Those seeking to bring their old photo collections into the digital age face numerous challenges, not the least of which is the monotonous task of scanning individual photos or negatives. Here are a few thoughts about this process.
As you may recall, I’ve been scanning in old photos as part of my ongoing “Everything Must Go” decluttering initiative since last year. This is an on-again, off-again thing, as it’s time-consuming and arduous. And I literally have thousands and thousands of photos, many in organized photo albums, and many disorganized loosely in boxes.
My efforts last year centered on the albums, but because of the disruption triggered by the construction of my podcast studio late last year, I’ve since decided to focus on the loose photos first. These pictures have their own unique challenges. It’s unclear when/where many were taken, for example, and I’ve been pinging friends and family for help from time to time to try and organize it all.
But regardless of the exact details of the scanning—whether you choose to scan negatives or paper photos, which scanner you choose, and so on—the general strategy has shifted over the years. And when I look at this process now, I do so with the following goals in mind.
This is about decluttering. The goal here, literally, is to declutter the house by removing boxes or albums full of paper photographs. And also other paper-based mementos, which can include children’s’ drawings, birthday cards, savings bonds, concert tickets, and any other number of items.
Photos are special. These items all hold a special place because they are so personal. Photos, in particular, are memory triggers, and one of the neat things about scanning in loose photos—many of which are 20 or even 30 years old—is that they retrigger forgotten memories. But this also makes the process all the more important: If you scan in these items and throw away the originals, you have to be sure that the digital versions are both safe and accessible.
Metadata is important. In the pre-cloud computing past, the emphasis on bringing old photos and other legacy content into the digital world involved “tagging” these files with metadata such as people, places, and events. We used desktop applications like Windows Photo Gallery to do this tagging and otherwise edit our photos, manage our photo collections, and then find photos using those tags. But this approach is not modern and is no longer a great solution.
The cloud is the goal. The goal now is to get our photo collections into the cloud. And in keeping with any backup strategy, that means duplication and geographic separation for disaster recovery. In other words, do not bet on only one cloud solution. And keep a local master copy as well.
Search, not tagging. Using modern cloud services such as Google Photos and OneDrive, it’s now possible to find specific photos much more easily. So where you might have tagged photos taken in Paris with the tag “Paris” in the desktop days of a decade ago, today you can simply search for Paris in one of these services, and those photos will all come up. For modern photos, such as those taken with a smartphone, that will be automatic, assuming your phone is marking taken photos with location data. But this will be automatic even for legacy photos based on those old tags, file names, and ever-improving image recognition technologies.
So that’s all very general. Here’s what I am doing specifically.
As I scan in old photos, they are moved into a triage folder where they can be edited and bulk tagged as needed.
I try to name these photos logically and based on the information that is available on or around the originals. Some are truly loose. Some are in photo envelopes from a photo developer, and those envelopes often have dates on them, as do the backs of some photos. These serve as rough guides, so I can use names such as “Arizona Dec 93 (Probably)” or “Arizona Dec 93 03” until the individual photos can be filed.
The only metadata tag I am personally concerned with is Date Taken. (Which, depending on the app you’re using, could be named differently, a further complication.) The goal is to date each photo so that it will appear correctly in both Google Photos and OneDrive. (You may make other choices, obviously, but those are the two I care about.)
The issue with tagging is that the application I had been using, Windows Photo Gallery, is no longer supported or easily found online. And may in fact simply disappear or stop working at any time. (Here is a link to the offline installer.) But I can tell you that Microsoft’s other solutions—tagging files directly in File Explorer using the file Properties dialog, or the woeful Windows Photos app in Windows 10—do not work. And that means finding a third party application that just works.
That application must support bulk processing. In other words, I should be able to scan in all of the photos from an event and apply the same Date Taken tag to all of them in one go. I have yet to find a new application I can recommend for this, unfortunately, and I’ve tried a bunch. Some do work, of course. None are excellent. I will continue to use Windows Photo Gallery while I can, but clearly something newer/more modern needs to be found.
As I noted in Managing Your Photo Collection in the Smart Phone Age, new photos are automatically backed up to two different cloud services. And so I need to move these old photos—once they’re scanned and tagged with at least the correct Date Taken—to these services as well. This is easy done via web browser, of course, and here Google Chrome works best because it supports the drag and dropping of entire folders. I also keep a master copy of my entire photo library locally, which in my case means on my NAS. So there are the three locations I’m using for photo storage: NAS (local) and Google Photos and OneDrive (cloud).
But again, this process is painful. It takes a lot of time and effort to do this. If you’re using a flatbed scanner as I am, you have to babysit the scans. (At least the Canon scanner I’m using supports auto-cropping multiple photos at once, which is very nice.) And you often have to research loose photos. But even an approximate date—something from mid-1996, for example, might get a Date Taken of June 15, 1996—is better than no date. It’s also better than the date of the scan.
This isn’t a task I’ll finish this year. I know that I will move in and out of it from time to time as my interest level and priorities shift. But like my efforts to get rid of old electronics or be healthier by eating better, I can see the results as I go, and I can imagine the end game. It will take a long time. But it will happen.
Whether this effort is worthwhile to you will depend on the importance you place on this process. Decluttering may not be something you’re concerned with, or you may be nervous about throwing away the photos or negatives of precious memories. You may literally prefer to enjoy photos in paper form. But wherever your head is at, digitizing at least some of these photos and being able to enjoy and share them in new ways is an effort worth at least considering. And I have resolved to make this happen, no matter how long it takes.
Is anyone else doing this? I suspect there is some good advice out there that I haven’t yet considered. And any ideas about making this less arduous are always appreciated.