Surprising Reasons to Keep Your Bad Photos

Young girls in the 1970s standing on a steps outdoors

I was chatting with a client recently who mentioned that her family photos weren’t very good – she thought that many were actually “bad” photos.  She was comparing 50+ years of family snapshots to those taken by her son, a professional photographer. But bad photos can still be keepers!

I reminded her that while her son’s work is indeed beautiful, he’s also:

  • working with a high end DSLR and using Lightroom and Photoshop to enhance the final product. In fact, she’s comparing apples to oranges.
  • Pro photos are supposed to be professional – that’s what the client is paying for.
  • Family photos are different – and while some may look as good as a pro photo, that’s beside the point. Family photos are all about the moment, the feelings they evoke and the stories they tell.

When I help clients curate their collections, we always discuss quality. Sure, it’s best that the images being organized, scanned and archived aren’t bad photos. That includes blurry, dark, and the poorly composed (more about this below). However, sometimes it makes sense to keep a blurry or bad photos. Why? Well, a photo of lesser quality can still invoke a special memory, or perhaps it’s the only image of a person or event in a collection. Even though it may be visually inferior, it’s better than having no photo at all.

Consider the photo above, from my personal collection. That’s a very cranky pre-teen me on the end. My sister Alisa isn’t too happy either. The top of my grandma’s head is cut off, her eyes are closed and we only see a sliver of my sister Jen. Why do I keep this bad photo?

For starters, I only have a handful of photos from my childhood. A few years before that image was taken, our home caught fire, and we lost most of our photo albums to smoke and water damage (yes, this is one reason I’m so passionate about preserving family archives). Fortunately, my grandparents took photos as well, and after they passed away, my sisters and I divided them up. I love this photo because it’s one of the few I have from that time period. I also love it because I remember what happened after the photo was taken – ice cream! – and our moods changed accordingly. And the promise of ice cream still makes me happy.

So, while I advocate discarding obviously poor photos, not every imperfect photo is bad. The stories behind some of  the “bad” photos give them resonance and are worth preserving.