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Have you got a daunting mountain of old family photos? Its hard to know where to start, but here is an idea which works

(68 Posts)
Applegran Sat 05-Jun-21 10:12:45

I had literally thousands of old family photos and knew that if I didn’t sort them out, no one ever would, and no one else would be able to identify some of the people. So I started work, and only evolved a satisfying way ahead as I proceeded, which meant I had to repeat lots of work and slowed the process down enormously. In case it would help you, if you too have a daunting mountain of unsorted family photos, I’m offering here the process I finally and painfully arrived at.

So – if you too have thousands of photos, first decide what will guide you in throwing away many more than you keep? For me, this meant prioritising pictures of people and only keeping photos of places where they had special meaning, for instance, somewhere we had lived, or something special had happened.

Second, if you have 6 nearly identical photos of your baby, only keep one good one.

Third, aim to have pictures of the different stages of your children’s lives, and decide if you are going to include pictures of them as adults and of their children. I decided on sticking to their childhoods – they can keep their own photos of adulthood and their families. This saved many hours of work! If I decide to include adulthood and grandchildren, that will be a separate project…… the future, if ever.

Fourth, decide on categories for the photos you keep. So I had a category for each child “(child’s name) Childhood”; I had another called “earlier generations” which included great-grandparents and others; there was a category labelled “family together” because many pictures included all the children. And so on – you decide what works for you and you can flex as you go, but its good to work as soon as you can with categories which fit your purpose.


1.Assemble your old unsorted photos
2.Get a table, and a big waste paper basket or similar for the rejects (be ruthless – photos of beautiful lakes you cannot even remember where they were are NOT worth keeping!)
3.Get e.g. old shoe boxes (you can buy them on line) and have tall cardboard dividers to label each section e.g. with a child’s name. Put the photos in the shoe boxes standing upright. The dividers have to be taller than the photos to be useful. Or you could skip the shoe boxes and just go to folders – see 6 below - but I found the shoe boxes useful.
4.Start sorting and throwing away. Write on the back of each photo you keep – make sure you put names and if possible dates and places, but its names which matter most. Scan the photos into your computer and email them to the person or people in them - I found that people loved receiving these past memories. It takes time to scan in, but sharing them as you go on is fun and motivating and enables the next step.
5.Create albums on your computer. This is easy. Find out how to move each photo scanned in to your computer into the relevant album(s). It’s easy to add titles and additional information to the photos. Albums can have the names of the categories you have already chosen AND on your computer each picture can appear as many times as you like! So it could be in ‘(child’s name) childhood’ as well as ‘Family together’.
6.Have closable folders with appropriate category labels and put the original prints into these folders.
(If you have amazing stamina and ambition you could then sort them out chronologically and stick them in albums with labels. I am NOT doing this! The children can receive the prints unsorted but without being lost in the hay stack of photos I had at the beginning)
7.When you’ve finished this process you have done the huge first sorting out process and should cheer a bit! Then you consult your children about how they would like to receive and keep the electronic versions of the photos you have in your computer albums. You can also at the first opportunity give them their own folders of childhood photos as prints.
8.Finally you can create a photo book for each child. I have made a selection from the computer albums for each of them, struggled a bit, and learnt how to go on line and make a photo album which will be printed, have hard covers, and be a wonderful gift for the adult child. I will have two copies made of each album, one for me and one for the adult child – when I die, they can have my copy too and pass both on to the grandchildren.

I hope this will help you avoid the time consuming mistakes I made and that you will enjoy handing on a manageable number of unique photos to your children and grandchildren. It’s a great gift to the next generations.

EllanVannin Sat 05-Jun-21 10:30:15

Don't remind me grin----thousands ! Inside and outside albums. It all sounds like a good idea though to have them all in some semblance of order.
A job for the winter months sounds the best.

Blinko Sat 05-Jun-21 10:35:48

Applegran fabulous! thank you so much for sharing your system with us. It's something I keep promising myself to do on those dark days of Winter...

Marydoll Sat 05-Jun-21 10:47:58

I started sorting yesterday and gave up! I will try your method, thanks Applegran.

Shandy57 Sat 05-Jun-21 10:53:49

Thank you very much Applegran, I have about eight huge boxes of loose photos and feel encouraged to make a start. My aunt has sent me many photos of people I don't remember meeting - and now she can't remember who they are! So important to label.

Sara1954 Sat 05-Jun-21 10:57:43

I have dozens of albums, a blanket box full of photos, not to mention thousands on my phone.
Your method sounds really good, but time consuming!
One of my daughters makes a photo book for each child on their birthday, selecting the nicest ones, and the best memories from the past year, I think that’s a nice idea.

Urmstongran Sat 05-Jun-21 10:59:25

When we downsized 11y ago I spent a couple of weeks emptying old ‘flip’ photo albums. Culled many. Put others in 2 big boxes to continue sorting once we had moved. Several months later I found one of the boxes I had brought contained photos I had meant to chuck out. You can guess where the ones I wanted to save had gone. I was so upset. I came to terms with it over time but every now and again one of our girls will mention a photo (thinking I still have it in a box somewhere).

I keep quiet and change the subject. All those memories. Baby photos, school sports days, family celebrations. I have to stop thinking about it or I’ll get upset all over again.

So, fingers in ears and ‘la-la’.

Chestnut Sat 05-Jun-21 11:04:00

What gets even worse is after 2000 the photos become digital, and there are trillions of them! Especially now everyone is snapping away with their phones. My daughters have taken so many of their children, I'm not sure they realise that no-one will ever be able to look through them...too many! They need to delete hundreds but once taken it's hard to delete a good photo!

timetogo2016 Sat 05-Jun-21 11:05:57

I too have hundreds of photos,but just can`t bring myself to get rid,thankfully my dil said she would have them when i`m gone.
But i find it really sad when i see old photos on a car boot,especialy when it`s a house clearance spot,i can`t help but pick them up and daftly ,under my breath say hello,and bless you.
Off to the funny farm eh.

Kate1949 Sat 05-Jun-21 11:37:47

We have thousands, some in albums, some just loose in a box all jumbled up.
It was to be my task on retirement. Twelve years on it's still not done. My granddaughter helped me make a start a while ago and we bought folders and sorted a fair few out. There are hundreds left to be done. I did start last week throwing random beach scenes etc away. I must get on with it. Thanks for the reminder.

Devorgilla Sat 05-Jun-21 11:43:30

Thanks for this Applegran. I will be adopting some of your ideas.

essjay Sat 05-Jun-21 11:46:39

sort of did that with mine last year during the first lockdown, took everything out of albums- taking up way too much space- removed any that were of places that only i knew what they were and definitely of no use to anyone else. put them in shoeboxes with dividers year by year and wrote on the back with details. Only have 25 years worth as lost most when divorced.

Newquay Sat 05-Jun-21 11:53:49

What a fabulous scheme-thank you!
A few years ago we made online albums (a bit of a faff first time!) for DGD’s 18th then 21st.
So we sorted through a lot of albums-throwing away views (some beautiful but even we didn’t remember where most were!). DH found that hard 😞
Then-ta dah-we added the photos we have of our parents and grandparents at the front-a sort of photographic family tree with DOB and marriage too.
It was a start!
When our 2 DD were 40 they wanted the same so we split the photos into each of theirs too-(feeling somewhat smug!)
Now I haven’t done much with photos on mobile except I try to delete duplicates sharpish!

Jeansm Sat 05-Jun-21 12:09:26

I did the same thing. Sent all my daughter’s baby and pre school photos to the charity shop and saved an empty album. It was because I was rushed. I had taken over the dining room with the project and had to tidy up earlier than expected. Allow lots and lots of time, or prepare in an unused room. If, like me, you are nostalgic, it will take way longer than you think.

Lin52 Sat 05-Jun-21 12:22:57

Thankyou for these very helpful tips. Like many others have boxes of unsorted photos, and many negatives. Some of these had reprinted, expensive as 125 so not in use today, but gave me back many memories.

Marmight Sat 05-Jun-21 12:34:52

I too have thousands plus my parent’s my in laws’, my 2 Aunt’s. I started in the winter chucking out scenes and people I had no idea of but when it came to my own family and late DH I found it all too emotional. Also sorting the ancient sepia photos of ancestors is difficult. I think. Know who they are but ....
One of my DDs will, eventually, go through them and become the family photo ‘historian’ 🙄

Cs783 Sat 05-Jun-21 12:47:50

Oh Urmstonegran sympathies for having lost family photos, and well done you for coping strategies. I can only add that we grew up with few family images, didn’t we?

mrsba Sat 05-Jun-21 12:49:37

yes, I too have loads. in boxes and albums, unlabelled, I make a start then end up putting them back on the shelf, it's so daunting. Sadly some of the photos in albums have faded badly, not sure if it's the glue on the pages or the film that goes over them, but my baby photos of my daughter have gone nearly black and white sad

lemongrove Sat 05-Jun-21 13:32:50

Good useful advice Applegransmile
I did my sorting out during lockdown and rainy weather, had been meaning to do it for years.Mind you, I only have a fraction of the old photo’s that you have.
I started by throwing any picturesque scenes away ... Llandudno circa 1926 and so on😁 and then sorted and wrote on the back of photo’s of past ( and passed) relatives, name, location and date where possible.I can’t tell you how thrilled our AC will be by looking at a photo of ‘Uncle Stan on the Prom at Blackpool 1957’....but that’s another story🤣
All done, I divided them into three packs of photos ready to give ( or for them to find) in the future, with their names on.
They can either keep or throw as they like.
It gave a sense of relief to have done it.

Urmstongran Sat 05-Jun-21 13:46:26


Oh Urmstonegran sympathies for having lost family photos, and well done you for coping strategies. I can only add that we grew up with few family images, didn’t we?

Of course you are quite right. And thank you for your kindness. It upsets me less as the years go by - we keep our memories in our hearts forever. Thinking that way I have put my error to bed. Mostly.

Nannagarra Sat 05-Jun-21 14:23:37

A friend who, as a teenager, had a Saturday job in a well-known photography shop recommended undeveloped film should be stored in the fridge. This I did when my children were young, vowing to do something about it...
When they’d flown the nest I had the rolls developed. It took me three week to put the prints into chronological order with dividers in a shoe box as you suggest Applegran. Car registration numbers, items of clothing worn together with signs in various foreign languages helped me to identify locations and dates. It was a Herculean task but much fun - a real test of detective skills!

Callistemon Sat 05-Jun-21 14:32:49

This is something I meant to do over lockdown but dudnt.

I find it hard to throw away photos of people unless they are terrible. In fact I have a file of rather nice old photos labelled 'Who am I' because they came from MIL's house and no-one now has a clue who any of them are.

Septimia Sat 05-Jun-21 14:34:21

We, too, have lots of photos, including on the computer. Future generations may be interested in pictures of their ancestors but not of places (unless they are important in showing how the places have changed, like the old ones in our village archive).

I haven't sorted them all out yet but I do now make the best of our holiday ones into books with the holiday diaries. When they're printed they make nice things to browse for the memories and the diary part puts them into context for the next generation.

My mum went through all the old family photos before she died, putting them into an album and labelling them so that I know who everyone is. Really useful!

Maywalk Sat 05-Jun-21 14:58:43

Mine are all sorted thank goodness and the oldest one is of my mother in taken at a studio in 1900 when she was around 10 months old and is sitting in an old boot.

Fascinating photo and never seen another like it.

SusieB50 Sat 05-Jun-21 15:20:15

My dear dad soon after he retired spent a long time cataloging old family photos and naming all the relatives . I am so pleased he did , I think as we get older we get more interested in our old relatives. Now both parents have died I have many photos of theirs plus all our own also in shoe boxes all waiting to be culled and sorted .My brother kept all the slides my father took and has discovered they are deteriorating. We are wondering if we can take a photo of the projected picture . Does anyone have other suggestions?