The Wonder of Tech is honored to welcome Gary Braley back as a guest author. In the digital age, taking pictures has become easy but organizing them has become challenging. Many of us have accumulated a massive amount of photos without a clear plan of how to organize them, risking that all of our photos could be lost to future generations.
Gary’s experience with technology and photography gives him insight into the best ways to organize your photos to make sure that you’ll be preserving your family photos for future generations. By following his suggestions you’ll be able to transform your chaotic collection of digital photo files into a meaningful collection to share with family members for many years to come.
We all cherish the few photos we have of generations past but how much time do we give to preserving the pictures we take today? Previously, the cost and difficulty of taking candid shots means we have a sparse record of what our grandparents looked like as youngsters – except an occasional family photo when they gathered around the dining room table on a holiday.
Today it’s easy and nearly free to take pictures by the thousands and show them to friends and family around the world. However, we rarely print photos so we won’t have the “shoebox” to pass along as our ancestors did – barring fire or flood. This article is aimed at helping you create your own digital shoebox.
This project is as much about history as photography. Think about viewers 75 years from now when Grandpa, the esteemed Dr. John (your family name goes here) is in poor health and preparing to log out for the final time. A snapshot of “little Jonny” sitting on his tricycle does not tell much of a story.
There are two ways to add to the story: context and narrative. The picture would be much more informative if it showed context – maybe including the yard where Jonny played or a couple of his friends or siblings. Or maybe a service station in the background showing the price of a gallon of gas!
Our history should include both photos and text so it is important
to add commentary to our image collection.
We often separate images from text because our computers have taught us to do this; we have word processing programs and photo editing programs. We often do what we criticize previous generations for doing – we don’t even put the names of the people on our pictures. Any narrative we can write that gives meaning to a photo will help –
“this picture was taken just before Uncle John was awarded the Noble prize”
“this picture was taken just before Aunt June was sentenced to 10 years of hard time for knocking off the local Piggly Wiggly“
– you get the idea.
For family photos, a family tree will help answer that age-old question – “just how am I related to little Sally who is the great grand-daughter of cousin Steve?” There are many family tree apps and web sites but no matter which one you use, or even if you do it by hand, you’ll only be saving images of the trees because the programs will likely vanish in a very few years. Most of us have encountered the dreaded “can’t open the file because the required software cannot be found” message.
Quality is more important than quantity. Think about those well-meaning relatives that accumulated boxes of family history with no organization that will make it usable for the next generation.
A hundred good images are better than
a thousand undocumented, sometimes duplicated poor ones.
Getting Down to Business
Preparing for future generations is not an easy task. In this section I’ll describe the eight steps you can take to make it happen. This may seem a daunting task at first but you don’t have to do it all at once and you have the choice at each step of going to any depth that you can handle.
1-Decide what pictures to keep
Keep in mind we are talking about a file of archived images separate from your personal collection. You will go through your collection and pull out images worth saving for the future.
First, ignore all the pictures of “Mt. Whatever” and the famous “hidden falls” if there is no personal connection in the picture. These images will be available via the year 2100 version of Google.
This doesn’t mean you should delete them from your personal collection or any social media or photo site; it just means they should not be in the long-term collection you are saving for future generations. Of course if someone in your photos is a better than average photographer, including some of her pictures will be important.
For family members this may be the hardest part. We have two or three pictures of our great, great grandparents and we wish we had more – but how many more – maybe 50 but not a thousand! Since babies and young people change faster than older folks, you’ll keep more of the early years than the thirties or forties. But since everyone is different, you’ll have to decide for yourself what and how many to keep.
2-Collect photos from relatives
You’ll certainly add value to your collection if you ask family members to send you some of theirs. If you do this project right, you could cause others to create similar collections to vastly improve your family memory collection.
3-Scan prints and slides
For me the age of digital photography started in 1999 – the year I purchased my remarkable 1.3 megapixel 3x zoom Olympus marvel for only $800. I never looked back or took another film photo again.
No matter what age you started we all have
our own slide/print/negative collection to contend with.
To deal with this, you need access to a decent quality scanner and you need to take the time to learn to use it well. Make sure you scan at high resolution; a 72dpi image looks just fine on the screen but will make a terrible print. If you scan prints, they should be at least 300dpi and slides at 1,000dpi. (dpi = dots per inch)
4-Decide what format to use
Since the word “format” strikes fear in the hearts of most people, I’ll make it simple – use JPEG (sometimes written JPG). This format is ubiquitous so it’s a good place to start. But
ONE BIG WORD OF WARNING ABOUT JPEG
Every time you make the slightest change to a JPEG image and save it you lose some quality. So, if you intend to crop (you probably should) or alter the contrast of an image make as many changes as you can at one time before saving the image. For the purists and more adventuresome, you might try PNG, TIFF or PSD (Photoshop).
If you do use JPEG, make sure you set the Quality to “best” or “highest” or whatever value is at the top of the scale each time you save it. This will maintain the image quality at its highest possible value.
High quality images have one drawback – they produce larger files. As storage costs continue to plummet this is less and less of an issue. The reason I recommend JPEG is that file sizes are smaller than other formats and its widespread use means its long-term future (or the future of its successors) is bright.
5-Edit, organize and describe them
Since you’ve eliminated the really bad photos in step 1, you only need to edit/improve the better ones at this stage. The biggest improvement will be to crop the photos to focus on the subject.
There is no best way of doing this – from one photo you might end up with a close up of a person’s face or that same person shown by his “new” car or an even wider view. In fact you could save two or three versions of the same picture.
Almost every picture could benefit from a slight change in brightness or contrast.
It is not cheating to alter the picture since the original
might have looked different with a slight change in camera settings.
One of my favorite discussions centers around what is the “real picture” and what changes would be considered fakery (Photoshopping) and what would be acceptable “improvements”. (I see a future blog post coming!)
The good news is you don’t need Photoshop – currently leased for $700 per year – to make these and many other changes. Mobile devices have hundreds of free and low cost image editing programs that work just fine – more than desktop PCs or Macs will ever have.
My best recommendation from this point on is to try and take better pictures from the start – don’t take a photo of little Jonny just as a bus drives in front of him. Of course if the bus runs over him and he’s clearly in a cross walk, a picture could make good evidence at the trial – so use your judgement.
This brings up one of my pet peeves – with all the great cameras we have, we take way too many poor pictures. Most people could benefit from learning more about their camera – no matter the make and model – and work to create better pictures right from the start.
Each image should be clearly labeled – names of key people or the group/event and year. This is where image processing apps fall short – it would be nice to add a sentence or paragraph to an image that could be easily viewed or printed with the picture.
At the very least each picture should be uniquely numbered so it can be referenced in narrative (discussed below).
Size matters but shape doesn’t
When you crop a photo, you’ll immediately be confronted with the question of image dimensions – often stated as aspect ratio and image size. As a general rule, you should never reduce the image size by shrinking the file size. But you can change the image aspect ratio.
Normal prints today are 4×6 just because that’s been
the common photo shape for many, many years.
If you were to crop an inch off one side of a 4×6 image then make another 4×6 print one of two situations will occur; the photo will be stretched sideways to make it fill the frame and 1/6 of the picture will be cut off at the top or bottom.
We run into this all the time when someone starts with a standard 4×6 image and tries to print it at 8×10 or 5×7, etc. The image will be cropped to fit in possibly undesirable ways. Alternatively you will see a 1/2 inch bar at the sides of the picture replacing the one inch you cut off.
The good news with our digital images is that aspect ratio is almost irrelevant – why? We’re only fifteen years into digital photography and we rarely print our photos; how many prints do you think your descendants will print a hundred years from now?
Any shape you make a photo today will likely display quite well with their unimaginable technology. The 35mm negative that got us into this predicament will be a very distant memory. That negative has the same 4×6 aspect ratio.
The files should be saved into clearly labeled folders – not just kept in the photo program on your device. You will eventually want to create backups and a good folder system will be necessary to do that.
Make sure you think about the folder names and include at least your name, the years included and a few other words. All folders should follow a similar naming convention. Of course folders can contain sub-folders. An example name might be “BRALEY-Gary-1990-1999-?????” Sub-folders might be made for individual years, people and/or special events.
6-Write the narrative including a family tree
A good family tree or trees will help immensely. No matter how you choose to make this tree – using an app or pen and paper, you will want to save an image of it (highest quality JPEG of course) and a text (.txt) version if available, in the corresponding folder.
You should also write narrative to accompany the pictures in the folder. While you should avoid keeping too many photos, you should not worry about creating too much narrative.
Narrative is the key ingredient we’ve been missing and text files are tiny compared to the average image file. That’s what’s often been missing from our family albums – the story behind the pictures. This narrative should reference photos by number and also be stored as txt and JPEG files in the folder with the photos.
Collecting pictures is the easy part; there are cameras and apps that will take a dozen frames a second.
If you are thinking about the future, throwing out the vast majority
of what you take and documenting the remaining ones is critical.
7-Decide where to store them (hint – not on Facebook or Picasa!)
You may post pictures to a dozen social sites but that is not where your real collection should be housed. There are way too many reasons why those collections may be lost or inaccessible and they are typically not organized with future generations in mind.
The collection I’ve been discussing should be stored first on your local PC, Mac or tablet computer.
While many pictures will be taken with a smartphone, these miniature devices
don’t work well for the editing and organizational work I’m recommending.
8-Decide how to back up the files
Backups should be multilevel. An external hard drive or flash/USB drives are good first choices. You need to guard against several levels of “threat” – a PC problem that crashes your disk, a fire or flood that destroys all computers and peripherals in your home and finally a loss of the cloud service you’ve been told was the perfect place to store things. If you have a safe deposit box, saving a flash drive copy of your hard work there once or twice a year might be a good thing to do.
We have no idea what the future will bring in terms of data storage so files will gradually need to migrate to new media – with unimaginable capacity, speed and lower cost if current trends continue.
The first hard drive cost $36,000 per year to lease and would have stored one digital photo! It weighed a ton and had a 4.4 megabyte capacity. You can see how far we’ve come! You can read more about the IBM RAMAC 350 here: First IBM Hard Drive.
CDs and DVDs are potential storage devices but these are gradually being phased out. While JPEG file formats will be readable for many years to come, it is likely DVD drives will disappear soon – many PCs are shipping without them today since software can be downloaded and movies are streamed.
If you do buy a computer without a DVD drive, I suggest you purchase an external drive so you can continue to make and read CDs and DVDs. I still have a 3.5 inch external drive that works just fine! There is nothing wrong with having an external drive; it means you have one but don’t have to carry it with you all the time in your laptop.
9-Make sure others have access to the collection
Finally, you need to make sure several people
can access your collection in case something happens to you
This includes a description of your “system” and passwords needed to access the files. You could also make a copy of your files and give them to a family member who shares your enthusiasm for preserving family memories; just another level of backup.
Since this my first attempt at describing this process, I’d really enjoy hearing your feedback. I’m sure it can be improved so I welcome your suggestions. Please tell us in the Comments section below how you have preserved your family photos in the digital age.
About Gary Braley:
Gary Braley has worked as an information system developer and independent consultant in aerospace and health care. He worked on the guidance system for the Apollo lunar lander and led the development of medical information systems that were installed in hospitals across the country including the National Institutes of Health. He has published numerous articles and lectured frequently at conferences in the US and abroad.
Gary received a Master of Science degree in mathematics from Ohio State University. He currently speaks and writes about mobile information technology. Gary can be reached at gBraley@Braley.com.
Collage photos via Flickr Creative Commons (edited), courtesy of:
Family Tree illustration via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Hiking Artist
Mt. Rushmore photo (edited) via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of College of William & Mary
Family Pictures photo (caption added) via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Michael Jesson