Saving the past's photos for the future

Future Tense for 13, 2007

By Steve Welker

By Steve Welker

If your family is like mine, it has scads of old photos tucked away in scrapbooks and albums, in the original envelopes from the film processor and possibly in some old suitcase handed down from your grandparents, aunts or uncles.

Nowadays, everyone uses digital cameras. Better and less expensive every year, these new cameras’ only drawback is that the photos are, well, digital. That’s fine if you want to browse through the past summer’s pictures on your computer or e-mail copies to your friends, though not so good if you want to make a paper print. The bigger problem with digital photos, it seems to me, is display. What’s the digital equivalent of a photo album with prints mounted in those old-fashioned sticky corners? Sure, you can drop the pictures to a CD or upload them to a photo posting service like Flickr. But what do you do with 4,000 pictures from your summer at Raven Knob Scout Reservation?

For now, though, let's go back to those old collections of non-digital family photos.

My friend Andy Webb, the former audiovisual coordinator at Surry Community College, tackled part of the problem by inviting family members to his house for a photo-scanning party. He networked three PCs, hooked up a couple of one-button scanners and also mounted a digital camera on a copy stand to image pictures too large for the scanner beds.

Having his aunts on hand to identify the pictures was a stroke of genius. It’s really hard to guess who or what is in some of the old photos we have at home because no relatives live nearby and, sad to say, many have died before we had a chance to tap their memories.

My dad, bless him for his foresight, usually printed descriptions of pictures on the film processor’s envelope, but sometimes I can barely read his printing. On slides, he wrote on the cardboard mount. My mom and my wife’s people did what many other folks do: they wrote names and dates on the back of the prints -- inconvenient to scan, but better than having nothing at all -- or, most often, wrote down nothing at all.

Andy Webb’s solution was simplicity itself. He bought a couple of packs of sticky notes. As his aunts sorted out the photos and identified the people and places, they wrote the information on a sticky note and attached it to the _front margin_ of the picture. Then Andy and other family members scanned photo and note at the same time.

Andy used Adobe Photoshop to correct the pictures’ color and white balance. He used a Photoshop feature to attach the a text note to each photo with the information from the sticky notes. Then he cropped the photos to make the files more compact. I’d suggest also setting up a separate text file with the photos’ file names and description.

Andy and I talked about resolution — how much information you capture in each file. He scanned at 300 dots (pixels) per inch. A typical photo required 1.5 megabytes. There was a time when that seemed like a lot, but most modern computers can handle it with ease. Andy figures that resolution will allow him to print out a clear copy of a photo up to 8 by 10 inches in size.

I suggested also making a low-resolution copy that will be handy to print out in a hard-copy (paper) index. Many photo software programs also have a slideshow feature that lets you create pages of low-res pictures, too. Also, 72-dpi copies are handy to exchange over the World Wide Web.

Andy scanned all of his pictures to his computer’s hard drive and promptly “burned” copies to compact disks. He should be able to get up to 1,000 on a CD.

The limiting factor is time. It takes 10 to 15 minutes to do the scan, retouch the picture, type in a description, save the file and eventually make copies to a CD. Andy figured he and his family only did about 55 photos in an afternoon. However, he’s looking forward to getting together again this autumn and, now that he knows what he’s doing, he expects they will scan a lot more.

He has plenty to occupy his time. One uncle alone had four trays, each with 100 color slides.

I mention all of this to you for two reasons.

One, I like Andy’s idea a lot. The party sounds like fun — a way to reminisce with the old folks — and it has practical value in preserving the pictures before they or the memories fade away.

But the second reason is that I wanted to talk about long-term storage. I’m not sure that putting the digital images on CD is such a good idea. We’ll talk about that in the future.


Steve Welker is the editor of His e-mail address is

This article, as well as reader comments can be found at Steve Welker is an editor and columnist living in Mount Airy, North Carolina. More of his writings can be found online at