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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.

olliebeak Mon 07-Jun-21 14:45:36

As a hint for anybody who is trying to find old photos of themselves ............... try to remember if you went to any weddings when younger. Then try to contact either the person who got married - OR their song/daughter who may have kept the wedding album. Very often, there was at least ONE group photo of all the wedding guests surrounding the bride and groom - and children were usually placed in the front of such photos - often presenting a horseshoe to the bride. You'll also find lots of other relatives on the same photos, including your parents / grandparents /great-aunts and uncles!

MaggsMcG Mon 07-Jun-21 17:07:31

I have done it once for my own photos. It still needs doing again. I have loads of albums from my late mother and some of them come from her parents, and they go back to 1890's. I dont even know who half of them are. My oldest living relative on my Mum's side is in her late 80's and has dementia so she wouldn't know who they are either. I'm tempted to just throw them away but I can't. I will have to when I downsize which will be a a year or two.

Knopflerfan Mon 07-Jun-21 19:08:16

A huge thank you to Applegran for the detailed instructions and to everyone else for making me feel SO much better about the blanket chest (just like another contributor!) which I have been “going to sort during next winter” for about — ooh, 15 years? 20 maybe?
But maybe it’s good that we haven’t had time - it suggests life is full of other, even more interesting, things to keep us occupied!?? (Self delusion or what ...?)

mar76 Mon 07-Jun-21 20:00:12

I sorted photographs of my children and on their 40th birthday gave them each an album of 40 years of their life. I also included certificates they had acquired ie running, chess competitions etc. I think they appreciated it.

Neetamd Mon 07-Jun-21 20:38:41

I can highly recommend these entertaining podcasts from 2 professional photo organisers in Australia.

Mamma66 Tue 08-Jun-21 04:58:44

An excellent idea Applegran, we are currently going through this…

sunnybean60 Tue 08-Jun-21 06:32:57

Gave each of my three children a photo album for Christmas with their own family photographs as children in them. Took me ages but was very satisfying when I completed the task. I didn't keep negatives (apart from maybe just a handful) but they now each have a lovely album in their homes to flick through. The rest (still a massive amount) I will need to tackle another time, starting with doing an album each for grandchildren for this Christmas.

Harmonypuss Tue 08-Jun-21 06:41:57

I dug out all my physical photos about 15yrs ago, didn't bother sorting them, just scanned them all and binned the physical ones.

Then I went through them on the computer moving them into folders and labelling them with names (and dates if I could remember).

They're all saved on the computer and in the cloud. The whole job only took about 4 days for over 2500 photos and now I've salvaged loads of space where all the photo albums, loose pictures and envelopes with negative were stored.

Dylant1234 Tue 08-Jun-21 08:16:22

Sorting a huge trunkful was to be my retirement and lockdown task - needless to say not yet touched! Shall definitely try this coming winter on cold or rainy days and maybe tell myself “just do one hour”, this helps with sorting old paperwork and hopefully I’ll get carried away and sometimes do more than an hour!

Shropshirelass Tue 08-Jun-21 09:16:17

I have this to do, as well as mountains of my own photos, I have inherited my parents, my uncle’s and an aunt’s treasured photos of her travels. I have decided only to keep the ones where I recognise people and maybe the odd one of a location if I like it, if I don’t know them then no point in keeping them as there is no one left to tell me who they are. Loads of meaningless views that meant something once upon a time but not now. I know when I fall off my perch, my daughter will probably skip everything! She doesn’t keep clutter!

lemsip Tue 08-Jun-21 09:26:16

crazygranny............Thanks for your interesting post. It was lovely to see the 1950s photos on your site

ExD Tue 08-Jun-21 09:32:50

Oh dear, I just don't have the skills or the equipment.

Callistemon Tue 08-Jun-21 09:49:22

Please, please dear gransnetters do not discard any photos!!!

I agree. Some time in the past photos of my PIL's wedding must have got lost or discarded so we found none when we cleared MIL's house although we do have their marriage certificate.

There were hundreds of other snaps, though and lots of studio portraits of unknown people .

2mason16 Tue 08-Jun-21 10:00:46

I have been busy over the lockdowns sorting very old family photos into three 'family tree albums ' for the grandchildren. I gave them as an extra Christmas gift. I even put in birth and marriage certificates so they have lots of info.
If I make another I would like to put little notes in of the ancestor's hobbies. E.g. great-grandma who cycled around London on her eay to work as a 'nippy' in Lyons Corner House. Her father who broke the ice to swim in the Serpentine on New Year's day. Just snippets but they may find interesting.

Romola Tue 08-Jun-21 10:54:12

Thank you, Applegran. I have copied and printed your comprehensive guide.

Carenza123 Wed 09-Jun-21 07:43:10

Just a little off topic but when moving house, a box containing all our Christmas decorations collected over the years, were thrown out and sent to the tip. I did cry, as the decorations included many sentimental items from years past, including my children’s Christmas art pictures from primary school. I was devastated but at the ages of 26 and 28 asked them to replicate these artistic efforts, which they did, much to their amusement. Now I have replacements that I still treasure.

TLVgran48 Wed 09-Jun-21 08:53:09

What a very helpful post! Some years ago I paid a condolence call at a friend's home, after her mother died. On the table was a vast mound of photos from the 1880s onwards - but no one had a clue who the people were, as nobody had written on the back. Such a shame.

Bluedaisy Sun 20-Jun-21 16:19:38

Please grans put your photos in an acid and lignin free album, easily bought online in a 12” x 12” format or in WHSmiths. The old type ‘flip’ albums of years ago make photos go yellow and lose colour. My hobby is scrapbook albums. Totally good advice Applegran regarding how to sort them and get rid of duplicates, be ruthless with the ones you want to keep and definitely label who that person is, dates, how they are related etc for future generations but putting them in an acid free album with a bit of background they will then stay in that condition for at least 100 years and it’s a lovely thing to leave future generations. Any old slides that were popular in the 60’s I’ve taken to a photo shop and had put on a cd disc, had copies made for my brother so he can pass on to his children too along with a couple of albums I made up for him of grandparents, our parents and us as children when our own parents passed away. Albums make wonderful presents that are always much appreciated in the family and the odd one I’ve done for friends.