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 Sky on

    Great post! I have been working on my family photos for what seems like forever. Now, my MIL is moving to another state, getting remarried and dumped ALL her photos on my DH.
    She has not taken care of them so we have quite a job to do.

    Thanks for for the tips.

  2. posted by AlisonM on

    Having had experience at this … I would also advise doing a little every day, once you’ve done the big trash vs keep sorting.

    Take each of your rough groupings and put them back in the tote, keeping each group separate. Choose one group to keep out, and put it in a smaller box that you will keep somewhere visible and central. Every evening (or morning, or whatever), spend 10-20 minutes sorting through a few dozen photos.

    Once you finish each of your decades, get it scanned. When the scans come back, use your 10-20 minutes/day to add your notes about who/what/when. It will get done sooner than you think.

  3. posted by Chris Norris on

    As a photographer, it’s hard for me to deal with the “toss the negatives” comment, but ultimately it may be right.

    The negative is the canonical representation of the photograph. It’s the highest quality (unless it has suffered far greater damage than the print) and what you need to make any future high quality prints. But the reality is that the possible need for such prints may not be there. Being able to see a scan of a print on a computer is probably good enough for 99.9% of people.

    Personally, I’d keep all the negs in a box just in case. Or sell them somewhere, there are tons of collectors of old photographs that would probably love to have them.

  4. posted by jgodsey on

    explain to me again DITCHING THE NEGATIVES?

    what’s your definition of ‘good quality’ scan?
    300dpi? which means you will never be able to print that 3×5 any larger than 3×5…
    KEEP THE NEGS and you can always rescan and enlarge

    I lost my negatives in a divorce and have regretted it ever since.

  5. posted by amie on

    I love the idea of scanning and sorting in a step by step process, and even the idea of chucking some of the prints. Keeping a back up of the digital files, which can also be shared with her sister, is also a great idea.

    However, as both a photographer and librarian/archivist, I cannot emphasize enough that the negatives should be kept. Digital is not a fixed format, and not yet stable and archival. Negatives, however, are much higher resolution and at present, are fairly archival. Please, please, please do NOT throw away the negatives!

  6. posted by *pol on

    I had a similar situation when we inherited boxes of my husband’s Grandma’s pictures. We ended up culling them down to one shoe box for photos and one shoe box for negatives.
    It was surprisingly easy because so much time had gone by since the photos had been taken.
    Any shot that had nobody we recognized went into a bin for others to go through, any shots of “scenery” that were just plain boring got tossed, and the unflattering or blurry ones got tossed too. It’s amazing how many fit into those ugly categories. All that was left were exceptional photos of people we love….
    Culled from 2 large boxes down to 2 shoe boxes (we kept so many negatives because they are small and in case other family members wanted copies — I guess now that we are in the age of scanning and digital images, we can probably safely be rid of those too now).


  7. posted by Mike Hathaway on

    For heaven sakes Keep the negatives. They take up so little space. You can buy PintFile sleeves cheap All the negatives from my family growing up fit in one binder even though there are 27 albums full of pictures. With the negatives safely stored, ditching prints becomes a lot easier, because you can always go back and have them scanned either yourself or by one of the excellent high end third party companies like

    Place the negatives in sleeves, mark the sleeves with year and event info place them in a zip up binder to prevent dust and you are all set.

  8. posted by Jeri Dansky on

    If you’re keeping the original images, you may want to put them in boxes specifically designed for storing photos, rather than in an album. That takes less effort – and the boxes take less space than albums would.

  9. posted by Melissa on

    Whatever you do, do not throw away the negatives. My apologies to the author, but that is not sound advice. Always send the negatives (if available) to be scanned, not the images. Think about it this way. Your negatives are your original. The photo is just a copy of the original. So if you scan your photo and not the negative, you’re just making a copy of the copy and losing a LOT of detail, regardless of the resolution you scan. Similarly, photos fade over the years. Negatives rarely have any discoloration. By scanning the photos, you’re scanning in all the aged discoloration that goes with it.

    I have been scanning in all my old family photos and negatives for the last three years. It is a laborious, but highly rewarding process. I’ve developed a really effective workflow for doing it myself.

    One more recommendation when sorting through your photos. Do not get caught up in sorting by date. You’ll drive yourself crazy trying to figure out which photo is from Christmas 1986 and which one is from Christmas 1987. Rather, if things aren’t already organized by date, just lump them together categorically. For instance all birthdays in one pile, all Christmases in another, all family vacations in another.

    Sorry for the extended post, but I couldn’t resist countering that comment about throwing away the negatives.

  10. posted by Mo on

    When we stayed home sick as kids, if my dad was the one home with us, he usually took a bit of the day to go through and sort the family photos. I still “save” the task of photo-caring for when I’m feeling under the weather. It’s a relatively low energy activity and, for me, brings back happy memories. I often will find photos of old friends and use sending them a copy as a way of reconnecting.

    What makes this method successful for me is having taken some time (non-sick) to decide on equipment, software, and backup. I also made a tag list, so things stay organized, even though it may be months between project sessions.

    One note on digital photos, I work at a university, and they are now having the problem of professors only having digital copies of materials and those materials not being of high enough quality for projection in large rooms. So class sizes are sometimes limited by the quality of available digital images. Just a warning for people wanting to go digital.

    Also, do keep more than you might think to. I had a bunch of photos of a middle-school picnic that I probably “should” have chucked. Going through them a year ago, I realized that in the background of some of the pictures was a boy who had cystic fibrosis and died when we were in high school. I tracked down his mother and sent them to her. She was amazed by them. She only had pictures where he knew he was being photographed. Seeing him goofing around with friends, even in the background of pictures of other people meant a lot to her. You don’t know what will be important in 10 or 20 or more years.

  11. posted by Astreil on

    This is something that almost every one needs to tackle. I for one am terrible at this. My kids were born right on the edge of the digital vs film era, so we have lots of paper photos and lots of digital ones. I’d like to read more about digital options. I’ll check out Picassa and other sites you mentioned.

  12. posted by Anne on

    I’d like to respond to amie, the librarian/archivist’s comment. I don’t mean this as a personal attack, but do any other commenters here despair at the struggler, fraidy-cat mentality embodied by her comment? I often encounter that kind of pessimistic, unhelpful attitude when dealing with staff in places such as libraries, universities and archives. To be specific: does anyone seriously think that any of the current major digital image storage formats used today will become unreadable in the future? Surely it’s not going to place ANY strain on the powerful processors we’re bound to have in the future to read these formats, even if they become obsolete. While personally I would keep the negatives, I think a high quality scan from the negative, backed up in two places (so no worries about “corruption”, aime), is more than sufficient for the kind of photographs most people take. Now that I can take all my pictures anywhere in high quality digital format and have ditched the bulky, musty albums weighing me down and filling all my cupboards, I feel so much freer and lighter.

  13. posted by Abigail on

    Be careful about relying on digital back ups like Flickr. This week they accidentally deleted a pro user’s account and 4000 pics went down the drain. Fortunately he had back ups elsewhere but if you don’t, there’s no getting them back.

    Keep multiple digital back ups

  14. posted by Erin Doland on

    There are numerous folks freaking out about my recommendation to ditch the negatives. Here’s how I see it …

    To upload an image to Flickr or Picasa, you first have to have it on your computer. So, if you’re backing up your computer (as we strongly recommend) locally to an external hard drive AND online to a system like DropBox, you will have four digital versions of the file (computer, external drive, DropBox, and Flickr). Plus, the company that scanned your photo probably gave you a disc with all of the images on it, too (making five digital copies). I’m finding it difficult to believe that your house would burn down (taking your computer, external drive, original photographs, and disc of scanned images with it), DropBox would have a corruption problem, and Flickr would lose your photos all on the same day (well, unless there were a catastrophic world event of some kind … and in that situation, you wouldn’t be worried about family photos).

  15. posted by deshane on


    Thank you for that story! I too have kept negatives (affordable digital didn’t start happening until I was in early 20s/ten years ago) from grade school years.

    My story on negative-keeping:

    My tenth grade boyfriend died right before the end of the school year/my 17th birthday/Mother’s Day.. so it was a huge punch to the heart when his death occurred.

    Both he and I were camera-shy so officially, we only had one photo taken together at a school dance. So I didn’t realize how much I’d regret that until years later.

    However, my senior year, the Yearbook staff gave me all the photos they had taken over the school year of us (we were both active in the Art club and did many outings/events that ended up being photographed but never used.. Art wasn’t “cool” enough lol) I didn’t know they had so many! It had been two years and I didn’t remember the photos being taken.

    Anyhow, years later, after I left town for the military, I was home on leave and ran into his mother. Longer story short.. I made copies of those photos and sent them to her. The last year her son was alive and doing stuff he loved at school.. that so-called “clutter” meant much more than anyone had realized at the time.

  16. posted by Jenni on

    I really liked the post that Young House Love did on the subject of photo organization last year. They put the pics they loved in albums, and each year they back up their favorite photos that they took during the year, on CD:

    I hope to do something similar with all of my grandmother’s photos that were all put in a box and a suitcase. My cousins and I like going through them, but they are a mess–the albums would take up much less space, and my grandma, being the computer lover that she is (seriously!) would probably adore a scanned digital copy as well. I’m thinking that photo organization would make a nice xmas present!

  17. posted by DairyStateMom on

    @Anne: It’s not being a fraidy-cat to state that digitization isn’t archival right now; it’s a fact. And might I suggest that the “mentality” that you find so difficult might just stem from the difference in responsibilities here? The librarians and archivists have a job to SAFEGUARD a record; if your blithe assurance that “oh sure it’ll be readable” fails to comfort them, I need only think of floppy disks and Betavision to understand completely.

    That doesn’t mean that we all need to keep all paper, or all photographic negatives — it just means that we need to be judicious about what to keep and what to toss. I can’t see huge harm in keeping the negatives, all nice and organized and safe — they don’t take up that much space.

    One other plea from someone who has spent more time than I’d really like to think about sorting through photos, old and new: Write the date and the names of the people ON THE BACK OF THE PHOTO IN PENCIL (or if there’s a better way to keep the ID with the PAPER PHOTO, please tell me). It’s a beastly job to sort through albums with inadequately identified pictures, especially when the folks who would know for sure that “oh yes, that’s Aunt Ethel, and that’s Uncle George, and that’s Cousin Peabody” are all dead or can’t remember any more.

    And don’t think that writing an identification next to the photo in an album is enough. When someone separates the photos from the album for whatever reason (they’re making another album, or doing a photo tribute for a funeral, or they’re lost in Alzheimer’s and trying to make sense of the pictures), you’re SOL.

  18. posted by STL Mom on

    I have a few photos of my grandparents and other relatives of that generation, and I really love having them. But I think photos of that era are precious in part because there are not too many of them.
    I have probably already taken thousands of photos of my kids, and it seems unlikely that their grandchildren will want to be burdened with files of negatives, piles of albums, or even stacks of CDs. I don’t worry about the archival quality of our photos, because I don’t feel that most of them will have much value past the lifetime of my children, and our prints should last that long. A few of the funniest or most significant photos will be scanned into the storage media of the future, and the rest will be tossed.
    But hey, that’s just me! Your photos may have more historic value than mine.

  19. posted by karla on

    Here’s my problem with the negatives. We’ve moved so many times and the negatives were separated from the pictures long ago.

    So I have piles of negatives. I don’t have the ambition or drive to try to figure out which is which and I know if I just scan them all in I won’t want to go through and figure out even rough dates. (as others have said, just a couple minutes a day…but I can’t even consider the energy for that now)

    I can totally understand getting rid of them without doing anything else. These are pictures of our kids and friends and I don’t imagine I will want to reprint or frame a high(er) quality picture once the original has been scanned.

    I can totally understand throwing the negatives away without digitally archiving them first.

  20. posted by Tracy on

    It’s funny how people freak out about digital versions being lost, corrupted, or otherwise damaged when digital gives you the freedom to back it up to any number of locations at once with no loss of data. Nothing short of Armageddon is going to destroy all of those copies at once. Negatives? Flood, fire, or theft and it’s goodbye forever. I’m not sure how that’s more secure. If you’re not familiar with the tools, don’t blame the medium?

  21. posted by Dean on

    When I scanned all my photos into my computer, I saved my very favorite ones and put them in an album. Now I can look at all my pics on the computer, or pull the album down of my favorites and enjoy just them.

  22. posted by Phil on

    Response to Anne:

    Your reply makes a lot of assumptions. Yes, it is true that one can likely find a way to read current storage formats in the future. But it is a certainty that it will get more and more difficult. Example: if I handed you a 5 1/4 inch floppy disk today (which was a commonplace item less than 20 years ago), how many ordinary citizens would you have to go through to find someone able to read it with the equipment they possess now?

    One could go out and find a company which will read it for you, but that is a lot of time and effort and potentially $$, which is a barrier to access.

    Compare that with the shoebox of prints and negatives which one finds in Grandma’s desk drawer. To survey them, all I do is hold them up to the light. We also know from decades of experience that these negatives will hold their images for a long time. Most magnetic media has much larger problems across these same time spans.

    In the end, there is no magic bullet, and the real answer is to keep everything in multiple formats. How much effort one expends toward that goal is a matter of personal choice.

  23. posted by matt on

    Can anyone suggest a scanner for quick home scanning of 4×6 prints? I have close to 1000 waiting. A daunting task.

  24. posted by WilliamB on

    My thoughts:

    1. I’d keep the negatives in addition to digital photos. Unlike many of our possessions, photos are unique and irreplacable. To me it’s worth the extra space to have the robust backup.

    2. I’m on the fence about keeping photos of people I don’t recognize. I’ve had a similar experience to some listed above, about unexpectedly finding a use for an old photo. I’m not convinced that it’s worth keeping all the photos just for that. This is my judgment for my own collection – you have to decide for you.

    3. When I do go through my photo collection I’m unlikely to keep photos without people in them. I know from experience that most of these don’t hold my attention over the years.

    4. If you have the opportunity, share your parents’ photos with other aged relatives. They may remember who’s who. Then the stories may be told, which is even better. I’m fortunate that I had a video camera running when I did this with my grandmother’s first cousin – I made many, many copies and give them out as Xmas gifts.

    5. I like to have a friend around when I go through old photos. If I can’t tell the friend who the pix is of or why I kept it, I probably should get rid of the photo.

    Mo, what a great idea for sorting photos. Thank you for sharing it.

  25. posted by Erin on

    Erin, great article. I tend to agree with you that most of us do not need to have negatives, printed photos, AND digital versions. Of course, everyone can adapt your ideas to fit their own comfort levels.

  26. posted by Mike on

    @Erin, you’re missing the point about the negatives. THEY are the best copy of the photo that exists. To scan the photo digitally, the negative is the optimal source, because as long as it is not all chewed up with damage, it will have optimal coloration and resolution. If you can get nice, hi-res, uncompressed scans of the negatives and put the scans on the cloud, then sure, ditch the physical negatives AFTER that. But the negatives should be scanned in favor of the photo prints made from them in every case possible. You wouldn’t copy a DVD by pointing your video camera at the TV while the DVD plays. That’s what using a photo print as the scan source is the equivalent of, in terms of photography.

    Pro companies can scan the negatives directly, or there are scanners you can get (I believe Epson makes one that runs about $65-70 retail) that will scan negatives, as well as slides, transparencies, and anything else you happen to have, using a film caddy and backlighting designed as part of the scanner. For the price of pro service it might be cheaper to buy the scanner and do it yourself.

  27. posted by CR on

    I have recently been dealing with the task of trying to organize boxes of family photos, slides and mysterious negatives. I would strongly recommend sending them off to be scanned by professionals. I have had great luck with digmypics, a company in Gilbert AZ. In desperation, I shipped off a box of slides that were in terrible shape and was really happy with the results. They just completed another set of scans of old photos that were so deteriorated I had very low expectations but they turned out great. (I’m sure there are other good companies too; this one just impressed me with the high quality.) Yes, I could have done it myself but getting the results right away has really given me momentum. Go with the pros! ๐Ÿ™‚

  28. posted by Jude2004 on

    Scan the negatives and ditch the photos–that’s the way I’d approach the problem.

  29. posted by Stefan on

    Piling on about the negatives. My mom passed 5 years ago and I had the same issue exactly. Recently I tossed ALL the PRINTS I had negatives for after I had sent in the negatives and the prints I had no negatives for to be scanned. I actually got better prints than those my mom had due to piss poor photo finishing from crappy labs back in the late 80s/90s. Better light density, better color. I still kept the negatives in sleeves in a binder.

  30. posted by Anne on

    @Phil and DairyStateMom

    I understand the points you make, but my comment was based on a specific example (storing digital images on a hard drive or in the cloud) which I felt didn’t merit the level of scaremongering from the librarian/archivist. I can totally understand the difficulties that come with archiving materials tied to specific physical storage media such as betamax and floppy discs, or file formats only used by niche programs on specific platforms, but we’re talking here about almost universally readable file formats that can be stored on various kinds of physical media. When a new invention supersedes my current USB hard drive, I’ll just transfer the files to that without a problem and ditch the hard drive (although I suspect cloud computing will render that unnecessary). I can still view/listen to/watch files from over 15 years ago, because they are captured in common file formats still supported by modern software, and I can’t see any reason why they couldn’t be supported indefinitely.

  31. posted by Leah on

    This is quite similar to what I did at my parents’ over Christmas. Right now, their 4 or 5 photo bins are filled with envelopes sorted into either decades or half decades, depending on the volume of photos. Next time I go home, I am buying my mom some large photo books (black pages, like the classic books) and using photo corners to display the photos. I’m also going to continue scanning photos to share with our relatives via flickr/facebook.

    I definitely agree with other folks here — keep the negatives! They take up so little space and are an invaluable archive.

    Also, if anyone ever ends up sorting any sort of photos that could be considered “vintage,” there are definitely photo collectors out there that would likely buy the photos. You would probably not make much, but it’s something you can do with photos you might otherwise toss, especially with historical photos.

  32. posted by CM on

    Just seconding Alison’s comment about not feeling you have to finish it all in one day — this will depend on how you work best, obviously, but when I faced a recent huge organization project it was a relief to realize that I could do a little each day, as long as I needed, instead of finishing it all at once as originally planned. I just didn’t have the energy for that. I think the key to spacing it out over multiple days, though, is to be organized as you go along so that when you go back it’s clear where everything is and how you left the project. It won’t work if you just have seemingly random piles everywhere.

  33. posted by OogieM on

    In the interest of full disclosure I am a Creative Memories Consultant, but I don’t sell to people I just use their stuff myself. It is archive safe and very high quality. I became a consultnt so I could get the additional training they offer on how to properly preserve my photographic memories.

    Keeping the negatives is an absolute requirement IMO. The negative is the original, if you need a digital copy it is the best one to scan. You cannot ever get good quality from scanning a print. If you plan to scan them yourself so you have backup then buy a good book on digital archiving and follow their recommendations. My favorite is by Jill Koelling “Digital Imaging: A Practical Approach” and it will give you the minimum requirements for archive scans. Be sure to budget time and expense to upgrade your digital copies as technology changes. The 5.25 inch floppy sort of problem mentioned above is a valid concern.

    As to the cloud storage, sorry, BTDT and no I do not consider any of the commercial cloud companies a perfect storage medium.

    I would strongly suggest you contact a local scrapbooking consultant and ask for help. I know CM consultants have lots of tools and suggestions on how to organize your photos and more importantly how to save the stories associated with them so the things you want to keep are saved in a way you can use. There are other companies that sell scrapbook products and they too will have people who can help you.

    When I got started I had over 14 bankers boxes full of pictures to sort from my parents, grandparents and my own photography. My consultant worked with me over the course of a couple of months to get them all sorted in ways I could use and then helped me find creative ways to put them in albums. I have since found a further 7 bankers boxes of papers and pictures. My COm consultant training provided me with a very good plan for how to sort them and how to save them so we can enjoy them and the stories they represent. We now use our photo albums all the time to look at stuff where the pictures never got looked at.

    I also echo the suggestion to put the names and dates on the back but do not use a regular pencil or ballpoint pen. Buy a proper print marking pencil or pen, other types will cause long term storage problems.

  34. posted by Laetitia in Australia on

    Like OogieM I too am a CM Consultant (unlike Oogie I do sell things but most of you are in the USA so it’s a moot point).

    I also recommend using a proper print marking pencil. Here in Australia they cost $6 (or that’s what we sell them for, at least) and will last for many, many, many photos.

    A print marking pencil is a lot softer than a regular pencil or ball-point and unlike those, they won’t dig into your print and show through on the other side. They are also made from a different substance that is photo-safe.

    As a semi-pro photographer (as in I’ve been paid but it’s not my livelihood) I echo the comments recommending keeping your negatives. They are your original and give you the best ability to create a large print. In the days when you could still get them processed, magazine companies absolutely would not take anything other than a slide because digital files just couldn’t cut it on quality, colour and resolution.

    Other than that, don’t think that your descendants won’t want your photos or to know how you lived. You don’t know – you aren’t them. And if you don’t have any descendants, you can always give your photo collection to your local history / museum society (it helps them if there’s some ID about the photo) so others can see how people used to live.

  35. posted by amie on

    Wow Anne, “scaremongering”?

    I think that many other people have echoed the very valid point that negatives are the best copy. If you actually have all of your photos scanned at very high resolution from your negatives, and stored in multiple locations, then that is great. In my experience, most people don’t think to scan the negatives, nor do they keep copies in different physical locations. They may have a back up hard drive…sitting next to their laptop. Or they might have *some* things saved via Dropbox, or flickr, or another service, but that too, is fallible. Depending on the size of your collection, and the size of your images, it can be expensive, as well.

    I have had photos become corrupted during transfer, but thankfully, they were scanned images, and I was able to go back to the negative. Perhaps I may seem to be a “fraidy-cat,” but my livelihood depends on my being able to access my work. And in terms of libraries, archives, and universities-future generations depend on having access to historical imagery. I’m sorry that you have had unfortunate experiences at such institutions; many are full of quite helpful, enthusiastic people.

  36. posted by denise on

    I inherited a large number of slides and negatives (over 1,000), all taken before I was born, mostly of people whom I never knew, and in some cases, never even heard of. The vast majority were clearly from one particular city, and my grandfather had done nice job labeling them. I shared the same reticence many of you do against destroying original archival quality material, but at the same time live in a tiny NYC apartment and knew I would never really get enjoyment from them. So, I looked up the historical society for that city on the internet, and it turned out that they were thrilled to receive the collection. Talk about win-win…I received a tax deduction for donating a collection that they considered to be of substantial value, I have the peace of mind that the originals are preserved and treasured as my grandfather intended, the society has an asset that they consider valuable, and I no longer have to find storage room for a box of stuff I don’t want.

    It won’t apply to everyone but if the materials you no longer want are place-specific, I would definitely consider contacting the relevant historical society. It unclutters you just as well as throwing them away, and gets them to people who are passionate about them instead of directing the slides/negatives to a landfill.

  37. posted by Anne on

    aime, I’m sure you’re a fine archivist, and very helpful too, but I suppose my main point is that to bring a professional archivist’s mindset to preserving personal photos could create unnecessary anxiety and waste time and money. Sadly, in my experience the staff in libraries and archives seem to find it too much trouble to help people access material, and see visitors who want to view material as a nuisance who should just leave the archive alone. They also seem to think there’s a 99% chance of archive material disintegrating or being lost, destroyed or corrupted, when let’s face it, 99% of the time it just sits on shelves or hard drives safe and sound. But then of course I might just have been unlucky when dealing with these people.

  38. posted by Angelica on

    I bought one of these so you can DIY if you want to, in essence it’s just a scanner but you can also do negatives and it seems so much easier…not expensive either. You’ll use it again and again, it’ll be less than what you would pay the professionals to do it.

  39. posted by Angelica on

    How about those photos that are in old non-acid-free photo albums; do I remove them or just keep it inside despite the yellowing? I fear that it’ll end up just eating the photo up eventually ๐Ÿ™

  40. posted by KathyinMN on

    I’d highly recommend DigMyPics for scanning services. Some of the scanning services do not keep your pictures in the USA-they send overseas. DigMyPics is USA based and keeps your pics locally. They do all the work themselves. They even scanned in photos of my grandma’s that were glued down into a book. They preserved the book and I got the scans. Priceless! And now that they are scanned, I was able to send out to the older cousins for photo identifying. I tried to scan myself, but for 300+ pictures, some that need repair, it was way cheaper for them to do it them for me to waste my time. and I didn’t pitch anything to start-I had them scan the entire batch. How do you know if something means something to someone else? As it is, my cousin lives on what was my great uncle’s farm and pictures of the barn, which is still standing, is priceless to him. Don’t pitch, just scan them all. My 2-cents.

  41. posted by Debra Baida on

    As a professional organizer and photographer (who still uses film!) who comes from the world of photo editing in both the editorial and museum/archiving world, I’ll begin by saying that I’m a strong proponent of keeping negatives for the reasons many contributors have stated above. I understand both sides, but allow me to add this:

    When it comes to advising a client or anyone who asks what they should do with their negatives, I feel the most responsible approach is to inform them of their options and outline the pros and cons and let them decide.

    As with anything in life, certain things have different meaning and priorities for each of us. It’s important to honor these differences and to remember that no one way is the best way for everyone.

  42. posted by Erin Doland on

    On the negatives conversation …

    I think that my opinion is different than many of yours because I view pictures as entertainment, the same as a DVD of a movie or a good book you might later pass along to a friend. Yes, photographs are nice to have, especially when they trigger wonderful memories, but they’re temporary. I have no expectations that my great grandchildren will care much about the fraternity party I went to in 1993. In fact, I hope they DON’T care about that party. ๐Ÿ™‚

  43. posted by lahope on

    I just sent an album of my grandfather’s photos taken in and around Payette, Idaho c 1900-1910 to the University of Idaho Research Library Special Collections. Eventually it will be digitalized by the library and likely be available online. Before I sent it I xeroxed pages for myself, my sister and the Payette, Idaho genweb site–probably not the best idea to xerox but I didn’t know what else to do as I couldn’t remove the photos from the album. Now I am looking for a home for photos of his life as a medical student and an army doctor at Ft Riley KS during the 1918 flu epidemic.

  44. posted by Tanya on

    As an avid genealogist I encourage you to post identified photos online. Sites like Ancestry .com and My Heritage .com encourage posting of photos. They stay online forever and allow other descendants access to them. I was thrilled to find a photo of a great grandfather that I had never seen. You never know what relative will love getting copies of your photos.
    And don’t forget the spouses photos that their family would like to see also. My aunt was an only child but her dad had several siblings.
    Some of the sites have free limited access and some a free trial if you don’t want to pay to join.
    My cousin said her children told her they were going to burn all her genealogy including photos when she dies so I encouraged her to put them online. She has hundreds of identified photos both portraits and home steads that now can be viewed by possibly hundreds of descendants. Her Dad had 14 children so there are lots of relatives.
    And as mentioned above, donate where possible after downloading to an online site.

  45. posted by Elizabeth on

    Angelica, if they are pictures you value, remove them from the non acid free albums. If you want to put them in new albums there are many scrapbook sites and craft stores with scrapbooking sections. Their albums and papers are all acid and lignin free. Make sure you use an acid free adhesive as well. I am currently redoing my mother in laws High school album because the paper is eating the photos.

  46. posted by Christina on


    I live right by Ft. Riley, KS. I know the Geary County Historical Museum in Junction City would love to have your grandfather’s Ft. Riley pictures and memories.

  47. posted by ninakk on

    What about the negatives? How do people store those? If I want to put the photos in albums, there’s no need to hold on to the original wrapping, which for some reason isn’t the same size and shape if it came from different photo places either (grrr), so I’m wondering what would be optimal to keep the originals in nice condition as well as organized according to a system of my preference? Ideas?

  48. posted by Helen on

    I am like Erin with her posting about feelings about photos. I have thousands of photos, in which I have little interest. I don’t look at my wedding photo, my school photos, family reunion photos, photos of my children. I have the memories, I don’t need the photos. However, I am in the slow process of organizing the photos and the few negatives I kept, with the idea that all will be given to any family member, as I do not intend taking boxes of photos to the retirement community to which I plan to retire. My crafts supplies are more important to me than my photos!

  49. posted by Mildred on

    I have not read all of these responses, so I don’t know if my question has been addressed, but here it is:

    Is there any reason why you can’t scan these photos in on one of those cheap-all-in-one HP units? I scan pictures in on my computer all the time. I don’t know how the quality stacks up compared to the professional scanning sites.

    Can someone answer this? Thanks!

  50. posted by OogieM on

    For all of you who don’t seem to care, yes the frat party photos are some of the most valuable historical photos. If you think they are worthless then for petes sake please give them to a historical society that will care! There is nothing that says that entertainment or just day to day stuff isn’t important, in fact they can be the most important historical items you can possibly save!

    One caveat on saving negatives. If your negatives are nitrate film then the safest thing is to scan at highest possible resolution and then destroy the negatives. Nitrate film can become explosive. Most people don’t have large stashes of nitrate negatives, although I actually do and yes, I am slowly scanning and then destroying them. In the mean time I have them all individually stored in proper buffered envelopes where they will not pose a threat to my house.

    @Mildred, no the cheapest all-in-one scanner generally will not produce good results. Seriously, take a look at the book I suggested earlier up thread. Follow those recommendations and you can easily scan to decent archive quality in an inexpensive scanner. Look at the actual optical resolution and then look at your source, it’s a simple matter to calculate what you need to scan at to save most of the information in the negative. Note I said most: Without a multi thousand dollar scanner you will not get all the data that film grain can handle.

  51. 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.

  52. 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.

  53. 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.

  54. 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.

  55. 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.

  56. 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.

  57. posted by Matt P on

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

  58. 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.

  59. 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.

  60. 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.

  61. 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!

  62. 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.)

  63. 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)

  64. 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.


  65. 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.

  66. 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.

  67. 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, itโ€™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.

  68. 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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