Ask Unclutterer: Organizing photographs

Reader Mary submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

My parents both passed away before I was 30. My sister and I cleaned out our mom’s house and stored some items in Florida in separate units until we thought we could use them. After 10 years (!!), I finally realized I was never going to move that stuff out to California where I live, so I went back and cleaned out the unit and ended up keeping very little. One thing I did keep, however, is ALL of the family photos, and the envelopes of negatives. Some are in albums (all unmatched, of course) and some are still in their envelopes. Plus I have my own photos and negatives. I’m swimming in this stuff (about 2-3 large totes worth) and have no clue how best to organize, what to keep, what can I toss (the negatives??). Because it’s only me and my sister now, and these photos are all I have as “evidence” of the first three decades of my life.

My condolences about losing your parents. I realize it has been more than a decade, but I’m still sorry for your loss.

As far as the photographs are concerned, I’m of the belief that photographs aren’t clutter. Okay, so maybe that blurry one of the ground you accidentally took in the eighth grade doesn’t need to be in your collection, but the rest are of family, friends, places, and experiences you value. The majority of them likely bring you joy — and those are worth keeping.

However, I don’t think storing them in a large tote is the best way to show you value these images. Here’s how I would tackle the project:

  • Pick a Saturday on your calendar when you can sort through all of the photographs. Keep the day free of all other obligations. Wear comfortable clothes, have your favorite snacks on hand, and play your favorite music. Going through all of the pictures is going to take time and a lot of mental energy. Give yourself the day and don’t rush.
  • You’re going to want to sort the pictures into two groups: Trash and Keep. Obviously, you’ll throw out and/or shred the Trash pictures at the end of the sorting process. Get rid of any blurry ground shots or ones where the flash didn’t go off and you can’t identify anything in the photo. All black pictures from when you forgot to take off the lens cap can go into the Trash without a second thought. Duplicates, photographs you can’t stand, and anything else you don’t want to keep because it’s associated with a negative experience can go into the Trash pile, too.
  • The Keep pile will be the photographs you plan to store and look at from time-to-time. As you decide to keep them, lay them out onto a cleared floor or dining table. I suggest making piles by decade (1970s, 1980s) or life stage (elementary school, middle school, high school). When you put the photographs in albums, you can organize in more detail by months and years.
  • Once all of the images you have chosen to keep have been sorted, you may choose to bundle and box the photographs and have them professionally scanned. (ScanMyPhotos and ScanCafe are national companies that do this. However, many photo processing businesses offer this service, so check locally if you don’t wish to ship them across the U.S.) If you have the images scanned, I also recommend uploading a copy to a private Flickr or Picasa Web account. This way, you can easily share the images with your sister and friends, and you have a back up copy in case a fire, flood, or other disaster destroys the originals.
  • When you have the original images back from being scanned, you can sort them in more detail and put them into albums. You may decide that since you have digital copies of the photographs that you don’t want to keep the originals. If this is the case, I suggest giving your sister a call and offering them to her. She might prefer the originals to the digital version.
  • Write information about the images next to the photographs in the album, or type the information into the Notes field of the digital file. This way, you’ll know who is in the picture, when it was taken, and why you chose to keep the picture. These can be great reminders when, years from now, you have forgotten some of this information.
  • If you use photo albums, store them in a place where you can easily look at them and enjoy them whenever you want. Keeping them in a box in a closet or a basement makes it difficult to view these memories. Also, you may find a few favorites in the tote that you want to frame and enjoy every day.

As far as negatives are concerned, I don’t see anything wrong with ditching them if you have a good, quality digital copy of the image. Most photographic printers are digital these days, even at photo-processing businesses, so a good scan should be all you need if you want to make physical copies of an image.

Thank you, Mary, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column.

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68 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Organizing photographs”

  1. posted by Another Deb on

    I am about 20% through the process of scanning more than 10,000 photos and slides from several family sources, dating back to the 1800’s. I have an Epson Perfection flatbed scanner which can do negatives, slides and photos. It came with software that color corrects the yellowed effects of age with fairly pleasing results.

    While trying to crop some of the photos to get rid of non-useful parts, such as backs of heads and empty wall spaces, and it was sad to see that the resolution of the cheap cameras I had as a kid don’t allow for much enlargement. The old instamatics, flash-cubes and drug-store processing add up to low quality images. I also notice that there is a mesh-like effect in some scans from the satin-finish prints we used to prefer.

    I am copying the good ones to Flickr, Ancestry, CD’s, portable HD’s, flashdrives, e-mailing to relatives and giving the old prints to the people or children of those in them.

    I have not yet gotten the negatives scanned but I sure hope Stefan (up above in this post) is right about the quality!

    Can anyone help me understand the use of the Library feature of the newest Windows software? I just bought a computer after 11 years and am hoping that it helps index photos and documents somehow.

  2. posted by Wanda on

    This is incredibly timely for me and my family. My parents passed over 13 years ago and five of the six siblings are getting together this month to go through the photographs. We are also going to sort the Christmas ornaments. No reason to have one sister store everything. Thanks for all the tips and suggestions.

  3. Profile photo of

    posted by Laetitia in Australia on

    Angelica – I’m assuming that as you bought something from zazz then you are in Australia.

    You can contact me from the details in my profile (click on my name above) and I can potentially direct you to someone who can help you with your photos in nasty albums (assuming you’re nowhere near me for me to help directly). Yes, those old nasty albums (either the paper or the plastic page coverings) will continue to eat away at your photos.

    ninakk – we have our negatives stored in negative sleeves that are then in two or three ring binders. We used a permanent marker to write at the top or side of the sleeve what photos (including dates when known) are in the sleeves.

    Check out a decent photo processing store (as opposed to Walmart / Big W) that carries other photography gear. Even in this day and age of digital photography they may still carry negative sleeves for those looking to take care of their negatives.

  4. posted by OogieM on

    Light Impressions also has lots of stuff for storing film negatives, from old glass plates to all sizes of large format film as well as 35 mm styles. All are archival quality too which is also very important.

  5. posted by Visty on

    I have spent years decluttering and getting down to a minimum, and if there is one thing I could have back right now, it would be all my negatives. I didn’t realize back when my first child was a baby 13 years ago that prints aren’t good enough, and that a picture I thought was bad was really just a bad printing. A negative reprinted at another lab would have given me a perfect photo. I have tried to scan my photos, but even my high quality scanner isn’t giving me what I could have had with the negative. I can get really melancholy at the thought of all those photos lost, if I think about it too hard. It’s really the only thing I regret ever tossing.

  6. posted by MomPaula on

    One thing you could do, is scan in the photos to shutterfly or lulu or some such, and make books out of them. You and your sister could each have one then.

  7. posted by Matt P on

    I was lucky that I was so anal about my photos in the past:

  8. posted by Amanda on

    I have inherited photographs from one great grandparent, all four grandparents, my uncle and my mother. Everyone knows that I care about the family history, so I’m the lucky one with all the photos. Unfortunately they take up about three plastic bins and two large boxes of space and I never look at them. There are too many. I keep saying I’ll go through them, but I never do.

  9. posted by Bonnie on

    I am actually very interested in the next step after all the photos have been scanned in.. as I’ve just spent the last 2 years scanning in all my family photos (about 17gb worth!)

    Now my next step is sorting into decades, removing duplicates and adding detail (probably using Picasa) and tagging. My question would be.. for those of you who tag your photos, what tag system have you used that has worked for you, and you have been able to maintain without it being too much of a chore to tag every time you add a new photo?

    Personally, with that amount of data it’s not really feasible for me to upload it all on Flickr – and I am reluctant to delete a single one as most were taken by my late father). I simply keep several backups on keys, hard drives, mum’s place and a friend’s place, and every month or so as I add new photos I will use some synching software at each location to make sure everything is in sync.

  10. posted by Bruce on

    As a working photographer and a twenty something that shoots both digital and film for school and work, I can honestly day binning the negatives would be one of the graves mistakes you could make.

    Unless you’re shelling out $40,000+ on your next digital camera, the negatives produce a far better print than any of the point-and-shoot cameras today. Contrary to the article most photo-printers are not printing digitally. All of the 4×6’s that people get printed are still exposed to light sensitive paper and chemically developed, even if they came from a digital file. This is not the same as the larger format digital printing that professional photographers tend to get done.

    Unless you have a drum scanner or something like Nikon Coolscan, scanning the negatives on your own is pointless. It will be less expensive to send off your negatives to a company like ScanCafe, but if you’re worried about your negatives getting lost overseas there are brick and mortar photography stores that will scan them. Keep in mind, if the negatives were cut, even into strips of five or six, it will be far more expensive to get those scanned than if you had a full strip of 35mm film.

    Now as a photographer with a lot of money invested in digital, I still shoot film, mostly medium format black and white, for the sense of permanency and the chance to physically interact with the medium. There is something about leafing through prints and holding negatives up to the light that you will never get staring into the screen of your computer.

  11. posted by Rachel B. from MD on

    A lot of people seem up in arms about the “throw away the negatives” comment, but there is a quick and easy fix for it. At Bed,Bath & Beyond, I purchased a Negatives scanner for $100, and you just insert the negative and it uploads it right into your computer through a USB cord. It also has a slot for a memory card, so you can make hard copies, and deposit them in a safety deposit box, which I think is the safest option when protecting pictures. Also, the uploads on the computer can be used to print out 100% original copies whenever you want. So, bottom line… Scan you negatives, then TOSS them out!

  12. posted by Phil on

    Hi Rachel,

    Unfortunately, the type of scanner you are referring to is going to leave a lot of the original information embedded in the negative behind. I’ve seen the difference between a $100 scanner, a $1000 Nikon Coolscan 5000ED scanner, and a professional multiple-$K drum scanner and you would be astounded at how much cleaner the photos look as you go up the equipment scale.

    This is especially true for those difficult photos where the camera wasn’t set right, the light was bad – and often these are the ones which have some relative in the corner that appears nowhere else and is now long gone. Often you don’t know which photos are the critical ones where you need to go ‘all out’ for years or decades.

    In other words, the information content of the negative is very high and it’s a compact physical form. You can scan too for the convenience of replication, but it is really not going to replace the original information. Having both is always a good idea – and approximately 200 rolls of negatives fit in a single 3.5 inch binder using PrintFile or some such negative sleeve holding one roll per page. (See the Light Impressions website for supplies.)

  13. posted by sofy on

    I am actually just “refashioning” my photo albums.
    I call it refashioning because I have used a long time cutting in the photos, colouring and using old drawing to sorta make it special. (I guess one could call it scrapbooking)

    Fighting with depression and anxiety, it has been a really good thing to be able to look back at my life and realise that not everything has been pain and suffering.(to put it bluntly)

    For me it is very important to have these tangible photo albums. Yes I know they might just last longer and all that if I had them scanned.
    But for me, that was not the goal.
    The goal was to minimize my stuff and at the same time create something that holds meaning to me (before they were just more stuff on the shelves)

  14. posted by mat coes on

    Erin, many people trust the words here. I implore you to update your post to summarize the pro-negative opinions buried in these (many) comments.
    One’s feelings about photos change as we go through life, and negatives are not clutter.

    Since the 90’s, all of the prints from quick labs, Target, CVS are inkjet prints from 300dpi scans, so you’d be scanning a cruddy print of a lo-res scan with no negative to go back to.


  15. Profile photo of Erin Doland

    posted by Erin Doland on

    @mat coes — My father is a professional photographer who only shoots digital. His photographs have hung in Explorers Hall at National Geographic and graced the pages of many wildlife publications. If not having negatives is good enough for a professional photographer AND National Geographic, it’s good enough for me and 99% of the population.

    But, if you want to store them in your home, by all means store them in your home. Just remember that they are highly flammable. If your home goes up in flames, they will instantly be destroyed and will fuel the fire. A digital copy backed up online won’t make your home burn faster, and you’ll be able to see your pictures again.

  16. posted by Phil on


    I have to correct a major error in your statement. Film made from 1950 onwards is composed of cellulose triacetate which is NOT flammable. Kodak specifically moved to this technology in response to problems with earlier negatives, which were nitrate based and which indeed are flammable. You will see the words “SAFETY FILM” on the edge of 35mm negatives from the last 60 years expressly for this reason.

    The negatives will melt but they will not add anything to a fire. The Materials Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for cellulose triacetate in fact rates the material at 0 for flammability.

    Finally, I don’t understand the argument you make about digital being good enough for National Geographic now, so it must be good enough for everything. This may be true for images which originate in modern digital camera sensors, but has nothing to do with the low quality scans typical of most run of the mill drugstore labs. There was a reason that NatGeo relied on Kodachrome/Ektachrome slide originals for their publications for so many years, and it wasn’t really that long ago that they moved to digital input.

    Mr. Coes is exactly right in that a lot of information is left on the table if you rely on a scan of a typical consumer photo print.

  17. posted by Tamara on


    I have 3×5 (and smaller) pictures that my grandfather took in WWII – the negatives either having been lost or thrown away before they came into my possession. He died when I was 5 years old and the pictures of him during this set of pictures are some of the only ones that I have. However, not having the negatives means I will never be able to duplicate at the same quality or print these rather small pictures at a larger size to have framed.

    “If not having negatives is good enough for a professional photographer AND National Geographic, it’s good enough for me and 99% of the population.”
    — So only 1% of the population has had a loved one pass away and wish for a negative for a larger reprint?
    Pictures ORIGINATING in digital are good enough for NatGeo – I am fairly certain they haven’t thrown away decades of slides and negatives.

    The aggressive manner in which you have been responding to comments that are simply addressing concerns has just lost you a reader. Congrats on that. There are always two sides to everything.

  18. posted by staci on

    I ended up with a ton of duplicates and others to ditch… what???? Shred them, burn them???? I’m not putting them into the trash for strangers to find.

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