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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

(69 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.

kittylester Sat 05-Jun-21 16:33:52


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’.

Ouch Urmston!

We had a similar thing happen. We lived to DH's parents and did lots of things for them. After they died, 2 of DH's brothers turned up and did a sweep of the house and disappeared. After about the 4th weekend if dh and I sorting the house, dh guilt tripped his brothers into coming to help. They begrudgingly stayed a couple of ours but, as they left, DH told them to take the black bags to the dump. They took all the black bags including the 2 with years of family photos. It took dh a long time to get over that!

NfkDumpling Sat 05-Jun-21 17:37:17

Winter 2019 we went through all our albums, the inherited albums and many boxes of photos and weeded out all the views and zoos. Only photos of people remained and they're now more or less in date order.

I spent many days during last winters confinement loading slides into the projector and taking photos of them. It was the quickest way to get them onto a hard drive. So no more boxes of slides.

I'm now, bit by bit, wading through all the photos and propping the best onto a recipe stand to take a photo of the photo to get them onto the computer. I tried scanning them in but it takes far too long. Much quicker to snap them with a reasonable camera when the light is good. I may finish by summer 2025! Then I just have to do the photo books!grin

GrandmasueUK Sat 05-Jun-21 19:01:57

I used a small portable scanner for my photos. Just feed them through and they are saved onto a memory card, which has been uploaded to my PC. I spent about 3 days doing it - it was so relaxing doing it whilst listening to music! Good lockdown therapy for me.
It was similar to this one.

Urmstongran Sat 05-Jun-21 22:04:19

Oh kitty 😱
Is it awful of me to feel a bit better because someone else has ended up like me? Probably. But thank you for sharing that story. I do feel lighter somehow.

NanaCB Mon 07-Jun-21 11:17:52

Like many of you, I have a mountain of photos which I sort from time to time when I’m in the right frame of mind. Thank you Applegran for your very full useful advice. What I do now is make a photo book online every year including all the family’s activities. I’ve used Photobox for years but they have changed their format so I would be glad to hear recommendations for other websites that are easy to use.

dragonfly46 Mon 07-Jun-21 11:23:29

We have too many photos but I cannot throw any of them away especially if they have people on them. At least I have sorted them out now and they all live in the same bookcase!!

Mollygirl Mon 07-Jun-21 11:27:30

I too have thousands of photos but have managed to put them into some sort of order. When my daughters each turned 40, I made a hard cover photo book for each of them. I scanned all their childhood photos and added digital ones of all events up until their 40th birthday - the grandchildren love looking through them and finding out about happenings before they were born.
Now, each year I compile a family book of memories which includes photos of all of us throughout the year. This seems more manageable than trying to make individual books for each person and again, many happy hours are spent looking through them. I was very concerned that my daughters take hundreds of photos throughout the year but very rarely get any printed and, in years to come, they may not be able to access them as technology changes so quickly.
I originally started making books for each grandchild but soon found that I couldn’t keep up so a family book was a good compromise. Maybe this idea may help if you feel overwhelmed with photos.

Jillybird Mon 07-Jun-21 11:28:17

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

Mollygirl Mon 07-Jun-21 11:29:17

For anyone interested, I use Momento to make my books. Have always been happy with quality and service.

jaylucy Mon 07-Jun-21 11:31:18

Thank you.
I have loads of sets of photos that were 241 so will need to throw out quite a few!
After my mother died, I was looking through some photos and there were quite a few wedding photos with nothing to say who they were. I asked my dad and he had no idea either so they may well have been either people that she had worked with or distant relatives that she lost contact with.
Please, if you know who people are, write on the back the names, place/event . Your family later on will appreciate it!

Madwoman11 Mon 07-Jun-21 11:35:44

What a lovely thoughtful post. Thank you

crazygranny Mon 07-Jun-21 11:45:14

Please, please dear gransnetters do not discard any photos!!!
1. If you are inclined, there is money to be made by putting your images online and leasing them for use by others. If you do a search on ebay for vintage photos you'll see what I mean.
2. If you are disinclined to make money then there are various Facebook heritage groups which would LOVE them - especially scenes of places from times past.
3. If you want to be rid of them I will happily take them in. I am always looking for images I am allowed to use in my blog
Just private messsage me and I'll send you my address. I will happily pay postage.

JackyB Mon 07-Jun-21 12:00:30

I really feel for those of you who have lost photos or thrown them out inadvertently. Heartbreaking.

I thought that by family photos you meant the old black and white ones from before the war. They're the ones you wish you had more of.

I have already done 1 - 4 and have plans for 7 and 8. I have a washing basket full of assorted holiday reminiscences. I always kept a little travel diary, and there are postcards and other souvenirs kept from each holiday. You can scan these, too, of course, so I hope to make a photobook of each holiday.

I have also thought about making a photo book for my memoirs. My kids are interested in what we did before they came along, so condensing it all into one book may be a good way to save the memories but get rid of clutter.

In 1964 there was a Blue Peter project to start a scrap book - you could send away for a signed (?) photo of the Blue Peter dog, Petra. Since then I have kept a scrap book with theatre and concert programmes, tickets, flyers, birhtday cards and other scraps of paper. Most of it won't be of any interest to anyone when I'm gone. Stupidly, I kept photos separately in albums. It would be sensible to bring everything together chronologically.

Like SueB50 we have got slides - like, tens of thousands of slides. DH says he'd like to scan them all himself and sort them, adjust them and discard the superfluous ones. I am tempted to just get them all digitised (costs a couple of cents a picture) and work on them from the screen.

icanhandthemback Mon 07-Jun-21 12:01:13

I have started to sort out our photos. I have 6 children so I have put their photos into a separate box for each of them. If there are several similar copies, I share them out between the 6 of them so they also have photos of their siblings. Photos of my childhood are in a separate box. I will leave it to them to decide what to do with them.
I know when my MIL died, my husband was thrilled to go through the family photos and, although I know that not everybody is the same, I don't want to deprive our children of that opportunity.

Growing0ldDisgracefully Mon 07-Jun-21 12:04:06

We had a similar problem when sorting through Mum's mountain of photos after she had passed away and we had to clear the house. My 2 sisters and I made a day of it at one of our homes, with lunch, time to reminisc, and were pretty ruthless in discarding duplicate views of eg the garden (Mum loved her garden and photographed it often). One sister took charge of all the old black and white pictures of our parents in younger days, our grandparents, and us as children and produced for each of us a lovely mini family tree collage, framed and given to us as a Christmas gift - I think one of the nicest presents I've had. So maybe an idea for some of you on here?

Yammy Mon 07-Jun-21 12:05:11

We are the same loads of unsorted photos of the present family, but we have both inherited hundreds of very old family photos.
We did go through them and wrote on the back IF we knew who the person was, the funniest" Could be your great grandad but we don't think he had a car so this one that looks as if he owned must just be posed in front of",My husband never knew his paternal grandparents, the little boy is certainly his father.
Also, enough men in pith helmets to fight the Boer war.

Kryptonite Mon 07-Jun-21 12:12:19

Urmstongran I am sending you huge hugs 🥰. Your post has helped me a lot especially the fact that you have coped with this loss. I regret the many missed photo opportunities that have happened to me both past and present. I love to take photos but find that I have to remember to ask someone to take those special snaps of me with grandkids for example, otherwise they just don't tend to happen. Not as easy as it sounds. And so I spend a lot of time feeling miserable about photos that were never even taken in the first place! You are right about keeping those special times in your heart. It may help to write your memories because pictures don't tell the full story, do they? Interestingly, there are no photos of me until I was 3 months old, none of my Baptism, none with my grandmother until my wedding day and none of me and grandpa. All the photos for our very large family filled just three old albums and it was my mum behind the Box Brownie far more than in front of it 😔. It's true we took far fewer pictures in the past. Is it possible some relatives have copies of any of your photos? You never know what might turn up. I hope you are still enjoying snapping all those new memories. 🥰

PinkCosmos Mon 07-Jun-21 12:19:03

GrowingOldDisgracefully - that's a brilliant idea for the old photos.

I also have hundreds dating back to the 1920's. I inherited all of my grandparents and parents photos. I love looking at them but at the moment they are in two huge plastic boxes at the back of the loft.

I could probably get rid of a few hundred - views of goodness knows where and elephants at the zoo etc.

My mother always wrote on the back of photographs - who it was, the date and location. I carried on doing the same before we all went digital. It makes life so much easier.

I also have some very old wedding photos and portrait photos from the 1920/30s- persons unknown and some old scenic photos. I would love to pass them on to someone who could use them.

We had a new grandchild just over a year ago. For Christmas My DS and DIL had a calendar made with pictures of our GS on each page. I thought it was lovely. I am hoping they will make it a Christmas tradition.

Bossyrossy Mon 07-Jun-21 12:58:54

I also have hundreds of digital photos saved in various clouds, drop boxes etc. and on different devices - laptops, iPads, phones, external hard drives, memory sticks. I know many are duplicates but not sure which ones, so don’t want to delete any. I’ve seen advertised a system which will save all your photos, delete duplicates and put photos in folders on what looks like memory sticks, can’t remember what it’s called.. It sounds too good to be true, has anyone tried it?

Kamiso Mon 07-Jun-21 13:10:33


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.

I was always aware, when I volunteered in a charity shop, that we were often dealing with people’s “treasures”. Sad in a way but no point in housing items that you have no interest in.

Purpledaffodil Mon 07-Jun-21 13:14:58

I have downloaded an app which claims to digitise slides. Not used it yet but here it is

schnackie Mon 07-Jun-21 13:51:32

Many great ideas on here. I have been wanting to write my memoirs for a long time (and my children keep urging/begging me to do it). Recently I came up with an idea that combines both the old photos and the memoirs. I started a blog (just for family) and scan several photos onto a page, and then write what I remember about the time/place/location etc. The pictures are great for jogging the memory and the words explain so much more than looking at a photo can tell.

Nannytopsy Mon 07-Jun-21 13:58:41

We are making a photo album of their life roe each child and one for us, up to their weddings. There is also one for us. It may go to two each but that’s much more manageable than all the photos we had.

magshard20 Mon 07-Jun-21 14:40:31

When my dad died 14 years ago, we had to empty his flat pretty quick, so all the photos he had in drawers etc, we bundled into black bags, took them home and squirreled them away. About 5 years ago, we decided to look in the black bag, lots of photos.....but we didn't know half of the people on them, friends of mum and dad when they were courting many moons ago. So I became ruthless, if I didn't know who was on the photo I binned it, don't like throwing photo's away but it had to be done. I then made 3 photo albums up for my children, put photo's in of them growing up, photo's of their grandparents, godparent's etc AND put Names and approx dates on the back. I felt much better when I had done this, and hopefully when me and OH depart this earth, they won't have to go through mounds of old pics !!

olliebeak Mon 07-Jun-21 14:40:36

As an avid Family Tree researcher, I can't stress enough how important it is to put dates / places / occasions / and most importantly, NAMES on the back of each photograph!

I received so many when I first started, and it became an almost impossible task with some of them. Eventually, I began to recognise 'the child by the adult' and used fashion styles to help with that.

Enjoy your sorting out - but don't expect it to be a quick job. It's so very easy to get 'side-tracked' with the job in hand grin.