I recently undertook a project to scan and digitally convert a collection of vintage photographs belonging to my parents and wanted to share some of my findings, both from a technical and an emotional perspective. So if, like me, you discover a treasure trove of old photographs buried in a drawer somewhere in your parents house, don’t put them back, but do keep reading!
Like many of my generation and the generations before me, I grew up in an almost exclusively non-digital era with an unwilling reliance on a minimal selection of analog TV and radio channels, cassette tapes and film cameras.
And while the invention of the Internet, coupled with services like YouTube, iTunes and Spotify has meant that many of the TV, radio and musical memories of my youth can be resurrected in the blink of an eye, alas the same does not hold not true for photographic memories. These are way harder to resurrect (impossible in some cases) as they cannot be reproduced or digitally remastered without the original content itself, which in most cases is in the possession of a single entity – your parents!
And this also means that you will require that your parents have done two things:
- Taken the time to capture photographs of your childhood in the first place;
- Ensure that these (and others of their own) were preserved intact over the intervening years.
And indeed the exact same applies to your parents and to the memories of the life they had before your arrival.
In terms of the equipment used to conduct this year-long exercise, here is what I needed:
- Digital Photo Scanner: You don’t need to pay a lot of money for this (mine was a HP Deskjet F4580 that I bought for just €50), it just needs to support both Greyscale and Colour scanning (which most do) and at a decent resolution (300dpi).
- Computer: Again, a relatively inexpensive laptop/desktop will be fine, although the scanning software can prefer a little extra RAM at times (when you’re scanning a lot of photos in a single session). Mine (actually, my wife’s) was a Dell Lattitude running Microsoft Windows.
- Scanning Software: This may depend on your scanning device. I used to software that came with my scanner.
- Graphics Software: As you are highly likely to want to crop some of the scanned images afterwards, you may need some additional graphics software for this. My personal open source favourite is GIMP, but there are lots to choose from and your scanning software may even do this for you anyway.
- Post-its: These could prove really handy for cataloging and sorting the photographs so they can be reinserted into their original albums afterwards.
- Exiftool: This a Unix command-line utility for injecting meta-data into digital image files, such as GPS location, date & time and names of those in the photograph.
Copious amounts of patience, coffee and beer are also strongly recommended.
Planning & Sorting
Strangely, one of the first challenges you’ll face is exactly how to remove the photos from their albums without damaging them and in such a way that you’ll be able to reinsert them in roughly the same order afterwards.
And don’t forget that, while you may feel that you project is complete once you’ve scanned the photos and have them on your laptop, your parents may want them restored into their original setting and you need to respect that.
So in my view, here is the best way to approach this:
- Devise an album/page numbering scheme and attach some post-its (or equivalent) to the pages in the various albums.
- Remove all of the Black & White photos first, because it’ll be more efficient to scan these together using the same scanner resolution/quality settings.
- As you remove each photo, write the album and page number on the rear, preferably using a pencil (which can easily be removed afterwards if required).
- Once removed, arrange the photographs into bundles of roughly the same size. This will also make for more efficient scanning (and cropping) of images later on.
Some of the photos may also be too faded, blurred, cropped or too small to be worth scanning so you may wish to omit those from the process early on. Similarly, keeping multiple (but very similar) photos of the same occasion (with the same people in them) can sometimes dilute the power of just one photo of that occasion.
This is just something you’ll need to make a personal judgement call on but you could use the following logic:
- Is there another, similar photo of the same occasion with the same people in it?
- Although it’s blurred, or of poor quality, is this the only photo with a particular person or group in it?
- Is there a favourite piece of music that this photo could go with, if you were to include it in a musical slide show or movie?
In my case, the percentage success rate here was actually only around 50% (i.e. I ended up skipping roughly half the entire collection) but given the nature of photographic technology at the time, this is not entirely surprising.
Testing, Trial and Error
The first thing you need to do once you think you are ready to start scanning is to stop and do some testing (with just a couple of photos) to be sure you are going to be happy with the results. Here, you are looking to settle on your optimum scanning technique and preferred resolution, file format, compression ratio, colour balance etc.
In terms of the file format, this is important too because not all formats are supported by the popular exiftool utility and so if you plan to inject metadata into the scanned images later on, you need to test this now so you do not use a format you will later regret. For example, I had scanned several hundred photos in PNG format before I realised that I could not inject metadata into them using the exiftool utility. I found that the JPEG format worked best for me.
So trust me, testing beforehand will save you a huge amount of time (and stress) later on, and you will thank me for warning you now.
Scanning & Cropping
In terms of the scanning effort itself, I found that scanning multiple (similarly sized) images at the same time was way more efficient. I also found it more efficient to crop the images from within the scanning software (that came with my scanner) before saving them to disk as separate images.
You might be forgiven for thinking this is the longest phase of the journey, but for me it wasn’t – the dating of the photos, naming of the image files and insertion of meta-data took a lot longer.
In terms of how you name the image files produced by the scanning exercise, this is really a matter of personal preference. You could just stick with the arbitrary names assigned by the scanning software, but based on my experience you are far better off to invest a little extra time in devising a naming scheme for the files so that you can search for (and/or rearrange) them more easily later on.
What worked for me here was to construct the name of each file using 4 basic pieces of data, separated by a tilde character:
- <Date> follows the standard YYYY-MM-DD date format. This means that the files will naturally sort themselves chronologically on most standard file browsing applications.
- <Title> is some sort of snappy, 4-5 word title for the photo or event, possibly prefixed by a number if there are multiple photos taken on the same day at the same event.
- <People> is a comma-separated list of the names of the people in the photo (as they would be commonly known to your family).
- <Location> is a succinct description of where the photograph was originally taken (e.g. something that would match a search in Google Maps).
The use of a tilde character as the field separator (as opposed to a comma or hyphen, for example) is also optional, of course, but works well for me in many situations as it is rarely used within any of the other field/data types, thus allowing you to have commas and hyphens in those other fields without confusion.
Personally, I would not advise storing several hundred photos in a single directory as I think it would make them harder to manage, find and sort. I therefore decided to store batches of related files in a series of hierarchical subdirectories, some of which themselves included dates in their name. This is again a personal preference thing but it may work in your favour if you are planning to share a copy of the finished photo collection (on a USB stick or CD or via Dropbox) with friends and family.
Dating & Facial Recognition
This was by far the most enjoyable part of the journey. Not only did I learn so much about my wider family (and about myself) but the time I shared with my parents while undertaking this phase was hugely rewarding, both for them and for me. More mature readers will already know this, of course.
The facial recognition itself is relatively straightforward, in that your parents will either recognise the people or not, and it really doesn’t have to me any more complicated than that.
However, putting date on an old photograph can be a lot more difficult, especially when the folks are that little bit older. However, there are some tricks you can use to help with the accuracy here too, which essentially boil down to asking one or more of the following questions:
- We you married when this photo was taken?
- Was it before or after an important event in your life (e.g. Holy Communion, Confirmation, 21st Birthday, Wedding)?
- Was I (or any of my siblings) born when it was taken?
- Were your parents still alive when it was taken?
- Where did you/we live when that was taken?
By trying to evaluate the date of the photo in the context of seemingly unrelated milestones in their lives, you may find yourselves able to hone in on the real date with a reasonable sense of accuracy.
Are We There Yet?
At this point, you should have all of the photos scanned, cropped and named according to when they were taken, what the event was, who was in the photo and where it was taken. And for many people that would be more than enough.
However, the engineer in me was of course not happy to leave it at that. So watch out for my next blog post on how to inject metadata into your scanned images and use that to aid the importing of the photos into popular photo management software.