If you’re over the age of 30, you probably have at least a few — and maybe even a dozen — boxes filled with old printed photos and photo albums. You probably haven’t looked at them in years, and yet you can’t just throw them away.
An earlier version of this story may have suggested that scanning a photo was as good as scanning a negative. The story has been updated to clarify this point.
Sorting and organizing old photos is a daunting job that requires time, so it’s understandable that many of us have delayed it. But now is as good a time as any. And wouldn’t it be great to check this task off your list? I promise that whatever you’ve anticipated about this job — that it will take forever, be boring and not really make much of a difference — will turn out to be untrue.
Your goals should be to identify, categorize, minimize and efficiently store your photos. Here are some tips.
Don’t try to tackle all of your pictures in one sitting. It’s an unrealistic goal, and you’ll lose motivation if you try to do it all at once. You’ll need at least an hour to make progress, but don’t plan to work for more than two hours at a time before taking a break. Grab one or two boxes or a few albums and find a comfortable place to sit where you have room to group photos into different categories and where you can leave your photos out for a few weeks.
Albums are an easy place to begin. Even though the photos in the albums are organized, the sticky pages covered with acidic glue strips and plastic can cause the pictures to deteriorate. And bulky albums take up a lot of space on bookshelves, in closets and in storage bins. If you’re looking to regain some of that space, eliminate the need for albums.
Remove the photos from the albums (experts recommend using dental floss), keeping them in the order in which they were arranged. If the backs aren’t too sticky, you’ll stack them in chronological order and label the stacks by event and/or month and year.
In addition to preserving the photos, removing them from old “magnetic” albums also will make the prints easy to distribute, copy and store digitally.
If you only have boxes filled with miscellaneous photos, just choose one and dig in.
Developing a plan
Within the first hour, and before you’ve pulled out hundreds of photos, decide how you would like to organize them. There is no “right” way to categorize or organize your pictures — go with whatever makes the most sense to you.
Because these are old photos that probably aren’t clearly dated, don’t get bogged down trying to put them in perfect chronological order. Instead, think about organizing photos by decades, places or general time frames. For instance, “Akron, Ohio, 1980-1987, Elementary School,” or “Family Photos, 1970-1979.” Create labeled stacks.
Many people keep their prints and negatives in the envelopes from the store where the film was developed. Before you toss the envelopes, check to see whether there are dates on them . As for those negatives that have been separated from their corresponding prints: if there’s one special picture you want to duplicate, expect it to be quite tedious and time-consuming to find the right negative. While the negative will yield a better image, you may want to save the time and scan the photo instead.
As you begin sorting, you may realize that a third of the pictures in each envelope are terrible and can be tossed — scenic shots of unrecognizable locations, photos of people you don’t remember, shots of events that you would rather not remember, or pictures where everyone’s eyes are closed. The distinction between what is worth keeping and what is not is usually pretty clear. And if you had splurged for the “doubles deal” and don’t want to give someone else the copy, toss the duplicates.
If you can’t identify a photo’s subject or the occasion, ask a friend or family member and make notes on the back of the print. This will be helpful for you and family members who are looking through the prints in the years ahead.
Culling and organizing your photos is a huge task, and if you’ve managed to get through all of them, that’s a big accomplishment. A lot of people will stop there and are satisfied to place delineated photos in a clean, labeled box, and put them in a basement closet.
And because most people’s photo collections have been moved from home to home in flimsy cardboard boxes and have survived, there’s no real need to spend a lot of money on fancy archival storage boxes or expensive albums. But I do recommend using shoe box-size boxes that can hold one category of photos and are easy to move around.
Actual shoe boxes or similar-size containers work well for 4-by-6-inch and smaller photos, as do photo boxes sold at craft stores. Larger photos can be stored in labeled manila folders or larger document boxes.
Another option is to have all of your newly organized pictures scanned and digitized, so you can toss the prints and easily send electronic copies to friends and family. There are a number of online companies that provide this service based on a per-print cost, such as ScanCafe, DigMyPics, ScanMyPhotos and Legacybox. Your local photo or office store probably provides similar services.
Getting your decades-old print photos organized will not have a major impact on your daily life, but it’s still worth doing. It is usually among the top three projects my clients want to accomplish: first and foremost, to make sure their memories are in order and easy to share with friends and family, and also to ensure they’re not wasting precious storage space. As a bonus, tackling this project before the holidays may give you a chance to share prints with family members or frame a gem that you uncover as a holiday gift.
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