The Nightmare of Legacy Photos

In "Homemade Christmas Gift Becomes High-Tech Nightmare", I talked about how, as a homemade Christmas present of sorts, I copied a close friend's entire CD collection to an external hard disk. This type of endeavor is time-consuming but doable: Most people who have CD collections are at least somewhat familiar with the discs' contents and can come up with an organizational scheme that makes sense for them. Arguably, when you bring an online music store (e.g., Apple iTunes, Napster) or a portable audio player (e.g., the Apple iPod, the Dell DJ) into the mix, format incompatibilities can make matters a bit more complicated. But when it comes to digital music, the whys and wherefores are pretty clear-cut. Not so with digital photos.

Memories on Paper
Like many people, I have a decades-deep collection of non-digital photos, dating back to an SLR camera I received as a gift in late 1984. I also have a less extensive collection of photos that predate that gift, of course, and my parents have their own collection of photos that documents the childhood of my brother, sister, and me. These photos were all taken with a variety of equipment over a long period of time and have aged so that they're in less-than-ideal shape now. Although my digital photo collection is archived on several PCs—including the Media Center PC in our den—those older photos are sitting, ignored, in photo albums in our cellar. In fact, because of the moves we've made over the years, many of those albums are in boxes that we haven't opened in some time.

That's no way to treat a memory.

But the process of scanning in photos, negatives, and slides into the digital realm is laborious. Who has the time? Unlike digital songs on an audio CD, each photo requires careful cropping, editing, and naming, and then must be manually organized in some logical way. Over the past 3 years or so, I've evaluated various methods of getting those older, legacy photos into a clean digital format, but I've given up each time. I'm sure many of you have made the same decision. In our home, there's a natural divide between the eras of traditional and digital photography. For us, the digital photography era started in July 2000, when we got our first digital camera. Before that, it's all a haze: graduations, weddings, vacations and other travel, birthdays and other special events, our first house, our first child. None of it exists in digital form.

Taking the Plunge
In early 2004, a few seemingly random events occurred almost simultaneously, including the death of a close friend. These events made me reevaluate a few things, and I came trudging upstairs with the boxes of photos and other mementos we'd gathered over the years. For the past few months, in huge batches, I've been digitizing old photos. I anticipate taking a long, long time to complete this task, far longer than any similar digital-media task I can think of. And although I'm only partially done, I do have a few bits of advice for anyone considering such a project.

Don't Bother
If you have a large photo collection, the process of digitally updating it just might not be worth your time. Some of our photos are organized nicely in albums, with dates and events recorded dutifully, and to scan those, I'm forced to pull them out of the album or find the negatives. Pillaging albums takes an eternity. Other photos in our collection are still sitting in their original photo-processing envelopes, stuffed in boxes, with nothing but our fading memories to help us figure out when they were taken. Going through those photos takes even longer.

Pace Yourself
If you decide to take the plunge, take your time. Few people can afford to devote a summer to scanning in old photos, and that's probably the length of time I would need if I were working on this project full time. Although the process isn't as mindless as importing CD tracks, you can scan photos while doing other things, such as working on the PC or even watching a movie, if you've got a laptop. I've alternated moving the scanner between my desktop PC and a laptop in the den so I don't get bored.

Skip the Dedicated Film Scanner
Last year, I tested a film scanner that can scan negatives and slides, and I was unimpressed. Regardless of the quality of the negative, the scans were time-consuming, grainy, and required heavy editing. Instead, consider a modern, inexpensive flatbed scanner. Many have built-in or add-on negative/slide scanners too, if you have the need. In most cases, I've found that photos themselves are fine as a source. The digital photos that result from this kind of scanning still need to be edited, but not as heavily.

Learn a Photo-Editing Package
I use Windows XP's excellent Scanner and Camera Wizard to scan photos, but I prefer to use Adobe Photoshop Elements 2.0 for editing. Here's how I do it: I scan in three to five photos at a time on a flat-bed scanner, then save those full-page scans for later editing. When I've scanned all the photos for a particular event, I crop out the individual pictures and save them separately, numbering them appropriately. Then, I apply some of Photoshop's Quick Fix enhancements to each photo (Brightness - Auto Color, Brightness - Auto Levels, and Color Correction - Auto Color), which is typically enough to clean up decent photo scans.

If you have messy source material or need to scan negatives, however, you'll want more enhancement power. In my opinion, Photoshop includes lousy antinoise filters—which eliminate the white spots and scratches that are common on film scans—so I purchased Digital Camera Essential (DCE) Tools for Photoshop, a set of excellent filters. DCE Tools includes filters such as Auto Enhance, Color Cast Correction, and Exposure Compensation. DCE Tools can take incorrectly developed photos and made them look right: It costs just $40 and is a must-have upgrade for any Photoshop (or PaintShop Pro 8) user working with photos. For more information about this product, check out the DCE Tools Web site.

Seek Advice
Ask around for advice, like I'm about to do right now: If you have experience with this process, I'd like to hear from you. I accept the fact that my project is going to take a while, but there must be a better way. For example, I suspect Photoshop is sophisticated enough to apply Quick Fix enhancements in batch mode. I'd love to be able to point Photoshop at a folder structure of pictures and simply tell it to automatically fix them all. Also, some scanner software is probably sophisticated enough to automatically crop pictures; I'd love to find such a scanner. And what about the scanners that let you batch feed a stack of 4x6 photos? That would potentially speed up the process as well.

I won't lie to you: For the most part, transferring your memories into the digital realm isn't a fun exercise. But the end result, as they say, is priceless. I'm hoping it's time well spent.

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