The Nightmare of Legacy Photos, Part 2

In part 1 of this series, I discussed a monumental project I've recently undertaken—scanning decades of old photos, either directly or from negatives—so that our entire photo collection will be available digitally. In part 2, I bring you up-to-date on the project, discuss some related concerns, and present some helpful reader feedback.

When I was digging around in my basement a few months ago, I unearthed several long-lost photos and photo collections, scrapbooks, and other knickknacks I've collected over the years. So far, I've scanned more than 2GB of photos—about 2000 files—and I've barely started. This past week, I scanned photos of a 1985 country trip I took with a close friend and got a bit sidetracked reflecting on how much has changed since then. But as I spend more and more time digitizing images, I've settled into an interesting rhythm, and I've been able to streamline the process significantly.

Forgotten Fun
Although I've personally decided to scan paper photos where possible and eschew scanning negatives, one fascinating side effect of the digitizing process is that I've discovered a wealth of previously unseen photos. Photo-finishing establishments typically cut rolls of film into strips of negatives, which are used to make the final photos. Sometimes you never see some of the photos on those negatives. Either they're right on the edge of a negative strip, or the person who cut the strips cut them in the wrong place, dividing an otherwise perfectly good photo in half. Because those pictures often never get printed, you typically don't even know they exist.

For this reason, where possible, I've started comparing the negatives to the photos I've scanned. This process helps me keep the photos in the correct order (in many cases, I somehow managed to store photos in albums in the wrong order), but it also reveals those previously unprinted photos. When I find such an image, I pop it in the negative adapter on my HP Scanjet and scan it. If you think scanning photos is a trip down memory lane, wait until you see the pictures you never knew existed.

In part 1, I bemoaned the fact that I didn't have any batch tools, which would have helped me apply auto-fix enhancements to entire folders of scanned photos. Doing so would be much more time effective than my current approach, which consists of cropping each photo and manually applying effects. To this day, I still haven't discovered a perfect solution, but I do have some more information that might be helpful.

First, as I expected, Adobe Photoshop does have scriptable automation tools. However, Adobe Photoshop Elements--the consumer-oriented version of the tool--doesn't. This major limitation means that you can't use Photoshop Elements to automate auto-fix enhancements. Because Adobe Photoshop is fairly expensive and probably out of the question for most amateur photographers, I won't bother explaining how this product's automation tools work. But it seems to me that Photoshop Elements should be specifically geared toward photography needs; perhaps Adobe could rethink how this product fits into its wider Photoshop strategy.

In any event, other tools offer somewhat automated auto-fix capabilities. In part 1, I mentioned a Photoshop plug-in from MediaChance called DCE Tools. One reader noted that one of the DCE Tools plug-ins, DCE AutoEnhance, does what I want and works well. And although DCE Tools costs $35, you can test it first to determine whether it’s the right fit for your needs. DCE AutoEnhance, like its Photoshop plug-in brethren, seems to do a better job with negative scans than it does with photo scans, so take a look at it if you're scanning negatives. The tool also corrects digital photos, and although I don't want to get involved in yet another long-term project, I was surprised while testing this tool to notice that many of my digital photos need some retouching. Maybe next year.

Another tool worth considering is JascSoftware's Paint Shop Pro 8. It includes several handy photo-scanning tools, such as photo straightening (a perennial problem) and Automated Productivity Scripts, which let you automate the software's editing functionality. Like DCE AutoEnhance, you can try Paint Shop Pro before you buy it.

In addition to the thousands of photos I've collected over the years, I've found several nonphoto memorabilia that I've decided to scan. These items include birth certificates and car registrations from various states, sports and concert tickets, old report cards, bumper stickers, school IDs, and newspaper clippings. Because my family's primary form of photo consumption will likely be randomized slide shows on our Media Center PC, the occasional display of one of these items between photos will be sure to launch discussions and questions and will provide a fun break. Adding items like these to a photo collection makes the whole affair feel more like a scrapbook than a photo album, and that's part of the fun.

Working with Metadata
Recently, I showed my parents my early digitizing work, and they were delighted to see what I was doing. But as photos randomly appeared on-screen, my father occasionally asked who was in the photo or where it was taken. He finally asked, "Is there any way to record that information with the photo?" Actually, there is a way to do so, although I haven't done that work yet. In modern OSs such as Windows, the properties information for each image file includes metadata such as Title, Subject, and Keywords, and you can manually edit this information, although doing so would be a laborious task.

A better solution would be to select a photo-organizing application (I recommend Adobe Photoshop Album 2.0) and use that tool in batch mode to apply metadata information to your photos. Photoshop Album's approach is based on Tags, which you can use to specify such things as people, places, events, and dates. Because scanned photos don't include the automatic date information that digital photos contain, you should consider adding at least this bit of crucial data to each scanned photo.

Automation Eases the Process
Scanning a large photo library is a daunting task and a lot of work. But if I can get the automation aspects of it down and find enough undiscovered old photos to keep me interested, I think I'm going to make it.

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