Those Damn Photo Albums – what to do?

A digitiser’s nightmare – Photo albums:  The First steps to sorting your albums.

No one ever looks at them.  They’re stored away in an unreachable place.  They’re taking up sooooo much room.  They’re disorganised.  Some photos are in albums, some are in boxes or envelopes.  They’re not in any order.  I can’t find what I’m looking for.  There’s only one copy of everything. There’s no space for extra photos.  I forget what most of them are!  What if there’s a fire or water damage?  What happens when we have to divide them up? My old albums are damaging my photos!

This is the problem with old paper photos. So during a inexplicable time of cleaning and sorting three years ago I decided to do something about the mountain of dusty albums congregating in my storeroom.  Apart from the above problems I wanted to copy them for my family.  I wanted unlimited access and copies.


There are so many sorts of albums, and some are doing damage to your photos.

  • Vintage style ‘glue in’ or ‘taped in’ – very damaging both from the tape and glue, but also the paper of the album is often acidic.
  • vintage style ‘photo corners’ – easy on the photos, unless you bend them, but sometimes the paper is acidic.
  • vintage style ‘window openings’ – sometimes find photos are glued or taped in.- OK if photos are sitting in windows, but damaging if glued or taped in.
  • Retro style Sticky albums – cheaper style – you can tell these ones – the  plastic film has lost it’s cling, the sticky album pages have lost their stick, and photos often fall out.  However, sometimes the photo has become glued to the page, creating a problem on removal.  Pages are often acidic, you can find your photos disintergrating on the page! You could write on the clingfilm which made it easy to record details.
  • Retro style Sticky page album – large format – usually more expensive.  – Often the pages and cling film are in good condition, however the sticky was so effective that often the photos are ‘one with the page’ now and stuck there for good.  Pages are sometimes acid free, but occasionally not, creating problems.
  • Pocket style albums – with slip in plastic pockets – the best style of album.  while not particularly pretty, they do not damage your photos, they provide writing space for memos (provided you bought one with a margin) and they hold many photos.  They are not necessarily acid free, so check when you purchase.

1. Get all your photos together.

Your first task is to get all your photos and albums together.  Books, drawers, boxes, the garage, envelopes – you may even want to check with family if they have any of your photos.  You don’t want to be finding photos in 6 months’ time!  Don’t be put off by the massive pile building up, but do ensure that you have somewhere you can leave your project without it being disturbed or needing to be packed up all the time.

2. What is your goal?

What is it you want to achieve?  Just a tidy up? a modernise? digitize?  consolidate?  Present in a DVD or photo book? Replace them into new albums? or do you prefer them loose in organised boxes.  It’s important to know, because the you don’t want to end up with hundreds of loose, disorganised photos.
I had multiple goals:

  • store my family’s photos safely
  • organise them better.
  • digitise them (this meant removing them from the albums!) Digitising will be dealt with in a future post.
  • replacing them  either in fresh albums, or storage boxes.
  • consolidating the albums or boxes so they took up less space.

3. Examine the condition of your albums.

  • Examine your albums.  What condition are they in?
  • Try to remove a few photos (put them back, you’re just testing.)  Do they come out easily?  Go back in easily?
    Many albums from the 1970s-1990s had sticky pages with a plastic film over the top.
    A lot of those lose their ‘stick’ after a while and photos fall out.   Other more expensive ones do the opposite, they stick so hard that photos are impossible to remove without tearing.
  • Can you reuse these albums or will you need new ones? (consider the damage they’re causing as time wears on.)
  • 20170311_050315851_iOS

3. Albums or Boxes???

The last thing you want is to get yourself in the same position.  New albums that STILL take too much space,  are STILL to hard to get to,  you STILL can’t write a memo about the photo or are STILL going to damage the photo after a few decades.   So what to do?

I chose albums for my direct family photos (that we could look through) and boxes for family history photos.

After much consideration and many trips to the shops and looking online, I decided on the relatively cheap, plastic pocket type albums with 3 photos to a page, but hold approximately 300-500 photos per album.  They’re either spiral bound or have a spine. I’m not that fussed on the quality, or the album cover but the album is not my main concern…the photos are.
There are many positives in this type of album:

  • Space for 300-500 photos each.
  • You can easily enjoy looking through these.
  • Easily removed or reshuffled.
  • Can easily leave spaces for more.
  • can easily write a memo (I always write in pencil) in the side margin which is made for this reason.
  • They stack or stand.
  • They’re cheap.
  • You can find them most everywhere that has photo albums.
  • 6 photos per double page.
  • They have a spiral back so ‘stretch’ with the bulk of photos, or a wide spine, which also can accommodate a full album. (make sure of this when you’re purchasing.)

You can get more expensive types of the same thing if you want. But the ones I purchased cost about $10-$20 (AUD) each. – like the one below bottom left corner.

***IMPORTANT – when shopping take a regular sized photo with you, some cheap albums have pockets which are  inconsistent and do not fit photos properly.

OR you may prefer boxes:

These are great for photos you don’t need to access all the time.  They generally have a label on the front, and can come with catalogue cards.  If you prefer storage boxes, the plastic ones are a great option as photos are far more protected, (from water!)    You can buy plastic storage boxes especially for photos.  They often come with carded dividers.
Here’s one from Rubbermaid Capture7


Or you can buy inexpensive cardboard photo boxes (above), some come with cardboard dividers.   Ensure they are described as “ACID FREE” for photo protection, and if using this type you must store them in a perfectly dry environment.   This type of box is excellent for sorting Family History or Geneology photos, which is exactly what I did.

  • Next, estimate how many photos you have and purchase new albums and/or boxes.
  • If you are digitisingand do not want to keep the photos after you’re done, you may want to distribute them to family rather than throw them out. Give them as a gift in one of   the personalised cardboard boxes!


Do you have zillions of photos?
Are they in a mess?
Are you the family historian?
Do you love Geneaology?
You want to organise them properly?  ……please see my new post:

 A Guide to organising Family Photos – Part 1 with part 2 coming shortly.

5. TAKE OUT AND REPLACE into New Albums:  

If you are digitising, see my upcoming post “Digitising your photos.”

If you are simply consolidating and tidying your photos

  • Work with one small group at a time, starting at the earliest.
  • As you go, ensure you examine the back of the photo for any information and write it into your new album (with pencil is best, incase you make a mistake).
  • Remove only ONE PAGE of the album at a time, where the order is important.
  • Note: some sticky albums from the 1970s were cheap and nasty and the glue tends to stick to the photo rather than the page.  You need to try to wipe this off the back of the photo before replacing it in your new album.
  • Leave a blank page every 10-15 pages.


  • Where you have chosen boxes, you may want to record on catalogue cards the dates, names and places of the photos, or ensure you write on the back on the photo in pencil (don’t press too hard) or permanent marker (let the ink dry.)


  • If you prefer to do ALL your removing first but worry about the order, take digital photos of the pages of the old albums first, ensuring you also capture any information written. This way you can go back and check.
  • Always try to write:   Date,  Who,  Where,  and maybe why (birthday party etc.)   
  • Always use a med/soft pencil or permanent marker (let it dry) to write on photos. Never use ballpoint or biro.
  • Every 10 pages or so, leave a blank page, as you will inevitably find extras that need to slot in.


If you’ve tried removing a photo that won’t come out easily (maybe it’s tearing) you’d better try another tack (pardon the pun).

1. Dental floss – try a 30cm piece of dental floss, gently lift one little corner, then the other, and using a saw action, try sliding it between photo and page.
2. Try a hair dryer – sometimes a hairdryer on low warm can help dental floss to get the photo up by warming the glue.
3. There is, apparently, a chemical called Heptane, which can remove photos safely.  I haven’t tried it.  Do it at your own risk.

Here is a great website – if you’re having problems removing the glued photos.
Removing glued photos from sticky albums.
And watch this YouTube by SIArchives, though I don’t think this photo looks any where near as stuck as mine were!!!
YouTube – removing stuck photos with dental floss


If you get no joy from the above solutions, I have done FOUR things.

  • a) estimate how important the photo is, maybe just give up?
  • b) using a regular ‘scanner’ scan the photo off the page (you can scan the whole page with some scanners.)  You may either have software that can discern individual photos and separate them, or you can use a photo editor to crop each photo out and save them as individual files.
  • c) pulled the photo out anyway, tearing it, and scanning it flat in the scanner which brings the tear together. (see below)
  • d) cut around the photo still ON the page with scissors. You need to leave the plastic on for this!


Often the easy remedy is to simply put a pile of photos under a heavy book for a week.
Alternatively gently curl them back the other way.  After replacing them in an album, it won’t much matter anyway.


As I said above in ‘fail’, if you’ve torn a photo, all is not lost.

  • For a simple tear often the photo album will press the tear together to be almost invisible.  You can add a tiny sliver of tape to the rear of the photo over the tear bringing together like a bandaid. (never on the front.)
  • You can scan the photo in a scanner copier – if you’ve used a piece of tape on the rear, the lid of the scanner should press down on the photo to seal it.  If it appears damaged on your scan there are many photo editing programmes that can ‘fix it’.  The easiest is Microsoft’s windows live photo gallery – a little outdated but easily obtained:  Here!.
    With this programme on your computer you can use the Edit > retouch feature to smooth out the tear, using the colours directly around the photo.  Then you could reprint the photo (if you wanted) at any photo store.

SO, Hopefully you have removed and replaced all your photos from those nasty big bad albums into nice neat new ones or boxes.

Here’s the drum:

  1. Get all your albums and photos together.
  2. Decide what your goal is.
  3. Examine the state of your albums and the photos in them.
  4. If you want to replace your albums work out how many you’ll need and buy them.
  5. Roughly order your albums/boxes/bundles/loose photos.
  6. Remove, noting any information on back of photo…………if you are digitising, you will be doing that here.
  7. and transferring it to new album or box, writing new info in.
  8. Leave a blank page every 10 or so pages for extras.

Find the Follow button on Hocus Focus Home for many new ideas, tips and tricks, on how to DIY sort, organise, scan, copy, digitise, edit and present your old vintage media and preserve it forever.

5 thoughts on “Those Damn Photo Albums – what to do?

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