by Susan McCarthy
If the idea of tossing family photos seems sacrilegious, remember that not every image you find in your personal collection or while clearing out a parent’s home will have perfectly captured a moment in time. Weeding out less than great images will help to highlight the pictures that do tell the story of your family.
When you decide to organize the family photos, the first thing you’ll want to do is to gather them to one place so you can see what you have. Next, you’ll sort through the pictures, grouping images that have something in common. This allows you to compare similar images and select the best.
And while doing this preliminary organizing, you’ll be glancing at hundreds (or maybe thousands) of images. One thing you may notice, along with the subject of the pictures, is the quality of the photos. There are some low-quality images that you can toss (or delete, if digital) without much concern.
Remember, back in the days of film photography, that entire roll would get printed. And because those pictures were paid for, even the less than great ones were kept, even if they didn’t make it into the family photo album.
Photos to Toss (or Delete) without Guilt
As you sort through your photos, grouping them by event or year, you’ll encounter photos that you can toss without guilt. You aren’t yet judging the content of the photos. The advice here is strictly limited to image quality (and duplicates of photos). Weeding out these types of pictures will make it easier to see which ones deserve more attention.
Duplicates – Unless you plan to send the duplicates to another family member, you don’t need two or three copies of a print photo. Also, keeping a back-up with the original doesn’t help to preserve the image should something happen to the prints. You can back up favorites and important pictures, later, by scanning them.
Blurry images – Can’t tell who or what is in the photo? You don’t need to hold onto it even if you think that blurry shape in the distance is your 20-year-old grandmother at the beach.
Pictures that are too dark or too light – Again, if you’re struggling to decipher an image, consider if the effort is worth the image. If you have a single photo of your mother and the flash wiped away the details of her face so that you only know it’s her because your aunt remembered her sister wearing a particular dress, well, you might choose to keep that picture. But, in most cases, if a photo makes you say, “who the heck is that?” it’s not going to be a treasured image.
Vague subjects – Oh, look, a tree, the ocean, a tree, another tree, more trees, oh, here’s the ocean again. I led a few nature photography classes with preteens and teens during my time as a nature and art teacher which means that I have many folders on my computer that are filled with pictures of trees, rock formations, leaves, and mushrooms.
If it wasn’t for the label on the digital folder, in many cases I’d struggle to identify the location of an image. Deciding to toss pictures with ubiquitous subjects comes down to why you want these images. If nature photography is your hobby, then you’ll hold onto images that someone who took the pictures on vacation probably wouldn’t.
I’m not saying that you’ll toss every scenery shot, but the ones that could have been taken anywhere won’t stand out in your collection.
Photos from past projects – Years ago I wrote how-to articles with directions for kids’ crafts. I’d need pictures of the process as well as the finished project. It wasn’t important to hold onto these images after they were used.
I also weeded through photos I’d taken of crocheted items I made as gifts. I have a few pictures so if I’m talking to someone about the type of things that I’ve made I can show them photos of the finished projects.
Maybe you’ve taken progress shots of your garden or your home renovations or something you built. If you like that they tell a story, hold onto them. You can always weed through them later. However, if you find yourself looking a picture of meals you’ve eaten or cakes you baked and rolling your eyes that you have these images, it’s a sign that you can let them go. (And chances are that if you posted them to social media, you still have a copy.)
If these pictures don't tell an interesting story, you don't need to keep them.
Mystery people and places – Back before people had phones with cameras, I’d bring my camera to all sorts of work-related events. It gave me something to do and to talk about (I’m not great with small talk nor am I fond of crowds). Often, I was the only one with a camera.
For some reason, I’d get duplicate pictures printed (again, this was in the days of film) – one for work and one for myself – which meant that years later I was faced with photos of people I was no longer in contact with. The pictures no longer had any meaning for me.
And if you are going through your parent’s photos, you may want to set aside these pictures in the hope that an older relative or one of your parent’s friends will remember some of the details. But really, this isn’t all that important. Just as you may still have photos of people who are no longer a part of your life, your parents had these types of pictures as well.
You don’t have to go all private detective on your parent’s past. Think back to your reason for sorting through all these photographs. Is it really to capture every moment of someone’s life?
Why Did We Keep All Those Awful Pictures?
Remember, back in the days of film, you had to pay for film developing and photo printing whether the images were good or not. Many people probably felt that they paid for a picture and so they were going to keep it no matter the quality.
And digital pictures live “invisibly” in our computer. They don’t take up physical space, probably don’t affect our cloud storage plan, and are easy to ignore. However, when we go looking for a certain photo, or even group of photos from a vacation, it’s discouraging to scroll through lackluster images.
Remember, when eliminating less than great images you aren’t judging the subject of the photograph or its value to your memories. This is the simpler acknowledgement that these blurry, vague, unimportant images aren’t worth holding onto.
To recap, create some space in that collection of photos by eliminating pictures with these qualities:
Taking the step to eliminate low-quality pictures from the collection can help you see just what photos you have that do tell the story of your family. (And if you don’t want to immediately get rid of the pictures that fall into these less-than-great picture categories, you can toss them in their own box. You can dispose of them when you finish organizing your photo collection.
Hi, I'm Susan
Emptying my parents' overpacked 800-square-foot house left me popping handfuls of peanut M&Ms and doing a WHOLE lot of comfort-crocheting. The experience of sorting through mom and dad's stuff also encouraged me to become a professional organizer...so now I can offer techniques that work much better than chocolate.