How to Archive Your Old Photos

Chrysler Coupe 1935

If you were born before 2000, you most likely have boxes or albums of old photos taking up space in your home. I personally had about 30 photo albums and 15 scrap books getting dusty on my shelves. On a rare occasion I would look at them but for the most part they sat there, lonely and neglected. Until recently.

What inspired me to really take the time and do something with my old prints and negatives was a request from my mother to help her go through her own collection of albums. After being inspired by the book, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter by Margareta Magnusson, she and I have been working our way through her lifetime of possessions. The photos were a large, intimidating part of that process.

But by taking our time and going through the journey together, it turned out to be a lot of fun. Each album, including her parents scrapbooks, were full of memories. We enjoyed trying to figure out who was in the old black and white prints and where they fit into the family tree. We marvelled at the changes to our town, the strange clothes, and the stern faces. And we giggled over old scrap books of hers showing her at camp or her summer jobs. The stories she shared with me are priceless and I have learned so much about her life before I was born.

Looking at all the photos we needed to review however, was sometimes overwhelming. How were we to choose what to keep and what to discard? Should we just scan every thing? Who will want to look at these images later?

We chose to keep only the images that were important to us right here, right now. When we were going through the really old images we had one simple rule. If we didn’t know the person or their connection to our family was too distant, we put them in the discard pile. If the image was too small or too blurry, we didn’t keep it. But we made sure to keep the real gems; my grandfather’s first job, family portraits, the first car, and the travel photos. And for the scrapbooks where my mother drew cartoons and descriptions in the margins, we not only scanned individual images but I also recorded the pages as a whole. These images are invaluable.

scrap book page from the 50s

And as part of the archiving process, we made sure all the photos we wanted to preserve were scanned or digitized. As a professional photographer, I have a scanner that does both prints and slides but due to the volume of photos, we chose to also send our images to a local scanning company, Digital Treasures. For about 25 cents an image, we were able to deal with a large selection of images. I dropped off the albums (pre Covid) and after a few months, they sent me a link to an online Dropbox so I could retrieve the images. I then downloaded the images to my computer and set about organizing them into files and folders.

The whole process was streamlined and simple and I would highly recommend it if you are ready to take on your photo archiving project.

But I know it is hard to get started on projects as large as this. Even me, a professional photographer, put it off for some time. It was actually the process of reliving all the old memories that inspired me to go through my own albums. I found pictures I had long since forgotten. I also feel much better now knowing that those memories are protected and backed up on hard drives, just in case. Next up? Creating simple slide shows so I can watch my home movies on my TV. As for my mother’s images, we have shared them with our family through Google Photos albums and on Facebook messenger.

If you are looking for a place to start with your old images, I would recommend bringing out a box or album each week and reviewing them while you watch TV. Separate out the ones you want to keep and the ones to pitch. If you do decide to scan the keepers, make sure you scan at a high enough resolution (300 dpi, 5×7 minimum) in case you want to print the image in future. If you don’t have the time or money to scan, a quick and easy option is to photograph the photograph with your camera or phone. There are a few apps on the market (Photomyne and Google Photo Scan) that are supposed to make this easier for you. I have tried them and they worked fine. I chose to go with a professional scanner because I wanted a higher resolution but that’s just me.

As a final note, there is the question of what to do with the images we have chosen to scan. Do we still keep the physical image? For how long? As someone who is trying to live sustainably or as zero waste as possible, the whole process of throwing out old images is painful. Some images can be sent to local archives, some can be given to schools for craft projects and I have kept a few for greeting cards but most will end up in the garbage now or later.

I challenge anyone to come up with a way to reuse or recycle photographs. We can send someone to the moon and spend a gazillion dollars on AI or going to Mars but no one has figured out how to keep millions of photographs out of landfills. At a minimum, I think I will hold on to the images I scanned. Maybe somebody will figure it out in my lifetime.

Old Photo Family Gathering