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Simplify Your Space: A Senior’s Guide to Decluttering Photos

A senior woman sits on a couch, looking at the many photos that fill the top of the sofa table in front of her.

Many of us have boxes and drawers full of photos commemorating special occasions like holidays, birthdays, and other momentous days. 

However, when you are downsizing like I recently did, photos can suddenly feel more like clutter, causing you to feel unsure of what to do with those snapshots of great memories.

Do you keep them? And if so, how do you organize them?

Some pointers for decluttering photos include:

  • Set a goal
  • Sort by category
  • Organize into a box or photo album
  • Consider digitizing your photos

Although a few boxes of photos might seem small compared to other areas of your home that you might be trying to organize, you should tackle that mountain of snapshots before it keeps growing. 

How Do You Declutter Old Photos?

Do you have a free afternoon? Great. It’s time to declutter those old photos that have been nagging at you once and for all. 

Here’s how to finally get out from under that mountain of memories!

Set A Goal

It’s always best to have a plan when beginning any disorganizing project, including decluttering old photos.

Do you want to keep most of what you have, or are you okay going scorched earth and dumping photos?

Consider that the more photos you decide to keep, the more adequate storage you must have available. 

You don’t have to come up with a complex, multi-part goal. If you want to keep 75 percent of your old photos and find an efficient organization system, that’s doable. 

Read our article, How To Get Rid Of Knick Knacks.

Sort By Category

The next question becomes, what organizing criteria do you use for your photos?

You can choose any that suits you, but organizing your photographs by category is a tried and true method. 

Another option is to sort them chronologically, which becomes worlds easier if you or the photographer kept dates on the backs of the photos (or if the camera printed the dates on the photos themselves).

Categories you might use for sorting your photos include birthdays, Christmases, Halloweens, Thanksgivings, Easters, anniversaries, new babies, weddings, etc. 

You can even organize the photos chronologically and categorically, such as Christmas 1992 and baby photos from birth through 14 years old. 

Organize Into A Box Or Photo Album

Once you’ve decided which photos will stay and go (I’ll talk more about this momentarily, so don’t stress if you’re still debating), the next step is to decide how and where you’ll store them.

Slotting photos into an album makes for a great keepsake. You can enjoy strolling down memory lane when you have family members over, laughing over old moments.

Organizing images into a photo album also allows you to flex your scrapbooking skills.

Alternatively, you can use a large box to store your photos.

A few shoeboxes are fine if you don’t have a substantial volume of photos, whereas a larger box or storage bin is best if you keep most of your snapshots.

While boxes and bins can hold far more photos than albums, keeping the piles of pictures organized is harder, and you can’t look through them as easily.

You must also store them carefully to avoid bending or damaging them. 

Consider Digitizing Your Photos

Even if you’ve gone through the trouble of organizing your photos, you’ll surely accumulate more. So now is a great time to strongly think of digitizing your photos. 

You can use a scanner to transfer old photos to your computer. Apps can also digitize photos.

Simply hold the photo up to your smartphone, and the app will create a digital copy.

These methods are effective but time-consuming, so you may also consider getting a professional photo digitizer to save effort.

That said, digital photos hog device space in much the same way that hard copy photos take up actual space, so for digital photos, consider using cloud storage.

Or sending the photos to a computer or external hard drive frequently for safekeeping. 

How Do I Organize My 50 Years Of Photos? 

50 years of photos is a lot to go through! Trust me – I just went through almost that many years worth of photos when I recently moved to a smaller home.

I not only had my own photos, but those of my parents, who also had boxes of them, which I “inherited” when they passed away a few years ago.

I had put off organizing them until it was too late, though.

The six bins of photos made the move with us and now I have to deal with them in a much smaller space. But, I’m getting there!

Hopefully, my tips learned through my experience will help you make sense of the sky-high pile of images you’ve accumulated.

Take It Slow

Trust me, you likely will not organize five decades of photos in one day. There are far too many to work with.

Instead, give yourself ample time to finish this project, such as a few hours here and there over several weeks.

Enlist Help

Do you keep getting sidetracked looking at old images? Or are you overwhelmed with the sheer volume of photos?

Ask a friend, family member, or neighbor to lend you a hand.

If you go through the photos with a family member, you two can have a lot of fun discussing old memories as you put a dent in your large pile of images.

Use An Archival Photo Box

Archival photo boxes are ideal for storing decades of images. Each plastic case can hold years’ worth of photos, keeping them safer than simply putting them in a box.

If you consider storing the rest of your images in a photo album, be sure it’s of archival quality, too. 

Here’s why.

You probably have similar old photo albums to mine, where the glue that holds the photo on the page is now bleeding through the image and the pictures are turning red as the acids in the paper take over.

Storing your remaining photos in an archival-quality album will help to keep them in good shape for the next 50 years.

Use A Digital Picture Frame

This has been super helpful for me! My husband got me a digital frame for Christmas and he’s been scanning our actual photos onto the frame ever since.

I have the frame sitting on my desk and the pictures set to shuffle, so when I look up, I can smile at the current image being displayed.

This is much nicer than having them all in a box in the garage, unseen and not being enjoyed.

Plus, I have tossed the majority of the downloaded photos (or given them to my adult children), so I have been able to slowly reduce the number of bins I have been storing.

Is It OK To Throw Out Old Photos?

One of the biggest questions I had (you will, too) as I began organizing my photos is whether to throw away old ones. 

I think this is a personal choice, although if you’re limited on space like I am, you’ll want to strongly consider tossing at least some of your old photos.

It’s tough to do, though – older photos are usually more precious because of their age and the fact that oftentimes the subject of the picture is grown up now (or maybe no longer with us).

The following criteria for dumping photos can help you decide what to keep.

Photos Associated With Bad Memories

You may have photos that remind you of a past trauma. It’s okay to ditch them ASAP!

You also might have pictures in your collection where you were happy at the time they were taken, but when you look back on them now, you don’t feel very positive about them. 

For example, photos of people you no longer associate with, such as an ex-spouse or ex-friend, can conjure bad feelings.

It might be tempting to throw these photos straight into the trash heap, as even looking at this person’s face makes your blood boil or stomach churn. 

If you’re still in touch with this person (such as in a co-parenting situation) or know someone who is, you could take the high road and ask if they’d like the photos. 

Depending on the current state of the relationship, you might also select some that you think the person would appreciate and put them into a separate album that you can gift to them.

I did this for my ex-husband several years after our divorce.

I put together an album with a collection of our children’s baby and growing up pictures and handed it to the kids to give to him one Father’s Day.

He was touched that I had thought of it and appreciated getting them because he didn’t have many pics of them at the time (when you are going through a divorce and not happy with each other at that point, splitting up photos is way down on the list of things to do).

Keep in mind that you’re also within your right to just throw them away. And sometimes that can do more good than you think.

I did this after splitting up with a guy I had dated post-divorce and it was very cathartic!

So, take my advice and do whatever feels healthiest for you. 

Duplicates

Photo-printing services of yore would sometimes produce duplicates or you could even order duplicates when you had your photos developed.

I know this because I have many dupes – and now I have my parent’s duplicate photos, too. Four images of the exact same birthday gift or outing!

Once again, you might consider passing off the extra photos to someone else, as I did with the images I gave to my children.

If they don’t want them, though, it’s best to get rid of them.

There’s no need to hold onto multiple copies unless you’re concerned something might happen to the original. 

Boring Photos

Did you go through a photography phase where you took pictures of anything and everything?

Looking back, you don’t feel nearly as inspired now as you did then, and a lot of your images are lackluster, in your opinion.

In that case, don’t bother holding onto those photos.

Free up some space around your house by getting rid of them. 

Photos Where You Don’t Know Who’s In Them (Or Landscape Photos)

We all have some of these. You’ll wrack your brain trying to figure out if that’s your Uncle Chuck or your great-great-grandmother in the photo, but you aren’t sure. 

My recommendation? Ask around! Digitize the photo and send it to your family via text, email, or social media. Ask if anyone recalls who the subject in the photo is. 

Hopefully, you’ll get an answer. Once you do, you can keep the photo if you wish.

If not, since you digitized it, you don’t have to feel inclined to keep the original.

And if no one knows who the subject is, you can also get rid of the photo. 

Same for landscape photos. The photos my parents had taken on their vacation trips were the first ones I threw out after I started organizing the pictures I had saved after they passed away.

I tossed many of my own, too. After all, how many photos can you keep of the same beach or mountain? Pick one or two really nice ones from each trip and throw away the remaining landscape pictures.

Blurry Photos

Back in the day, when you couldn’t see a photo right after you took it, blurry photos got developed all the time.

You might not have done anything with them, and they’re still sitting in a pile of good photos in the original envelope they were printed in.

There’s not too much you can do to fix a blurry photo taken on an older camera, so if you have other snapshots of the same occasion that are clearer, don’t feel inclined to hold onto the blurry shots. 

Low-Quality Photos

If the saturation is too heavy, the lightness or darkness is extreme, and other photo mistakes have marred your image, you can throw it away without feeling guilty. 

Awkward Photos 

No, I don’t mean photos of your child’s high school prom. Those are a charming kind of awkward.

I’m talking about photos where someone is mid-motion, turned away from the camera, or otherwise not realizing they are being photographed.

These shots are destined for the trash heap. 

Should Old Photos Be Shredded If They Are Discarded?

Although photos don’t contain sensitive information (usually), you might still feel strange about throwing your photos away in the trash, where anyone can pick through them and take them. 

Shredding family photos will keep your private memories safe.

Here are some other options for destroying the photos.

Use Paint

You must have some free time to do this, ideally several hours.

Go through each photo and use black paint to deface your photo subjects. Cover their private information and faces.

Use one-coat paint so you don’t have to go back and repeat your work.

Allow the paint to dry, pile up the photos, throw them into a trash bag, and toss the bag in the trash.

Cut The Photos

A common pair of kitchen scissors is all you need to destroy photos.

Make sure you cut the image into jagged, small pieces so someone especially dedicated couldn’t easily take the cut pieces and tape them back together again.

Blend The Photos

Yes, you read that right! If you have a cheap blender or one on its way out, you can put in several photos at a time, run the blender, and watch as it chews up the duplicate and unwanted images. 

Burn The Photos

This method is the most dangerous, so only resort to it if you have no other options.

Take your photos outdoors, toss them into a fire pit, and burn them.

Keep in mind that printed photos can release fumes, so consider wearing a face mask even when outside. 

Light the fire and keep a good distance away to reduce your risk of breathing in the fumes. 

Bottom Line 

Deciding what to do with old photos is a tough choice, enough so that some of us put it off until we’re stressed by the sight of all those images.

Now that you know some great decluttering tactics, you’re ready to reduce clutter around your home and keep your photos for future generations. Good luck!

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