Give the Gift of Organizing Photos

I was thinking of all the great gifts that sons and daughters could give their mother, and helping with old photos came to mind. You know it and I know it, mom would really appreciate the help organizing them, or any relative for that matter.

If you’re here because you’ve inherited family photos (including multiple generations) or tackling your own avalanche of photos, welcome! Either way, photo organizing is a daunting project everyone could use help with.

This article is about overcoming the overwhelm of dealing with old photos, and emotional blocks that prevent you from knowing where to start.

Table of Contents

Overwhelmed with family photos?

I’m looking at boxes of photos I hauled from my mother’s house, while I have my own immediate family’s to deal with. I don’t know what the statistics are, but Americans now cram thousands of digital photos of their loved ones on cell phones, compared to the sparse few photos that generations back cherished.

The digital beast is another discussion. Today, we specifically cover our piles and boxes of paper photos. When putting old photos into the proper perspective, we can take the manageable steps to deal with them.

A collage of vintage and family photos and a woman overwhelmed with dealing with family photos.
Dealing with family photos can be overwhelming, to the point of procrastination.

The other day I realized, how often do I really looks at old photos? In the course of a lifetime, not much. I am investing a lot of time into taking pictures that will eventually have to be dealt with. It’s way easier to put the breaks on the photo taking now as a strategy to save yourself future time.

Those few minutes that you enjoyed the developed or printed photo may be the only time you spend with your paper legacy.

Is it OK to throw away old pictures?

My heart was saddened when I recently read in a forum about someone asking about what to do with an elderly relative’s old scrapbook. Another person answered that it wasn’t their memory, and it was OK to get rid of it.

Similarly, my minimalist uncle had no problems tossing his aging sister’s keepsakes away when he helped move her out of her house. It was a very hard reality to swallow. My aunt’s husband and only child had passed away long ago, there was no one left to cherish her memorabilia.

It’s OK to throw out old pictures. Not every scrap of paper needs to be kept. Start with what means the most to you the first.

There are two types of people, those who care about keepsakes and those who don’t. Even people with no ties to the pictures can care a heck of a lot, and hate to see history tossed away. For the record, it is OK to throw away old photos. I’m telling you this, because some people just need to hear it. However, let’s look at the context when you would throw old photos away:

  • the memories are not yours
  • you don’t know the people in the photos
  • there is no family relative to hand the photos down to
  • you are not closely related to the photo owner, the family tie is weak or distant
  • the photo pile is enormous, you are not a museum and don’t have the storage space
  • you are downsizing or moving a relative to a nursing home or assisted living, and hard decisions of the property need to be decided
  • you are cleaning out an estate, and the deceased person’s emotional ties are now dissolved

Let’s call this the “emotional” litmus test list of whether or not to throw away an old photo. This is quite different from purging old photos that are blurry, bad quality, too many duplicates, etc. Tossing of photos is a necessary part of decluttering for the purpose of organzing old photos.

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How to let go of old photos

Do you feel anxiety about throwing old photos away, especially important family pictures? The guilt can be overwhelming. Photos are powerful and emotional ties to the past. In addition, the overwhelm can cause you to be frozen and unable to take action. I want to help you get past that.

Truthfully, I am still haunted by a pile of vintage wedding photos I found in an old jewelry box in a second-hand store. Yes, I am one of those emotional types who struggle with throwing anything away, even other’s memories. Here are my solid tips to address the emotional barrier:

  • Do the Marie Kondo thing, pick it up and touch the photo – if you have no feelings over it let it go.
  • If you still struggle with disposing of it, utter a ritual “thank you for the memory, I release you to make room in my life for a cleaner and more simple life.”
  • Keep the focus of the photo purging as a gift to your children – you’re doing it for them so they don’t have to deal with boxes and piles of photos in the future.
  • Remove the guilt by giving the photo away to another relative who will cherish it.
  • Include old photos in birthday and holiday cards to friends and family.
  • Imagine a second life for the photo (especially vintage) that can live on through the creativity of greeting cards, photo gifts, artwork, etc. or through the enthusiasm of a photo collector.
  • Donate photos to a museum for others to enjoy if they have historical value.
  • Sell the pictures on Ebay or other place or platform, and use the income to donate to charity or put towards another project.
  • Make a “best of album” intentionally choosing to condense the pile of photos (especially large sizes that take up a great deal of space).
  • Don’t try to do all the photos at once as it will be too emotional. Give youself permission to spread the project out over a year or more if necessary. If you are clearing out an estate, leave the photos for last.
  • I’ll mention this again, but get a project buddy. It helps to keep focus, stay on track, help with indeciseness, and beats procrastination.
Woman reminiscing about the past while looking at an old photobook.
Pictures are a strong emotional tie to the past. It can be very difficult for some people to take the first steps in letting go of old pictures.

I often like to think of the person who will end up with the photo and the happy thrill when they get to be the new owner. One woman commented, “I have given a ton [of old photos] away to people I think would enjoy them, it’s fun to see their reactions!”

I felt that way about my parent’s estate stuff that we sold at auction. Have you ever felt the thrill of discovery when finding a treasure in a store, or winning an auction item and bringing it home?

The perspective that I can bring joy into the life of another is a powerful motivator to let go of photos. Vice versa, the thought of leaving my family with feelings of overwhelm and anxiety is not a very loving thing to do to them.

Thoughts on decluttering photos

Photo guilt is a real thing. Ask yourself, will the hours, days, and months spent in handling and processing the photos into a finished product worth your time, time that could be spent in other things that would give you more joy? Or something more important to your life goals?

In addition, children really don’t care about extended family they don’t know. Believe me, they have no guilt regarding old photos. I rolled my eyes when my mother would go through a family reunion picture, pointing out and naming each person. I don’t expect my kids to remember all of my numerous cousins, or burden them with the obligation of knowing.

Man moving around boxes of old family photographs in his garage.
Not only do we have our on family photos to deal with, an estate can leave us with boxes of old photos from generations past.

I get that there is always a living relative that will chastise you for tossing anything. In this situation where there are other “stakeholders”, compromises can be made. Make sure the purging sends photos to these people if they are deemed important.

In extreme cases of hoarding, you might not be able to help with purging and organizing photos until that person physically leaves the home or passes away.

I was recently reminded why the “great photo pile” is now a part of many lives. Back before digital photos, film had to be developed and there was no luxury of knowing whether you had indeed captured that important photo or not, until you picked the developed photos up at the drugstore, so extra photos were taken. Cut your relatives some slack!

Add to that the parade of home photography technology (photos were via 35 mm cameras, old pocket cameras, disposable cameras, 8 mm film reels). I certainly could have laid out a timeline of equipment after cleaning out my mother’s estate!

What to do with family photos after a divorce

Who doesn’t have to deal with making decisions about keeping past family members in family photo albums. It is not uncommon to become estranged from family and friends. This could be due to divorce, broken friendships, or other difficult life situations.

Family albums and scrap books can even become pawns in messy divorce cases. Mature parents will realize that the happy memories belong with their children and can hopefully push past it. A compromise may be easy, with one parent or person wanting a “summary” or photo highlights.

If the photos need to be divided 50/50, there will be some tedious work ahead. There are minimal online resoures to deal with what to do with family photos after a divorce, so I will point to two helpful discussions:

These forums have nice advice about moving forward, keeping titles generic, and the tone neutral and free of emotion.

Family photo albums and memories; silhouette of man and woman facing away from each other in divorce.
Divorce and other awkward situations can make photo decisions difficult.

If the relationship is in good shape, leave old photos in to complete the photo story. Sometimes past relationships are too painful to the point that old pictures are destroyed. I’ve have even seen faces blocked out of photos, but I find that distracting and concerning when trying to enjoy the photo album.

If you still want to acknowledge a person from a historical standpoint, or honor the family members who want to remember, there are options:

  • create a separate photobook that contains these people
  • add a discreet footnote to a page that can be referred to the back of the album for more details
  • add a page to the back of the album “people who have been part of our life”

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Ways to dispose of old photographs and film

Disposing of old photos and photo or film negatives responsibly is important. Unfortunately, according to old photos and negatives cannot be recycled, due to chemicals in the paper and negatives.

Old photo memorabilia can be taken to landfills or burned. Some people may go the extra step of shredding the photos before disposing of them, or “defacing” the photo so no identification is possible. That’s not a bad idea if you want to protect your privacy from the landfill.

A collection of old film negatives, black and white vintage photos, and old color photos of landscapes.
Unfortunately, old film negatives and old photo paper cannot be recycled.

Find comfort in knowing that our society better understands today our environmental and waste disposal mistakes of the past. Not everything has to go to the landfill. Consider upcycling the photos into art or other photo gifts as an alternative.

If your fear is loss of originals, I no longer feel guilty about throwing away old negatives. That’s just not the way our world works anymore. There are other, modern ways to get copies of old photos including:

  • take a picture of the paper photo with your cell phone
  • scan the photo at a high dpi
  • take the photo to a copy shop and make a paper copy

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Photos are meant to be enjoyed

Are you actually enjoying your old photos, or are they buried and you never see them again? Use this thought as a guiding light for your end project. So many people have expressed that a flippable photo book that they can touch and feel is an experience that pictures on a flashdrive can’t satisfy.

To really speed the process up of compiling a meaningful photo album, look for one that has a space to write notes in. Sure, adding notes to the back of the photo is ideal, but takes additional time. This way, you don’t have to turn the photo over to read it.

Mom and daughters looking at a family photo book.
Photo books are important for sharing important life memories, like this grandma “brag” book!

Apparently, folks have a misconception that pictures in albums need to be in chronological order. This is not necessarily so, and you may have even forgotten over time the right order! I find that when creating a photo collage, pictures work better if logically put together or keeping to a theme. I release you from your chronological shackles!

Rather than archive an entire lifetime of photos, a family member may choose to highlight a single, important event in a loved one’s life. This is a good place to start if your are feeling overwhelmed, especially if you’re excited about it.

Just remember, photo albums don’t have to be perfect, they just need to be done!

A word about photo albums

This is the end project that most people aim for. This could ultimately mean uploading a digital photo online. Beware that some photo platforms are now requiring that you make a purchase every 18 months for the privilege of “storing” your albums with them. Although there is great convenience in creating a photo album “in the cloud” all of your hard work can go away at the storage disgression of the online company.

I have opted for a company called that has a lifetime photo storage and software that I can always retrieve my albums, and buy future copies. This company is in for the long haul, when other software has become antiquated. There is a learning curve to the software that is downloaded to your local computer, but they have a cloud version, too.

Managing old pictures with minimal time investment

Don’t let an “all or nothing approach” freeze you into procrastination land. Here are easy things to do to reduce your old family photo pile:

  • If possible, label photos enough to help with geneology, ask relatives to identify. For facial recognition for ancestory photos, upload them to image platforms like Google Image that could possibly identify them.
  • place photos in a photo storage box, skipping the time-consuming process of putting into photo sleeves/albums
  • pass the photos on to family members who would be happy to have them
  • store the photos or time capsule them as a fun discovery for future generations
  • you have spent 30 minutes shuffling through photos, you have enjoyed them in the moment, and now the moment is passed. Your photo management time can end right there.

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That last point is to help you keep your perspective/reality check on how much of your life you should dedicate to photo organizing/purging. This is especially true if this is a past generation’s photos, not yours.

The Minimalist Mom on YouTube has very practical advice for decluttering photos and other useful tips for all parts of your move to a more minimal life!

Step 1: The quick and dirty of how to purge old photos

Here is a list of ideas for dealing with photos. Pick one or two of them, or divide the list up among other siblings or helpers. This is the “low-hanging” fruit. Consider it the FIRST PURGE and move through it quickly. If your loved one has a hard time letting go, they may be willing to participate in this first stage.

Dealing with old family photos can take several sessions. If you live in the same place as your parents or relative, this can expand to an on-going scheduled activity. If you live out of state, consider giving the gift of a professional photo organizer assistance.

Grandma dressed as "superwoman" purging old family photos.
Be brave and strong, you can purge old family photos!
  1. Purge photos. If this has not been done, throw away bad pictures, pictures with people’s eyes closed, red eyes, people that have no meaning, multiple configurations of event photos when one group photo will do. Keep photos that capture the spirit of the event or vacation, especially if loved ones are in it. As one photo manager put it, “I keep it if the picture makes me smile.” Your vacation photos of landmarks, buildings, and landscapes will never be as good as a postcard and professional photography. It’s time to throw those shots away.
  2. Sort photos. If there are photos that need to go to other people, start your piles! Set yourself guidelines. Stacy Julian’s Library of Memories system suggests sorting into four categories – Things We Do, Places We Go, People We Love and All About Us.
  3. Remove old photos from acidic photo pages. Old photo books with plastic stick sleeves are known to have an adverse affect on photo preservation. Stop the deteriorating as soon as possible. Old photos can be removed by sliding dental floss beneath, but take a photo first of the entire page or individual pages in case the process doesn’t go well.
  4. Remove old photos from frames to save space. Give the frames to a second-hand store. This will greatly reduce space.
  5. Organize photos. Random photos could be strewn across different locations. Make sure all related photos are together to tell the complete story.
  6. Throw away photos. Toss the no-brainer ones first. I don’t feel bad about throwing away neighbor’s Christmas cards or niece and nephew’s school photos (their mom and dad have their own copies).

Sorting photos can be an Olympic event. Take it in small chunks. Maybe it’s a winter project and you leave it left out. Maybe it’s one Sunday afternoon a month, or siblings take turn with mom and dad.

Reminisce with your photo buddy or put on a good movie or listen to a podcast while sorting. I like to say mindless movie, because I could accidentally get sucked into it and stop photo sorting! After the initial purge is done, you can move on to forming a game plan for the remaining photos.

Step 2: What to do with old family photo memories for keeping

There is a special place in heaven for people who go to the next step: photo projects. You brave, brave people! Your mind is made up, but let’s bypass the burnout before it happens:

Family photo album.
Be selective in saving old family photos, leaving the best to take center stage!
  1. Pace yourself. It’s important to make an appointment with yourself to keep working on your photo project. Whether it’s 15 minutes or a day. I kept looking for weekends, but I just don’t have full days to spare. Now I am chipping away at it on weeknights.
  2. Get outside help. Enlist the help of other family members. Make a weekly date with your mom to go through photos. There are even some online support groups for people looking for moral support to get through it. Procrastination falls away when we have project buddies!
  3. Break into smaller, manageable chunks. Focus on events, decades, or childhood years, and in effect creating stopping points.
  4. Tag and identify photos. Start writing on the back of the photos who the people are. Get a parent or relative to help identify persons.
  5. Simplify photo copies. Work on distributing photos to other relatives or siblings. This can be as simple as taking to a photocopy place, and copying onto paper (not photo paper) or taking a picture with your digital camera. The task of scanning an uploading or taking to a photo center may be more trouble than it’s worth.
  6. Focus on “star” photos. Keep the absolute best picture of the events that tell the story. These could be multiple pictures that work together to complete the story. Pictures that show a family pet, childhood home, old family car, vintage fashion are all important pieces of life history.
  7. Make decisions that will save time and energy. I was relieved when someone said they don’t scan every photo! That takes so much time, most people don’t have high-speed photo scanners, which really is needed for piles of photos.
  8. Leave yourself breadcrumbs. By this, I mean actually write down a note where you were at in the photo sorting process, and the next action step to take. I can’t tell you how many times I get interrupted, even months at a time go by before I sit down again to my photo project. Who’s got time for that?

Motivating yourself to deal with old family photos

Some people see photos as clutter and a nuisance, and aggressively purge them, thinking they are doing their family a favor. I understand. My neighbor became caught up in the paper scrapbooking craze when her kids were little. At her daughter’s high school graduation party, she had no less than four banquet tables of scrapbooks on display!

Anyone who has gone through decades of family photos or cleaning out an estate realizes the photo hoarding has to stop. The advertising pressure to capture those “Kodak moments” has hit hard. In the blur of experiencing life and raising families, we continue to mindlessly photo snap, burying ourselves even deeper and sealing our fate of future photo guilt.

When it finally comes time to deal with the family photos, the feeling of overwhelm is massive.

If you have made the conscious decision to manage your family photos, I congratulate you and appreciate the selfless gift that you are giving your family. Even though I don’t know you, I want you to know that I admire you as a human being.

You have recognized and accepted that old photo storage must be reduced, and are in the right frame of mind to tackle them. The required mindset of being selective and subjective is your key to crossing the finish line.

A journal with the words "It always seems impossible unti it's done"
Find motivation to declutter photos in the “why” – and then imagine the satisfaction of having completed the photo organization project.

Your present family might not appreciate your gift of time and tenacity to deal with the photos but their future selves will be eternally grateful. I made a personal vow that I would get my family pictures under control. Someday, my own kids would have to clean out my estate. My last gift to my kids would be time back in their lives because they weren’t dealing with my photo baggage.

Think of how GREAT you are going to feel when your photo project is complete. Again, do NOT beat yourself up for not organizing or processing 100% of your photos. How much and how little to invest in this journey is YOUR choice!

Professional photo organizers

Apparently I live under a rock. I had no idea that professional photo organizers even existed! Consider a personal photo organizer to keep you on track, or as a gift to mom and dad, or other relatives.

I’m sure they will agree to as little or as much as you need from them to get your old family photos under control. Here are some businesses that offer such services. If you don’t have one in your area, maybe you can make an arrangement with a local person or acquaintence who is willing to provide similar services.

In conclusion

I needed to write this article. I wanted to give support and encouragement to the thousands of good souls who are in the middle of dealing with old family photos. It’s a thankless job.

One common response I have picked up online is that “it’s hard, but it’s so worth it.” I leave you with this, go out and simplify your life, one box and photo album at a time.

Good luck, Renee

Woman overwhelmed with family photos.
Organizing family photos is overwhelming! Helping others with this massive task is a generous and helpful gift to give.
Renee Cavvy
Renee Cavvy

Renee brings over 30 years of gift giving experience to holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, workplace and faith events. Every life moment is cause for celebration or those times in life when we need the "the gift of support". Her mission: Let's all be better in appreciating one another, put an end to meaningless gifts that clutter our lives, and give from a place of love and kindness. This midwest mom (and grandma) offers novel and creative ideas to do gift giving better!