PLEASE DELETE: De-Clutter Your Digital Photos

by Sally J.

in * How to ORGANIZE Your Photos, Digital Photographs, Free Articles / Blog

Since I started my Practical Archivist blog back in 2005, I’ve spent a lot of time encouraging and helping people to ditch their photo clutter.  So far, I’ve focused on the shoeboxes and envelopes and drawers filled with photo clutter from the 60s-70s-80s and 90s.

Now I’ve made it my goal to get you to ditch your *digital* photo clutter.

What is photo clutter? Postponed decisions.

It’s a common mistake to hold onto too many photos.

Our favorite and most cherished photographs have a value so far beyond measure that we tend to spread that love to all photographs as a format. I’s time recognize that not all photographs have equal long term value, and that your photo hoarding is not serving you well.

I created a video to show that there’s nothing magical about photo prints and it’s perfectly OK to toss the ones you don’t want to keep. To prove my point in a dramatic way that I admit is also a way to get your attention, I tore my discard  photo prints in front of a camera:

NOTE: There’s no need to actually rip up any prints, but if you take one of my in-person workshops I will make you rip a discard photo. Doing it once can help you break through the “must.keep.every.print” mindset. A much better plan for your discard photos is to send a print or two to someone in the photo. (And just to be crystal clear, I am not recommending angry or vengeful destruction. That’s a whole separate thing that I don’t need to be involved in.)


The good news about photo clutter (such as it is) is that the postponed decisions of photo clutter can actually work to your advantage — because it’s much easier to identify what’s worth keeping after you get some distance from the events shown in the photographs. Anything not worth keeping long term = clutter. Easy peasy.

Take a look at this snapshot of mine on the right. PhotoDeClutter_3inchesGoneEasilyIt shows how many high school era photos I purged in a single, quick pass through a huge box of photos. Even I was surprised by how much I could let go of in one try.

No agonizing, no hand wringing.

There were other photos in that box I eventually got rid of also, but I needed a little more time to make those selections.

Long story short: You’re holding onto oodles of images that aren’t adding anything to your current life or your ability to tell your life story in pictures. Just. Let. Them. Go.

You can do this with your digital photos, too. The good news is that it’s a heckuva lot easier to purge digital photos because you can do it from just about anywhere at the time that’s most convenient for you. Heck, with digital it’s even easier to ditch the bad shots right away just after you take them. No such thing as an “un-do” option with film cameras.

Yes, you have digital photo clutter.

In fact, I bet you have more photo clutter on your computer than you do in shoe boxes and drawers. The cost per gigabyte of digital storage keeps going down, and most of us have a camera with us at all times.

It might not take up space on a shelf or in your closet the same way as the prints versions do, but yes…you’ve been keeping digital photos you should have deleted. This Spring, I want you to focus on purging your digital photo clutter. DELETE, DELETE, DELETE: Delete the failed shots. Delete the blurry ones. Delete at least some of the shots that are so similar to each other they might as well be duplicates.

Why bother to purge your digital photos?

Here’s 3 reasons:

  • 1. Save money. Although both the storage cost and creation cost are lower for digital, there is still a financial cost for digital hoarding. An external hard drive is less expensive that the cost of housing the same number of photos in archival boxes, but four hard drives is still more expensive than two. Ironically, since the cost of creating photos went down to near zero when digital replaced film, we take many many many more photos than we used to.
  • 2. Save time. When you ditch photo clutter, you have a smaller data set to go through when you are searching. I’ve found the best way to search digital photos is using visual search, so you can save quite a bit of time. Computer searches are pretty quick, even for photo files. Keep enough digital photos that you need multiple hard drives and you really are talking about more time.
  • 3. The unexamined life is not worth living. Wait, what? You can thank Socrates for that little nugget of a Truth Bomb. I include it here because de-cluttering photos gives you rewards that de-cluttering your garage or sock drawer just can’t provide. Use this project as a chance to reflect: Think about where you’ve been, the things you’d love to do again as well as some things you would do differently now. Pat yourself on the back if it’s deserved. This doesn’t have to be a formal process by any means. Just look at the photos of your past with today’s eyes.

Think of it as “Spring Cleaning”

You’ve probably already heard how important it is to have a realistic goal with spring cleaning projects like this one. At least, it’s important if you actually want to cross it off your list instead of starting a project that fizzles out. In light of that, I’m going to simplify this project for you by insisting on some tight parameters for what your goal should be.

For this Spring Cleaning project, I want you to focus on deleting the junk and ignore – not forever, just for now – the question of how you’re going to organize and arrange all of your keeper digital photos.

  • 1. Delete bad/failed/duplicate shots in your camera or phone ASAP. Hit the garbage can icon on every missed or failed shot. Take an extra moment to select between 2 or 3 similar shots and ditch the ones that don’t make the cut. There’s only one excuse I’ll accept for not doing this right away, and that’s because you were too buy enjoying what was happening and you didn’t want to sit out while you deleted photos. Participating = good! My advice is to use small pockets of time to go through your recent photos and delete. Waiting at the dentist, for example. Or on your regular commute.Another approach is to do this purge right after you transfer your images from your camera or phone. Move them all at once, but set aside 10-15 minutes to reject the ones you don’t need.
  • 2. Delete bad/failed/duplicate shots as a larger group on your computer or at the website of your online photo storage provider (like Flickr, Facebook or Snapfish). This gives you the advantage I talked about before, which is that some distance makes it easier to see what’s not worth keeping.
  • 3. Purchase an external hard drive (XHD) just for your “keeper” photos. Buy something with more capacity than you need right now, so it can hold future photographs as well as any vintage family photos you might scan someday. Label the outside of the XHD something clear and obvious like “Family Photos” so even if your grandkids find it decades from now, they will know exactly what it is and why it’s important. Put only your keeper photos on here.

Remember: No matter which one you pick, focus on *delete*delete*delete* for now, and forget about arrangement for the time being. We can have a discussion about that later.

Ann Hinds May 20, 2014 at 11:01 am

I found this post on “Posts from” I can’t begin to tell how helpful it is to me. I have literally hundreds of photos my grandfather, mother, and I have taken. They hold sentimental value but do nothing to help me further my family history. I can’t tell you how many pictures my mom took of interesting clouds or the hummingbirds. After reading this, I think I can narrow them down to the best ones and trash the others. It will still give me a visual history of my parents and some of the memories attached to them without having to hold onto all of them. My grandfather was a photographer so those will be harder to delete or trash but now I have some guidelines. Thanks you so much for sharing this.

Vicki Roberts May 13, 2014 at 6:26 pm

I sooo agree. I have been going through my 2013 photos, lots to get rid of. The only comment I would have is this: we have a very poor photograph of my family at the dinner table with my mother in law. Within 2 weeks she had passed away. This is her last photograph that we have been able to find. It is not a good, photo, but it was at my daughter’s 19th birthday dinner–bad photo–Keeper.

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