Digitizing Family Photos   6 comments

This Civil War-era tintype photograph is one of the earliest photos in our collection … and the original tintype is slowly fading to black. Luckily, we could capture the original digitally and enhance the photo.

Piles of photos.  Shelves full of albums.  And what are all of those photos doing?  Fading.

Color prints made before 1990 can fade in just a few decades.  Later prints last longer … but they will always fade.  Put them in a bad environment … on sticky pages, in sunlight, stored in the attic or the garage … and the photos go away much quicker.  Here’s how the National Archives explains the problem.

There are 2 real solutions:  store the photos in a better way, which will slow — not halt — the photographic decay.  That leaves the only real solution:  digitize the photos, color correct them as necessary, and then store those digitized files redundantly.

Epson 4490

You’ll need a flat bed scanner and a digital camera.  I found that Epson scanners suited me the best; I used a 4490 for many of my scans — I actually bought 3 of them!  Since my family was in the Missouri/Illinois area, I kept one scanner at my mother’s house (and then another at my in-law’s house).  When my office unit had scanned its last photo, I switched to a V700.  Both were great.  I used the included software, which was perfectly adequate for me.  I investigated the highly recommended pro software, SilverFast SE, and decided it wasn’t worth the cost.  For me; your mileage may vary.

You’ll need a digital camera for a couple of reasons:  you’ll want to take pictures of your relatives when you visit them, and you’ll have to shoot the pictures that are larger than your flat bed scanner.  I started with a simple Sony point & shoot which wasn’t adequate for archive quality shots, IMHO.  I soon upgraded to a Nikon D90, and then a D7000.  I used a tripod for pictures when I could.  With long distance travel to relative’s homes, I definitely had to travel heavy.

The Epson V700 is a newer model, and produces great scans of negatives, color slides, or printed photographs.

I did very high resolution scanning.  Probably too high, honestly, but I was dealing with family heirloom photos; I’m certain I’ll never see many of the originals again.  So, I had one scan to get it right.  Higher resolution scans capture more detail.  You can’t make a low res scan more detailed.  You can always downgrade a high res scan to a lower resolution, smaller file.

After editing by this enthusiastic amateur, the scan became much brighter and clearer. The photo could have been cleaned up more … but don’t the marks and “noise” in the photo add to its authenticity?

Files were made using a minimum of 600 dpi (dots per inch) … which means I could blow up the picture on the printed page, if that’s what I chose to do.  I generally scanned any 5×7 or smaller at 600 dpi, and 8x10s at 300 dpi (as I wasn’t going to enlarge them).  Laser printers often print at 300 dpi, so if I had a 8×10 scanned at 300 dpi, I could print that as a full 8-1/2 x 11″ page with minimal loss of quality.

Files were saved as .tif files.  I did not use .bmp or the more common .jpg format.  It’s really simple:  you can edit .tif files without a loss of quality.  When you edit the other formats, you lose quality every time you re-save the file.  So, when you can avoid a .jpg, avoid it.  Simple.

When I was scanning in someone’s home, I was often scanning 100 or more photos in a  single session.  With that kind of volume, you need to label the scans immediately, or you’ll never correctly identify all of the kids & adults in the photo.  I did this 2 ways:  1) large group photos got a key identifying every person in the photo.  Sometimes I scanned the back of the photo if it was labeled well.  Other times, I would print the photo and then write directly on the print with the names of the people.  In every case, I named the photo for easy referral, using this sort of format:

Mowry, Henry, 2006
Mowry, Henry, blue shirt
Mowry Family, Henry, 2010
Mowry Wedding, Christopher and Alley, kiss
Xmas 2006, tree

This Lance family snapshot – as originally scanned – is one of my favorite pictures in the collection. It’s SO 1976! On the other hand, this photo is heavily water damaged and discolored. I spent several hours with editing software to restore the picture as best I could to original coloration.

It doesn’t really matter how you label the pictures, but they need to be labeled immediately, or you will misidentify people when you process the photos.  Come up with conventions, and stick to them.  In advance, figure out how you’re going to deal with maiden names, changing last names, group shots … and what kind of file structure the photos will be saved in.  By date?  Family?  Location?  No wrong answers, but get an opinion, and stick to it.

You’ll also find there are several programs made to help you organize your photo collection.  Photoshop Elements is a relatively inexpensive solution; Adobe Lightroom is a more robust, expensive solution.  I prefer Lightroom.  It lets you tag/sort photos in multiple ways.  It automatically saves photos to multiple locations when you upload from the camera … it’s a great tool.

You’ll need photo editing software as well.  There’s a huge array of options here … but always save the original scan as is.  Some software will save versions for you as you edit the photos; I typically added “v2,” “v3,” etc to file names in the early days.  Later, I took to adding “RT” to scans that were retouched.  Again, no wrong answers here, but save your original scans, and save your work as you go, and you’ll not get yourself into trouble.

I principally used 2 editing programs:  Photoshop Elements (the home version) and Adobe Photoshop (just like the professionals use).  Photoshop is amazing software, and you’ll need to devote many hours to learning how to best use it.  Elements is very intuitive … it’s really point & click easy.  Both can work.  How much time do you want to devote to photo editing?  It you just want to crop photos and straighten crooked scans, get Elements.  If you want to do some exacting work, get the full Photoshop.

My father, Robert Mowry, shot by a photographer in his studio in Maryville, MO.

For photographs I shoot, I generally use Nikon’s Capture NX2.  This software handles RAW files (better cameras allow you to use this unprocessed, uncompressed file type that varies by camera), and allows some pretty amazing and quick edits.  Not as robust as Photoshop, but easier and quicker, I’ve found.  NX2 also edits .jpg files, but as discussed earlier, the results are not as good, since photo quality is lost each time you save a .jpg file.

My mother, Letha Shull, shot by that same photographer with that same white table. Who knew these two pictures would be united in one family years later?

Once you have the files, you need redundant backups to make sure that you don’t lose these heirlooms that you’ve worked so hard to scan, edit and store.  Keep files on your computer’s hard drive … and then make a copy on an external hard drive.  Be very good and make a third copy which is kept offsite, either in the cloud or at a relative’s house.  Some people keep a backup hard drive at the office in a desk drawer.  Go old school:  keep it in your safety deposit box.  Use an online service for backups such as Norton (expensive) or Carbonite (which I recommend).

I know one thing about the computer that holds your photo collection: it will die.  I don’t know when, but I do know that all machines will die.  Therefore, plan beginning TODAY for the failure of the primary storage device for your photos.  After all, where can you get another copy of that perfect family photo?

6 responses to “Digitizing Family Photos

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  1. What can I say? WELL SAID! GREAT POST! Would like to re-blog in January of 2013 when I get back to geneaology type posts again. Thanks.

  2. Fabulous! Happy to help.

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