Storing Memories from Photographs

My grandfather was an early adopter of photography. I never saw his camera since he and his camera, were long gone before I came along. But I have seen his many photographs of the past. The town council where I grew up has now put some of his photographs of the town into the path along the main street.

Then, when I met my wife, I quickly discovered my father in law was also a keen photographer. So, I was surrounded by people who took lots of photographs. My wife also caught the bug we have pictures from the time we met till today. You will not be surprised to know that we therefore, have thousands of photographs stored in envelopes, boxes and bags in our home. Some of which we took and many of which were taken by her dad. If I ever want to know what sort of flowers he was growing in 1965, or which birds were in his garden in that year, I’m sure I have slides to show me.

Over time, these photographs deteriorate because the chemicals change. The black and white ones develop mould and grow fungus all by themselves. The colour ones change into a purple and white monochromatic version of themselves and also develop fungus and mould.

So I decided a few years ago that I should copy as many photographs as I could onto my computer where they would not deteriorate. And when the format changed from things like floppy disks to hard drives to SSD drives, at least for a while, I could easily copy them onto the new format.

I started on this years long project early in my retirement by deciding I would copy all the photographs that had people on them into digital format. So, I currently have around 22,000 photographs on my computer with all the photos from 1917 to 2003 having only family members in them. 2003 was the beginning of decent digital photography so from then on, my library has lots of landscape pictures from every holiday we have been on but they include many people pictures as well. Maybe one day I’ll get around to transferring the landscape pictures from the past as well but there are few pictures that in my opinion are worth the trouble.

Family photo from 1917

I started this process of transferring the pictures by buying a slide scanner for about $50. It “scanned” them by taking a picture on the slide in front of an internal white screen and storing the result on an SD card. The original scanner was only able to produce digital pictures of about 2 Mega Pixels and would only scan slides and negatives. Some (not all) of the slides I’ve scanned, have a resolution that exceeds this 2 MPix limit and since many photographs I had were only on paper, I needed a scanner that could scan photographs in various sizes as well as slides and negatives.

I now have a slide scanner which scans at 14 mega pixels and handles prints up to 5 by 7 inches. It cost about $100 and it’s similar to this one. When I need to scan larger prints, I use my digital camera to take a picture of it but getting flat and even light across the print is a big issue and takes a lot of fiddling before it is right.

In this process I have discovered just how far photography has come in the last 50 years. Many of the slides I have are underexposed or over exposed and some are out of focus or taken at a shutter speed that’s too slow for the subject. Some of the pictures also have colour errors from things like the wrong lighting or changes in the inks over time. These can be corrected on the computer but sometimes require a lot more time to make them look good.

While you can compensate a little for exposure errors on the scanner, mine doesn’t have sufficient range to make the very dark ones come to life nor can it compensate for this white areas of the image that have little detail left because they were too far overexposed. Digital photographs – even those taken on modern phones produces sharper pictures almost always correctly exposed and usually in focus. Google also promises that you can reset the focus of some parts of the picture taken on their latest phones. I haven’t tried it so I can’t tell you if it works or what the catch is with it!

Most slide scanners do a good job of compensating for the colours in negatives and they usually give better results than scanning the prints made from the negatives. Some of the detail is lost in the printing process and sometimes there is a shift in the colour accuracy as well. So going back to the original is a good idea.

After you have the photos on your computer, you will almost always need to fix them because they will inevitably have dirt spots, or have unwanted content in them like fungus or mould. I use the photos program that came with my iMac and it does reasonably well. The retouch button gets rid of errors in a selected spot and the white balance compensates for lighting errors. I usually start with the magic wand (top right near the Edit button) and allow the program to make the corrections it thinks it should have. It corrects for some exposure errors and lighting problems. However sometime I have to use undo and redo it manually because it isn’t right. It doesn’t know for example, what to do with pictures that have lots of snow (white areas) in them.

Photos can compensate for colour errors by adjusting the whole photo to give the correct skin colours which is also a good starting point. I used this feature on every photo of the photo books I produced for my children. At least their faces were then consistent in the printed images.

Fixing facial colours does not fix issues like the common error on old slides where the black areas of the picture become too purple. You can use the “Color Curves” adjustments on Apple Photos to correct just the black areas but it is hard to use and requires a lot of fiddling. I usually use Adobe Photoshop Elements to select just the black areas and then apply colour correction to only this areas. This part selection process with a noise filter can remove blotches is very helpful in getting rid of dirt/fungus/mould spots in the sky or on clothing and sometimes on faces. But it does defocus the selected area so I rarely use it on the whole image.

Fixing focus errors on the slides is almost impossible. I’ve tried the built in “Definition” slider in Photos and “Auto Focus” in PS Elements but with little success. I’ve also tried a program called Blurity which does give more control that the “Definition” slider but have yet to produce a picture that looks good. So, unless there is a compelling subject in the picture, it ends up in the bin.

If you have boxes of slides, folders of pictures, retirement is a good time to put your mind into making sure they will be available to the next generation (if they ever become interested) in top condition. If you have an iPhone and a Mac and an iPad, if you put the pictures into your iMac, they will automatically appear on the other devices. Google pictures can do this as well in the Android world but since I don’t inhabit this world I can’t tell you how or if it works.

So, today would be a good day to start. After all you have plenty of time to make it happen.

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