When a Bad Photograph Is the Perfect Picture

Throwing away photos that hold no meaning (or are duplicates, or are just plain bad) is a requisite for organizing your visual memories; you’ll never find anything if it’s unlabeled and sitting at the bottom of an overwhelming pile, after all. (Photo hoarders, you are not alone: Get help here!)

Think before you toss, though. There are, in fact, some instances when you should keep that seemingly bad photo.

Oldies are goodies.

If it’s wearing its old age like a badge (frayed edges, torn corners, faded color, and other rips and blemishes) but is otherwise a keeper, keep it. Consider having the image restored by a professional retoucher. With high-resolution photo scanners and digital retouching, professionals can recreate missing parts of an image, remove stains and discoloration, and generally work magic on your old treasures. After all, those vintage shots of your grandparents are the only ones you’ve got. Even if you opt not to restore your old photos now, scan them at a high resolution (600 dpi is sufficient for most people’s use) to preserve them digitally, and take pleasure in the characteristics of age (we often include those charming scalloped photo edges or a small corner tear when we reproduce images in our legacy books).

Blurred but essential?

My baby shower was a whirlwind of hors d’oeuvres, cellophane-wrapped gifts, hugs, and laughter. I was in a constant state of motion, a little pink in the cheeks from the attention (um, the pregnancy, too), and oblivious to the idea of capturing the occasion in pictures. My camera was passed around, though, and I posed for a shot here and there.

When I downloaded the images later, all but a few of the pictures were blurred beyond recognition. Honestly, though, I don’t mind not having an album’s worth of pictures commemorating this occasion; it lives in my memory. And, this one shot of me and my mother—streaked with blur—captures the energy and the emotion of the day: certainly not “perfectly” from a technical standpoint, but undoubtedly beautifully from an emotional one. She, near giddy with excitement at the prospect of her “baby having a baby,” and I, whisked around like a socialite, appear as we should in this shot, a surprising keeper: happy, in motion, dazzled.

If you’ve got blurry shots from a special occasion or milestone, it’s likely at least one of them is worth holding on to. The inadvertent blur might help convey sadness or the passing of time, perhaps. Or maybe the blur does nothing artistically except distract—yet the photograph is the only one that reveals the setting of a day for which you want to remember every detail; photos, especially physical ones we can hold in our hands and touch, help us remember to remember.

Photos help us remember to remember.

Distance makes the heart grow fonder.

We’ve gotten used to tightly cropped images. Favorite game-day shots are those that zoom in on an athlete’s great play. Our Instagram feeds are flooded with close-ups of herb-garnished lunch plates and quirky, oh-so-close selfies. But what of those old snapshots where the background dominates? Where your childhood self is a speck on the landscape?

These family photos from a stay in Italy aren't great technically, but the places they evoke and the memories they call forth are priceless. Isn't it wonderful to see siblings' relative sizes to one another, to sense the kids' moods from their posture, to feel transported to the Italian countryside?

These family photos from a stay in Italy aren't great technically, but the places they evoke and the memories they call forth are priceless. Isn't it wonderful to see siblings' relative sizes to one another, to sense the kids' moods from their posture, to feel transported to the Italian countryside?

Newer drone photography, as adopted by some trendy wedding photographers, shows the appeal of pulling back to a wide-angle shot in the extreme, taking advantage of a grand perspective to show off beautiful scenery. You might not recognize the couple in that stunning scenic setting, but you know it’s you or your loved ones—and oh how that makes all the difference!

I admit, this one is a spectacular photograph—it would never be in contention for getting tossed! It's a wonderful example, though, of how a dramatic perspective can be a true gift, even when the subjects in the picture are not recognizable from that distance. Photo by Lilly Red Photography

I admit, this one is a spectacular photograph—it would never be in contention for getting tossed! It's a wonderful example, though, of how a dramatic perspective can be a true gift, even when the subjects in the picture are not recognizable from that distance. Photo by Lilly Red Photography

So don’t fret that the characters in a photo are too small to clearly identify, especially when you know who they are. Relish the fact that you get a glimpse into the environment (especially when it’s representative of a time gone by or a place no longer visited). Label these photos, whether on the back with a photo-safe pen, in the metadata of a digital file, or alongside the image in a book—you want to ensure that your children and theirs will be able to appreciate not just the gift of the photo, but the knowledge of who is in it.

 

What pictures have you saved that don’t necessarily qualify as “the best photograph”?

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