t have cable so our television is connected to an Apple TV box. I set up a photo album for the Apple TV and it rotates through the photos when the tv is on but nothing is playing. It’s been a great way to share photos with friends when they visit and remind Henry of his family in Canada.

Has anyone done something interesting with old photos? Mural? Decoupage? Turned them into postcards?

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  • Some really great ideas here- thank you! I’m lucky that most of my ‘life event’ photos are on digital. I do worry about the childhood ones, one day my sisters and I have some work to do. Until then they are in a friend’s cellar, dry but hardly ideal!

    • I have some work to do on family photos as well. Wish I had scanned and sorted my mother’s collection when we were still living in Canada. Perhaps I’ll get around to them when I am back visiting one of these times.

  • I’ve gotten pretty much everything scanned and digital except for my 12×12 scrapbooks of my childhood and college days. There’s about 5-6 of them, and, looking at a possible move abroad in a year, (there’s no way I’m shipping or lugging those heavy things) I’d love if anyone has come up with a way to digitize them. They’re too big to scan on a regular scanner, but I’d love to have them to share with my kids as they reach different milestones.

      • I don’t know if my camera isn’t good enough, if the lighting wasn’t good enough, if I was expecting too much, or what, but I tried taking pictures and the resolution turned out really poorly. You couldn’t see any of the detail of the individual pictures that were on the scrapbook page. Has anyone had a lot of success with taking pictures of 12×12 and having it turn out well? If so, I might try again, because it certainly would be a lot easier than finding somewhere to scan them.

        • Perhaps bring the pages to a good photocopy place? They usually have industrial sized machines and can make a decent colour copy for you?

          Or take an “overall photo” of the whole page, but then do close up shots of each individual item for clarity. Don’t use a flash on your camera setting, and the best light is natural on an overcast day. If you have a macro setting on your camera, experiment with that too. If you have a telephoto / zoom lens, it may be best to step back a little bit and zoom in – instead of trying to get really close.

          Good luck!

          • I have seen companies like Staples in Canada photocopy scrapbook pages with very good results.

  • Ugh, photos are the one thing that we haven’t made a good dent in. We currently have several plastic storage bins full of photos, and they are taking up way too much space in our closet. We tend to take a lot of pictures, so it’s going to take some time to go through. Maybe if we get a rainy weekend, we can spend some indoor time going through them and culling out the duplicates, bad, and meaningless photos. That would definitely be a good start.

  • I used to love my photos and scrapbooking them. I used to love my family tree collection. In this digital age, I have come to see them as a burden. Another chore to complete. And I dread even thinking about them now. I think I need this week with you to help me make some decisions and get some things accomplished.

  • This is one of my summer projects, so this post is very useful and timely for me. I have loads of old photos from my college days through my early 30’s that I really need to go through (after that it’s all digital)– things that seemed so important at the time but no longer require 100 photos to document the experience. I look forward to your post about digital photos next week.

  • We have multiple storage containers of photos, going back generations, and that is something I will sort and then pay for an outside firm to scan for me. (Will take me too much time to do it myself and in this sense, time is money….so I’ll spend the money to save myself the time!)

    I just completed going through old childhood papers, clippings, announcements, school things etc. I took digital photos and then tossed the items. It was a relief to bin it all. An emotional and rather painful process to sort, but once it was done – a relief, an invisible weight lifted from my shoulders. I will move on to the scrapbooks in the same way – sort, take a digital photo of the items / pages – and cut out items glued to pages if necessary. The books themselves are far too heavy and bulky, not to mention rather dusty and such. If there was a fire – I know they would be left behind. Also, back when I started to put them together, I wasn’t aware of such archival materials that would help maintain them too. (Rubber cement is not good for paper.) By taking a picture and saving them that way, I do not negate my past and the special memories, I’m just saving them in a different format. Like an upgrade!

  • I go back and forth with this all the time… I don’t print pictures on a regular basis, but I have also had some digital storage scares and nightmares. I just wonder what the technology will be X years down the road. Will we even be able to access our photos in the format they are in right now. Will my grandchildren know that I have soo many digital photos? Except for fire, flood, etc., a printed photos will always be around to look at and digitize in the technology flavor of the day. Are others pondering the same?

    • I am so interested in this topic. I inherited my mother’s photo collection so I have loose snapshots going back to the 1940s. Oodles and oodles of them. I have digital photos on an old desktop computer that is so slow I’m not sure I can even access them. I lost a bunch of photos that were stored on my laptop when it locked up on me and had to be wiped out to reconfigure it. I don’t see a good solution unless they’re stored in the cloud somwhere. And honestly, I don’t know enough about it to even understand what I just said! This is really an area where I am frozen into place because I’m terrified to make a move.

      • This is exactly how I feel! I ended up at this website as I am going through things at my mom’s house. She has moved into an assisted living facility and there is limited room. ALL the photos, important documents etc, come to me and my already full home. (I’m an only child). Mom has tons and tons of pictures. I don’t even know where to start! I think for now I will go through them and cull out the ones of me that I deem unimportant. (I don’t need six pics of me getting a perm!) and then label everything and store them in archival photo boxes. I’m not sure I trust my computer to keep them. I don’t have the time to sit and scan them all anyway. I already have on display old pics of my dad, his parents, my mom, her family etc. Maybe more inspiration will come to me as I get started.

  • I am a graphics girl, you mentioned that taking a photo of an old picture would be higher resolution than scanning, can you elaborate on this and how you came to that conclusion? I have never heard that and am interested in how that is possible. I guess if you had a cheap poor quality scanner vs. a great camera, but I would think that if you scan in your photo at say 300-600dpi and you camera is set at 300-600dpi, the resolution would be the same, by scanning you would not have to worry about glares and flash area that you would by taking a photo. Please elaborate, I am very interested in wrapping my brain around this concept.

    • Yes, I am comparing my terrible home scanner to my higher resolution point and shoot.
      If you have any recommendations on this process please chime in. Love to hear from an expert.

  • This post is really timely for me. I have tons of photos (my own and inherited family albums). I have paired down a lot, but am going to need to do own more tough round! I returned my scanner and found my iphone works well enough to upload most of the images.

  • One thing I think you’ve got over me is a good memory! It’s pretty common for your to talk about how you’re okay with tossing photos and heirlooms because the memories and stories are still there… Unfortunately, my memory is more like a sieve! I need those heirlooms and photos to trigger the memories, otherwise they’d vanish.

    I’ve found that scrapbooking really works for me – but i’m childless and just graduated university, so I certainly have the time for it. Scrapbook page size forces me to pick 1-3 photos to tell a story (making exceptions for big even. The only loose prints I have are those waiting to be put on a page; they’re always sorted and carefully picked before being printed. As for my digital photos, every couple months I go through the automatically created folders on my computer, tag the good photos and delete the bad ones, and then move them to a single “pictures” folder. (I dislike the visual clutter of tons of folders, and tagging allows you to categorize photos by multiple criteria) Then I can use simple software (windows live photo gallery, or the basic windows photo browser) to find all the images I have of, say, my sister, and quickly sort them chronologically!

    • Oops! I’m on my phone right now… I thought I had caught all the errors and typos in my comment, but I guess not! Hope you can still understand it!

  • All of my husband’s family photos were on slides, meaning no one had ever seen any of them. So I got a hand held veiwer and culled ruthlessly 6000 down to 900. I put them in catagories rather than chronologically. But then chronologically in each catagory as best I could. I sent them out to be put on professional DVD. This way each catagory can be watched witout watching the entire DVD. I threw away any that didn’t make the cut. I still don’t know what to do with the travel pictures of Asia and Europe from the 1960’s that have no people in them and who knows what temple or monument was so important. The printed pictures I also culled ruthlessly. No scenery or pictures of people I didn’t know or duplicates. They were also put in boxes by catagory. Now my in-laws who have dementia can have the caregivers put on the DVD of the best years of their lives and enjoy. Best of all it never has to be done again.

  • One thing I suggest with photos whether printed or digital is to date them and list the people on them. My uncle died recently and going through his old photos I have no idea who most of the people on them are – some are family, some friends. I would like to know but it’s too late now.

  • I am trying to figure out what to do with really old photos I have that have been collected for years by my family members. I am currently the oldest member of the family and so I hope i remember who many of the people are, or recognize them because of their offspring . These pictures go back to the civil war. I don’t know who all of the people are since many are not labeled. I do not want to through these away simply because they are so cool and a part of history. i also have some letters written to family members during the civil war.
    Any suggestions. I am already digitizing the ones of people I do know who they are.

  • Hi Everyone, Just read the MinimalistMom and What To Do with Your Old Photos. I just created a new company and still in the process of doing a website with same name.

    Personally, I’ve always enjoyed working with photos but have become more interested in the Old photos left to us by relatives. I’ve created two family albums already and am working on my third. What I did was to do a little digging in genealogy and was lucky enough to have lots of information left to me by my Dad. Things like finding a picture of the ship my grandparents came to America on and the manifest with their names printed. I included all of this into my album. What I am saying is, leaving something for our children to show them who came before them. I always believed we are who we were. If you have old photos, grandparents, great uncles, etc., keep them and scan them just as they are.

    So, what you can do with old photos is find someone like me who will pull them all into a photo album for you. I use special vintage papers and embellishments, etc. Creating a treasure to hand down to the next generation is priceless and leaves our children with something to hand down to their children, etc. and so it goes.

    Thanks for listening.


  • I digitized my old photos with my iPad using a $2.99 app called Pic Scanner (www.appinitio.com/picscanner). The neat bit is that it scans and automatically crops up to three photos simultaneously, so it’s really fast. I think it also works on iPhone; not sure about Android.

  • Years ago I started putting each year of photos into photo books so everything has been in date order for quite some time. In the past few years I’ve scanned everything into the computer (year order) and have been putting each year onto CD’s. I have 4 kids, so each one is getting copies of the CD’s I’ve also been dividing up the physical copies and culling out pictures that aren’t all that good. I do my own copies if I want duplicates at our local department store photo dept (doesn’t cost too much). So far, although, it’s been a bit of a job, it’s working out well.

  • I am going through my digital collection of 7400 photos dating back to 2002. Then I plan to load my pre digital ones on the mac. I’m 51 so quite a lot to do. I’ve found iPhoto excellent for sorting, classifying and labelling photos. I’ve made a photo book for each year since 2002 and I’ll save these books to CD or usb stick and give them to my two teenage boys when they leave home. A costly exercise, a printed iPhoto book of 44 pages costs $100 but the quality and ease of making them makes it worthwhile. Also they don’t take up a lot of space.
    Thanks for the tips on keeping things in perspective on what to keep and what to ditch. I’ve found looking back at lots of old holiday photos that’s the area where most photos can get culled!

    I’ve blocked off the whole of October to finally spend full time doing this and try and get up to speed. I think I’ll get a separate hard drive to put all my photos on.

  • Oh my gosh. others trying to figure it out too! I took every picture out of my photo albums and put them in a huge basket. I found a spot in my home to start putting the photos into piles. Every once in a whle i will grab a pile of pics and put them into the correct pile. The piles are my relatives…old friends…etc. I mail the pictures to them so they can enjoy them so they can pass them onto their kids. I hate having them clutter up my closet and not being enjoyed. Some of the pictures of all the kids when we were little ..i take a picture and text to my family members. Some of the cool ones from the 60’s when we were little are put on facebook and post them as throwback thursday. I get so many likes on these pictures cause it brings us 50 something year olds a smile to remember the old days. Old pictures need to be enjoyed ..not sit in my closet. What a rewarding project to spread joy with my hidden treasures. Oh..i threw out so many. I did keep one album that went through my whole life ..pics when i was little..graduating…first house…etc. old boyfriends…pets.. I have so many pics of me when i was little that i am thinking of buying a big picture frame and putting them in there and hanging them in a spot that i walk by every day that i can enjoy. Seems a shame that these cute pics are just sitting in the closet not being enjoyed. That is cool to have that and it makes it easy for your family members in case something every happens to you and they have to go through all your old photos. My goal at the end of the winter is to have all the pics gone and just one photo album through the years. That would be a few pics from a vacaton i took..not all of them! Get the picture? :-) Good luck.

  • Some awesome ideas here! Another option is to donate them. Just no matter what – do not throw them away. I hate when I go to garage sales and see boxes of old photos being tossed into the garbage. Use a site like ThePhotoVault.com or take them to your local archive offices.

  • This really helps me a lot! I have 12 large plastic boxes of my girls photo’s from growing up. It will definitely be a project. And I absolutely love the TV photo idea. Question about your cable, you stated you don’t have cable…how do you get your internet service without it? I would love to ditch my cable, problem is the internet connection. You might just become my lifesaver…;-D

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