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Thoughts on Travel, Photography and Life from Ian Lloyd

Digitising the Past

When my son announced he was getting married I should have been pleased. The big BUT elephant-in-the-room for me though was sitting in a laundry basket. With our new far flung relatives I would have to share all my family photos. And there were lots - a veritable laundry basket full of unsorted, un-captioned images. Like most people I put aside precious family photos and slides waiting for the right time and inclination to work out what to do with them. As the mountain of images grew, photos got shuffled around in various house moves, slides were misplaced and the names of old friends were lost in the fog of time.

What made this more embarrassing for me was that I should have known better. I am a professional photographer and for the last 30 years have run commercial photo libraries representing hundreds of photographers from all over the world. At one stage I had twelve staff captioning slides in a two story building with purpose built filing cabinets and computer programs to control thousands of images. And then along came digital and everything changed. Today if it’s not virtual it’s not real. If you can’t see an image on a computer screen, send it by email or share it on social media it may as well not exist. Which brings me back to that laundry basket full of photos.

Full Disclosure: After several weeks work I now have everything organised and digitised for my son, his family and his descendants to enjoy long into the future. I’ve also had lots of time to work out the easiest way to go about this mammoth task. 

The first step is to gather everything together. And I mean everything. Old slides, prints from your grandmother, school photos, Polaroids, albums, old hard drives - the lot. Now give yourself a big working space - in a home office, basement or loft where you can work undisturbed over a few days or even weeks. It’s not going to get done in a day so attacking the problem incrementally is the best way to proceed.

To begin, sort everything by decades and then subdivide these by years. The idea is that for each photo you will eventually want to answer the questions: Who?, What?, Where?, Why? and When?. One thing that you will immediately come up against is your faulty memory. Mine was shocking. I found the best way to help me with this was to do a spreadsheet with years running along the top of columns and months running down the side rows. I then filled in obvious events for each year of my life like my birthday and when I started a grade in school. I could then look and see that I was 7 and in grade 2 in 1960 (yes, I am that old). I did the same for my wife and son so that when I looked at a photo I could confirm a date with the ‘Family Timeline’ spreadsheet.

Now assume that to digitise your images you will need to spend at least 5-10 minutes converting each to digital and adding a caption. Multiply this time by all the images you have in front of you. Yikes! Will your children’s children care about the 28 photos of your first birthday? One or two will probably do, so use your judgment and set everything aside except the best photos. These chosen selections are what future generations will see of your life so place them carefully in plastic sleeves labelled by year in a binder. Do the same with all the others and mark them as ‘Extras’.

Most modern digital cameras and smart phones have more than enough megapixels and quality to copy old prints. Just lay the photograph flat in an evenly lit spot and copy the image. There are even apps that will help you to digitise old album pages using your smart phone.You can give your photos to a professional camera store to do this work but it could be quite expensive. In my experience most people with a little practice can do this copy work themselves with a decent phone or camera.

For slides I would suggest biting the bullet and getting them digitised professionally. Shop around for pricing and try not to send your precious originals off where they could be lost or damaged. If you are keen to digitise slides yourself, you can do this with a camera capable of closeups by photographing the slide in front of a diffused light source like a small light box. Just Google ‘copying slides’ to see videos on how to do this.

With negatives be aware that if you go the DIY route, photo editing software will be needed to convert the colour negative into a positive to eliminate the orange mask. Professional scans of negatives are probably best and many colour labs now have dedicated equipment to handle this work in bulk.

With digitisation completed, all that remains is assigning caption information that will travel with your photo files forever. Programs like Adobe’s Lightroom or Corel’s PaintShop work well and offer the best control for adding information. Apple & Microsoft have easier to learn programs but are more basic. Use full names in captions even with friends and relatives you know. I’m Dad to my son, Ian to my wife and Uncle Ian to several others. In thirty years time none of this will matter. What seems obvious to us today will not be obvious to a generation as yet unborn. 

Now that you have a digital archive of family photos make sure you don’t accidentally lose them. You can start by storing them in as many different places as possible by copying the whole archive to an external hard drive or even a thumb drive. For added safety, backup to the cloud with Google Drive, Apple’s iCloud or Microsoft’s OneDrive.

With your photos digitised it will be easy now to share your precious memories with friends, family and future generations.

by Ian Lloyd