Time to Sort Photographs!

One box of photos at a time!

The Great Pause, as I’ve recently read the COVID-19 shutdown called, has given us all a major downsize in lifestyle. No more group lunches, no more family holiday gatherings. It’s given us time to assess what is truly important and to reflect with gratitude on things we may have taken for granted previously. And it’s give us time. So much time. Time to clean out the closet, dust the top shelves, scrub out the dark corners of bathroom floors, learn how to use FaceTime or Zoom and finally read War and Peace. After 3-4 weeks of staying at home, you may be wondering what else you could possibly do to keep things interesting?

May I suggest you begin downsizing your stuff? Go a little further than cleaning out the junk drawer or rooting through your linen closet. There has never been a better time to take on one of the bigger projects in most households: photographs.

If you are like most of my clients, you have dozens of albums and several shoe boxes of loose prints, not to mention rolls of super 8 movie film. Start your purge with the shoe boxes (or bags, or wherever the loose photos are gathered) and simply begin. Like the old adage “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time,” taking this project in small chunks will show you progress as you move through the boxes.

First consider, why are you keeping the photos? For yourself? To pass along to relatives? Both? Knowing why you are keeping them; will help you decide which photos to keep. Your relatives don’t want to look at scenery from your 1978 trip to Italy, but they may love the one of you in the gondola. There are 3 basic decisions when making choices about photos; Keep, Toss, or Give to Someone Else.

Photos to Toss:

  • Bad shots—Out of focus, too dark, too far away or poorly timed.
  • Scenery/Trips—Animals from the zoo, a pretty flower, or scenery. Unless the shot is spectacular, you can let these go (otherwise frame and display).
  • People You Don’t Know/Remember—backyard BBQ with neighbors you can’t remember, your kids’ friends at a birthday party, workmates long forgotten (One caveat, if they are likely to be relatives and you think someone else might know them set aside in a “Give to Someone Else” pile.)
  • Duplicates—it used to be customary to get an extra set of prints free when you developed your film, time to let the extras go unless you are Giving it to Someone Else.


  • The BEST Photos of People You Love—this is where it gets harder, you will have multiple shots of some moments. Maybe a whole roll of film was taken one holiday morning? Take a look, keep 2 or 3 of the very best of those photos. Can you clearly see faces? Is that someone who usually hid from the camera? Be ruthless and keep only the very best shots.
  • Take a moment to write on the back the year and names of the people, if they aren’t already documented. Sometimes you have to wait to determine years until you have enough set aside that you can rebuild a timeline.
  • This process, especially if you are looking at photos that have been put in shoe boxes or bags, will not be linear. Just keep at it, do a box at a time. If you come across a new envelope of pictures that are similar to ones you already looked through, you may want to reconsider which ones to keep as the new batch may have better photos.

Give to Someone Else:

The main thing to remember here is “why?” Why would this person want this photo? If you don’t have an answer, have a conversation. Find out if the photos are of interest to the person you think would want them.

  • Your Children—if you have more than one child, you may wish to separate out photos of them so they can have their own record of their childhood. Most adult children do not one stacks and stacks of their school photographs, but an album full of classic childhood moments would be a beautiful gift.
  • Your Siblings—if you inherited your parent’s photo collection, or are the keeper of the family archives, you may have some terrific photos that your sibling might like to have. Talk with them first, some may not want anything but great photo of your parents, or their own childhood photographs.
  • Loved Ones—every family is different and you may have a special relationship with someone who would love to have a few of a certain category of photos.
  • Photos of Unknown Relatives—this pile is specifically for getting more information, if the person you think might know the people doesn’t, you can toss the photos.

Once you have finished all the loose photos, move on to albums, if you want to thin them out. These will be a little harder because you once felt the photos inside them were good enough to display. There will, however, be many opportunities to cull the albums, perhaps condensing them down and adding the photos you just selected to keep as you go. Photos don’t have to go in albums, it’s perfectly fine to keep them in shoe box, though an archival photo box will keep them better preserved.

If this Great Pause goes on even longer, you may want to go through the same process with your digital photos, selecting a handful of gems to print out or create a printed album on a website such as Shutterfly. If you don’t know how to use the sites, you may be able to get some help from your children or grandchildren. They may also have a bit more time on their hands these days and enjoy doing a creative project together.