Photograph Digitising and Preservation

Perhaps as you get older, and certainly when you have children, you start thinking a bit more about preserving family photos. All photos of my kids have always been digital, so for me, preserving and archiving that has been a digital storage and backup dilemma, so have a look down the bottom of this post for my solutions on that.

However, almost all of my own childhood pictures are on single pieces of paper in boxes, some in albums, and some of which we still have the single negatives of. For me, that’s an issue as I live on the other side of the planet from the rest of my family and those photos, and there’s only that single copy, which we’d like to duplicate to have here in Japan as we start our own family, and not just to reduce that single point of disaster. I want to give my kids a giggle when they look at what I did when I was a kid.

Most of my old family photos were shot on cheap 110 film cameras with those stick flashes which melted after one use (my children will laugh at this post when they’re old enough to read it!)

110 film was widely available in the seventies and eighties, and roundly regarded as not very good nowadays. This means many of my childhood photos aren’t great technically, but from going through this process with a hundred or so photos so far, it isn’t the image quality that matters, it’s the memory of the moment, so don’t worry if that awesome memory you have in your head seems to have a coffee ring on the corner of the print and is slightly out of focus on the paper – it doesn’t detract at all.

Scanning

I have a recent, but not new, Epson GT-X770 scanner – it’s a mid range home scanner, and supports slide and negative scanning via a top lid light, and plastic negative holders. I did though, have to make my own holder for 110 film negative, as virtually no scanners support it natively. It also has some solid scan drivers and hardware elements for colour restoration, scratch removal etc.. I tend to scan two versions of each print; one a straight un-modded one, and one with colour restored because I actually find the scanner seems to do a better job of this that Photoshop for some reason.

The resolution I scan at depends on the source and the photo. There are plenty of guides out there, though I find some to be a bit off to me – a good website for reviewing some of the more technical aspects is ScanTips

Generally I scan colour paper print photos at 300dpi, and a few at 600dpi [dots per inch].

300dpi is easily good enough for most prints, and recently, what most photo print shops printed at anyway. From what I can tell from testing on the 110 prints, 300dpi is already far above what was captured on the paper anyway. I use 600dpi for some black and white prints from good sources, though again, I’m probably going too high and am pretty much capturing high resolution grain some of the time.

For negatives, you’ll use a much higher dpi setting (as the negatives are so small) and you start to see why scanners often have fantastically high scan numbers.

I tend to go for ~2400-3200dpi, but again, you run the risk of purely scanning grain in the negative, rather than capturing any real value, so no need to put the scanner on max, unless you have pristine, well shot slides or negatives. Again, for me, my sources are relatively poor, so I don’t need to go too far – to around 3200dpi for some 35mm negatives I had from early backpacking trips with my old Olympus.

Other Scanner Settings
I tend to just try to capture everything in the scanner, and then ‘fix’ in software on a copy. The only exception is really colour restore as I said, and some hardware features. Unsharp mask etc. I just leave for software adjustments later on.

File Format

When saving anything you’ve digitized from an analogue source, you want it to be in a loss-less format – this means that it’s exactly what you captured. The other system is ‘lossy’ and generally you don’t see the difference, except when you do multilpe generations of saves.

I save the files as loss-less TIFF files. This seems to be the most widely supported format, and holds comments and other things fairly well, it also has some lossless compression options, and handles high colour depth for those with higher end scanners. I’ve saved some of my own scans as PNG format also, as there’s nothing wrong with it, and has some advantages over TIFF in loss-less compression, but lacks support in some applications.

Never, ever, save as JPG – just don’t – always try to save a loss-less version as your ‘gold master’, and take JPGs from that. For any file conversion, I recommend IrfanView for Windows, and GraphicConverter for OS X.

Outsourcing

If the thought of getting a scanner and taking the time and effort to do all those photos seems scary or just plain painful, you can pay someone to scan your prints and negatives, and return them to you. This might also be an option if you’re looking at a huge archive.

There was some controversy a few years ago that many of the companies ship your photos to India for scanning and clean up, though there never seemed to be anyone who’d lost photos or had any other issues with any of these services, and as long as the end result is good, I fail to see how it’s an issue.

That Digital Storage
Backups for my computers used to really be about things I’d written and so on, but basically, like this blog – I always have a copy online these days, but I will confess I still backup a WordPress export locally now and then, but I think that’s relatively safe.

Prints are on paper, and you have a negative. There’s no worry about obsolete file formats, or applications, you just look at them in an album – risk of deletion is fairly low.

For any format though, there’s the risk of natural disaster, fires, theft and all manner of things – I tragically saw a lot of this when I went up to Tohoku to help clean up the tsunami damage – we all kept a keen eye out for any photos, CDs, hard drives or negatives which may help someone put their family memories back together.

I see a lot of people saying to keep a USB drive as a backup, but I’m not sure that’s safe enough. I believe in 3 copies – two different media locally, and one off-site copy. For me, most of my photos are on a Mac, that’s backed up sort-of live to a USB drive (not a portable one) on my desk via Time Machine, and then I use CrashPlan to upload another copy to their servers over the internet.

I used to back up to DVDs, but the libraries became just too large to burn, and I can’t trust small hard drives, though for a while i would keep one in my office drawer as a backup.

So that’s my setup for archiving the analogue photographic past. There are cheaper, simpler, or more expensive ways of doing it, but this is working for me. I don’t think you can go too wrong as long as you get a basic loss-less image file at a decent resolution, and back it up – and keep that original print or negative.