Here’s How to Declutter Old Photos Without the Guilt, According to a Pro Organizer

published May 14, 2023
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Man sitting at table doing research on family members on computer for family tree
Credit: Uwe Krejci/Getty Images

While I don’t own piles of physical photos, as a professional organizer I work with many people who do and who struggle to part with them. I get it. I grew up with a dad who dabbled in photography and currently keeps hundreds, if not thousands, of photos in shoe boxes in the basement (a collection that I’m sure he’ll deem an organization project for me to do someday).

The reason I think it’s difficult to declutter and sort through photos is twofold. For one, it’s an emotional process. Looking at them can stir up everything from joy to nostalgia and even sadness. Secondly, the volume that many people own is usually heavy, so between that and the feelings they evoke, it can feel like an overwhelming task.

But if you’re looking to lighten the load of your household and also organize the photos that you love so they can be enjoyed for generations to come, it’s an important one to tackle. I’ve compiled a no-nonsense list of the photos that should be decluttered, along with a quick guide on keeping the special ones.

Before Getting Started

Here are a few tips to make the process go easier for you.

  • If you’re currently in the midst of a whole-home organizing project, I would advise waiting until that’s complete before addressing the photos. As you’re going through the rest of the home, have a box readily available to collect any pictures that you find.
  • Make sure you have all of the photographs you found together in one place before looking through them. This will greatly help with decision-making as you can see the full picture. Have a clear space to sort, like a large table, so you can stay organized.
  • Recruit help if you can or would like to — especially if the photos are also meaningful to someone else.
Credit: Emma Fiala

What Photos to Get Rid of

When you’re ready to start purging photos, here are the ones you should consider tossing.

Blurry, Bad Photos

When I help clients declutter their homes and they’re wrestling with decisions, I start with no-brainer items like food or medicine that have gone bad. I suggest doing the same with photographs. If you can’t make out who is even in the picture, toss it. Along the same lines, get rid of the oddly cropped shots. You know, the ones where the subject barely even makes it into the image and you’re left wondering what the photographer was thinking (even if the photographer was you).

Doubles (and Similar Shots)

The option to print a duplicate set of pictures must have seemed like a good idea back in the day, but you don’t need two of every shot anymore. While you’re at it, get rid of ones that are almost identical to the photo you want. Quality over quantity is the goal.

Questionable Images

Let me elaborate. If you have no idea what the photo is of or who the people are posing in it, it’s a sign to ditch it. You might want to check with a relative if you’re going through family pictures, as they can put names to faces. In a similar vein, get rid of any images that don’t exactly show you or others in the best light. It could be someone blinking, making an unintentionally funny face, or bending over at the wrong time. On the other hand, if it’s a photo that everyone — including the person in question — thinks is funny, it’s worth keeping if only for future laughs.

Ones with Negative Connotations

You know these when you see them. For many people, it’s the photos of their exes. If it’s a good memory, albeit bittersweet, and you want to keep it in a personal memory box, I permit you. But it shouldn’t be mixed in with current family photos. The same goes for old friendships. If you want to hold onto an image from someone important to you for a period in your life, save one or two. But the rest? Let them go.

Ones That Would Be Better Enjoyed by Others

If you have piles of photos featuring, say, your cousins when they were young, they might like to have them for their collection. The same goes for others’ kids, parents, or even pets. As an example, I inherited a stack of pictures from my maternal grandfather’s childhood. Quite a few of them featured his brother, my great-uncle, so I asked his son if he’d like those. That’s the key: Always ask first before dumping photos onto someone else for them to sort through.

Credit: Minette Hand

How to Organize Photos

Now, with the remaining photographs, here’s how to best organize them.

Use photo albums.

This method is best if you’re the type that regularly likes to take a walk down memory lane. They’re easy to pull out and flip through, as well as entertaining for guests to do the same. On the flip side, they do require a lot of time, organization skills, and space to be stored. If that’s not an issue for you, I recommend either investing in a matching set of albums so they look tidy on display or placing them in a closed cabinet.

Buy photo boxes.

You can choose to store all of your photos in boxes or just the ones that didn’t make it into an album. This condenses the amount of storage space — especially because you can stack the boxes on a shelf. Most include dividers that allow you to label dates, events, or people. You can also opt for a plastic version that comes with individual latched boxes to keep pictures sorted. Whether you organize your photos in albums, boxes, or a combination of both, make sure they are stored in a spot that is temperature-controlled so they stay preserved.

Go digital.

Lastly, it’s a good idea to create a digital footprint of your photo collection even if you still hold onto the originals. While it’s not fun to think about, this ensures they survive in case of an unfortunate disaster. There are apps, physical scanners, and even professional services that can do this for you. My paternal grandmother recently passed and has dozens of meticulously organized photo albums dating back to the 1930s that I plan on digitizing for the entire family. I think I just might have to report back on the method I choose and how it turns out.