Decluttering Photos: Dealing with Boxes of Old Prints

toddler - decluttering photos

“Photos are a great memory-prompt, and because we tend to take photos of happy occasions, they weight our memories to the good.”

– Gretchen Rubin

Some of my younger readers may wonder what I’m talking about: decluttering photos? Boxes of photos?

Yep. Back in the days when cameras used film, you’d get an envelope full of prints and negative strips. Many people just stashed these envelopes in shoeboxes or plastic bins.

Unfortunately, this means no one gets to enjoy the memories associated with those images or to giggle at the baby photos of your great grandfather wearing a dress.

Maybe you have your own prints stashed away, or perhaps you’ve inherited boxes of old prints.

You might feel overwhelmed about the idea of going through all those photos, especially if they’re not images you took or remember.

“Photographs, it seems to me, are both moments in time and bits of memory.”

– Craig Lancaster

You know me, I’m lazy into gradual minimalism, so when I inherited a few boxes of photos, I broke the project down into parts. It worked well for me, so I suggest you do the same:

Sort the photos.

If they’re your own prints, you can probably sort them into general categories without too much effort. Inherited photos may be more difficult.

You might organize by date or any number of other methods.

I’ve always organized my own photos by date, but I organized the inherited photos this way:

  • Photos of me and my family growing up
  • Photos of my mom before marriage and everyone on her side of the family (parents, brother, cousins, etc.)
  • Photos of my dad before marriage and everyone on his side of the family
  • Unknown people

You might also organize by activity or season. For example, you might want all the kids’ sports photos together, or all the Thanksgiving photos together.

Decide what to keep and what to get rid of.

Hopefully you don’t need me to tell you to get rid of all the photos you took with the lens cap still on.

It’s also pretty easy to get rid of duplicates and near-duplicates (do you really need 15 shots of the same bison at Yellowstone?).

With rare exceptions, toss blurry photos, prints with your thumb in the image, and photos too dark to see much. [By “rare,” I mean something like it’s the only photo of your grandma you have.]

Get rid of the images you hate. No reason to keep the bad-hair day photos or the photos of your ex.

And those photos of people I couldn’t identify even after some research? No reason to keep them.

Decluttering photos you don’t want to keep.

Some you can safely throw in the trash, while others you may want to share with family members. For example, I sent a bunch of extra photos of my uncle to his widow and children.

In the case of your pictures of your ex, if you had children together, the kids will probably want to keep them (if they’re young, box them up for later).

Decide what to do with the photos you’re saving.

Do you want to put them in photo albums? Make scrap books? Frame some?

Maybe you’d prefer to save your images digitally. You can buy a scanner for this purpose, or you can scan them with your cell phone or hire a service to handle it.

You may even decide to save some photos one way and some in other ways.

Complete the project.

Acquire the stuff you need – albums, frames, cell phone app – whatever you need to finish the project.

If you’re shipping the photos out for scanning, you can probably do this in one or two batches.

On the other hand, if you’re doing the work yourself, you’ll probably want to set some small goals for yourself, like 30 minutes a day or completing one scrapbook in a month.

What are your experiences with decluttering photos?

I'd love for you to share your ideas and experiences.