There is this rather large box of photo albums in the utility room that has never been touched since my family moved into our then new home in 2000. We packed both albums and photo frames into it and never bothered unpacking them because we didn’t have any where to place them. Also, the albums were old. That was 12 years ago. There has always been a niggling thought at the back of my mind that the photos were in some way rotting and over 25 years of memories would be gone.
Midway during the holidays last month, I decided it was time to haul the entire lot out. Take a look at the condition and decide on how to digitalize the entire content. The target was to finish it before my final semester which will start on 15th Jan this year. After doing something similar for a huge collection of audio CDs earlier last year, I thought the photos would be an easier job. Man, I was so very wrong.
There’s nothing much to say about the equipment used. I have an old flatbed scanner that I purchased at least 4-5 years ago and barely used. The EpsonPerfection 3590 Photo scanner is a little on the upper end of a mid range scanner. On average it was used probably 10 times a year to scan documents. This time, I was getting my money’s worth finally. The scanner is pretty good. It is able to capture A4 sized documents at very high DPIs and after putting it through over 600 scan cycles within 3 days, I can attest to its robustness as well.
The Perfection 3590 Photo is able to scan negatives as well via a little compartment in the hood. This allowed me to try both negative and photo scanning.
Matte vs. Gloss Photos vs. Negatives
My dad had firmly insisted since he first shot on film that photos must be printed on matte paper and not gloss. Gloss did look better but he was adamant that matte photos will last longer. As such, 95% of our photos were printed on matte paper. Comparing the condition of matte and gloss, I would say they were similar. Maybe 20-25 years is too short a span to judge the differences in quality retention but there didn’t seem much of a difference to me. However, gloss photos tend to stick firmly to the plastic covering in the photo albums. This made it exceptionally difficult to remove even with a plastic spudger. Thankfully, that was only 5% of the collection. As such, this is largely a matte photo vs. negative test.
There isn’t a strictly better choice here. You should go with whichever is better preserved.
Scanning negatives has its upsides and downsides. It is slower to load but the scanner crops the image for you automatically. Normal photos scan a lot faster but you have to make plenty of adjustments. To be frank, there isn’t a strictly better choice here. You should go with negatives or photos depending on which is better preserved. For all the care my dad provided for his negatives (dry box with silica gel, etc), I found that his negatives had very minor scratches and that it generally didn’t age well. Certain areas of the negatives were perfect while some parts were downright discoloured. I decided to go with the photos since colour correction is easier done on the entire photo rather than parts of the photo.
1. Scan, scan, scan, scan, scan…
The first step is the most painful one. All you do is scan photo after photo until you’re done with all 2330 of them. Since nearly all my photos were of 4R size, I could scan 4 of them at one go. The next most important part of this process is selecting the scan quality. The choice here is between quality and time. Sure you could scan everything at 4800DPI but that would easily quadruple the time spent scanning. I decided that I wanted the photos scanned such that I could reprint them at their actual size and not see major differences between the source and output. After some trial and error, scanning at 600DPI was good enough and the resulting file was saved in TIFF uncompressed. Each file, thus held 4 photos each.
You would notice I placed rulers and that was done simply to ensure that none of the photos were at the edge which meant some portions (roughly 5mm) would be cut off by the scanner. Having them aligned correctly would make step two easier.
This first step was painful. It took me 3.5 days to scan every single photo in all our albums and also from photo frames (some disassembly required). Each scan of 4 photos took roughly 2-3 mins and a good portion of the second last week of 2012 was spent loading and unloading photos on/from the flatbed scanner.
The second step is easier but also time consuming and repetitive It is basically cropping. After I had gotten TIFF files of 4 photos each (roughly 230mb/file). I had to split each file into 4 individual photos. In order to speed up the process and to ensure that all my photos were of the exact same resolution, I created a template that the scanned files will be placed in. For 4R shots, a resolution of 3000 x 2000 was sufficient and I placed that on 600DPI for consistency sake (DPI isn’t important on the digital end).
Each cropped TIFF stood at around 35-40mb per file.
The exact process was to copy the original TIFF file and paste it into the template. Then, I would shift the file around until the first picture fitted the template perfectly. Because I had aligned them straight along a ruler in the first step, there was no need to rotate. This was done 4 times for each original TIFF file (remember each original file [scan] held 4 photos) and I decided to save the cropped files as TIFFs as well. Each cropped TIFF stood at around 35-40mb per file.
3. Creating a smaller copy
The second step produced individual print quality copies. The third step is focused on creating display only copies. I didn’t want to have to distribute huge TIFFs for those who were going to view it digitally only, as such each file was downsized to 60% of its original size and then stored as JPGs on the highest quality. In order to do so, I created an automated batch process in Photoshop to go through every single file, resize and save as JPG. Thus, step three was painless – Photoshop did all the work. The end result was simple. For every photo out there, I have a TIFF version for printing (35-40mb) and a JPG version (2-3mb) for displaying both locally and on the web.
Distribution: Picasa vs. Flickr
The ideal way is to put all the photos on a network attached storage (NAS) and get all the PCs and devices at home to access it from there. But this meant that accessing it outside home (beyond the NAS) would be an issue. I decided to go with Google’s Picasa to handle distribution. It is interesting to note that at that very point in time, Flickr is giving out 3 months of Pro access for free. I am currently a paying customer of Google’s Picasa to get more than the 5GB of space since I have my entire photo collection (besides the scanned albums) hosted on Google. That’s about 4000+ photos in total. With Flickr Pro having a 3 month trial, I decided to host my scanned photos on both services.
There are many sites out there that can better compare Picasa and Flickr and you should check them out. For my own usage, I found Picasa a superior service. There are multiple reasons for this:
- It is a lot cheaper than Flickr. This is a special case scenario for me. Flickr Pro costs US$24.95 a year; while Picasa, under the old pricing scheme which I was grandfathered into, is US$5 a year. At new Google prices (US$2.49/mth), Picasa and Flickr are equal.
- Flickr’s desktop uploader is a poorly written piece of software. It doesn’t allow sync as well. On the other hand, Picasa on the desktop is one of the best album management tools out there.
The second reason was the most important one for me. Organizing photos via Picasa was way better than the simplistic ‘set’ system that Flickr uses. Nevertheless, Flickr has a longer following and offers professional photographers certain features that Picasa doesn’t offer. As usual, just choose what works for you. US$5 per year is what I’m hooked on.
With the scanned shots on Picasa, I could share them with anyone and also view them on mobile devices. Android has a great Picasa app called ‘Picasa Tool’ which works really well and is feature filled. Windows RT/8 has an excellent app as well. ‘Picasa Albums’ is a beautiful app that allows you to both view your albums and explore top rated public photos that others have put up.
Re-Storing Physical Photos
The initial idea was to slot all the photos back into their original albums. Then, the family decided the old albums were really old and yellowed, also some of them were slightly damaged and torn. After looking at options including, buying new albums for all of them and getting albums for only the best shots, we decided to display them digitally only. We’ll be getting a tablet as a coffee table device this year and so that’s where guests can view the photos.
To store the old photos, they were stacked back facing front with non acidic paper. This will reduce wear and tear. Also, photos were stored so that they were sitting on their edges and not on the faces/back. This will prevent photos from sticking together since the pressure is only on the sides (and not on the front/back surfaces). The photos were then stored in small plastic bags and sealed to prevent moisture from getting in. Finally, it was placed in a black bag to prevent exposure to light. Hopefully, that is sufficient to keep the photos in a good physical condition for another few decades.
I was wrong to think that this project would be a breeze. At many points, I had to drag myself through it. In order to inject some drive into this, I set myself a target of 6 days to complete it. Thankfully, it was done within the time frame. Nonetheless, the satisfaction of completing this huge task and the memories it brought back to my family and relatives was priceless.