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31 October 2014

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Label those photographs!

Amy Sarah and MargaretWe are always being reminded to label all our old photographs so that future generations know who is in them, and this is good advice. How many photos have we seen of our parents, grandparents, and further back if we are lucky, and we do not know who is in them and neither does any one else? A simple label on the back would have been so helpful! So yes, we should write on the back of the photos, with a soft pencil, at least a 2B or 3B, and include as much information as we have or can find out – names, relationships, place, and date or an approximation.

Digital photos

What about the photos we are taking now? I have been using a digital camera for over five years now and I rarely, if ever, make prints from them, so there is no opportunity to write on the back. Perhaps you are the same. I file the photos under a folder structure that tells me what the photos are related to but I rarely rename them from that awful img000001.jpg name given by the camera, relying on thumbnails once they are on my laptop to show me who is in the photo, and the file date to tell me when it was taken.

This is an adequate strategy for me right now, but will it help my family and our descendants in a few years time? If I get hit by a courier van tomorrow will they know what they are? If an interested niece is looking over them in 30 years time will she even recognise the other people in the photos that she appears in as a child? Leaving aside the issue of whether digital files will be accessible in a few years time unless we continually back them up onto the latest media, we need to identify our digital photos as completely as the printed ones. Who is in them, where was it taken, and by whom, and at what date, and what was the occasion.

Scanned photos

If you have borrowed photos from relatives or friends and scanned them. What have you named the files? If they are just called img0001.jpg and you don’t change the name you may remember in 20 or 50 years who is in it but your children may not. The old Agfa scanner made me think up a name then and there before it did the scan so I would try to name the people and include an estimated year in the name. My nice new Canon scanner names the files Scan10001.tif and so on, which makes the scanning process much quicker, and I have to go through them later and give them real names.

How can your computer help?

File Properties - Summary TabYour software may allow you to add more information. I use Windows XP and so I cannot speak for other operating systems. In Windows Explorer when I right-click on the file name and then select Properties I get a General tab which displays the name of file, type of file, the program to display the file, location, file size, dates and times of creation, modification and access, and whether the file is read-only or hidden.

I also see a Summary tab, which allows me to enter Title, Subject, Author, Category, Keywords and Comments. These fields can be very useful to add more information than you can reasonably include in the file name, such as the names of every person in a wedding group or family gathering photo, where you got the photo from, and the original photographer. The information you enter should be carried over when you change programs and operating systems, although there is no guarantee.

PicasaOther photo-organising software allows similar information to be included. I use Picasa to organise photos because it loads thumbnails quickly so I can see all the photos in a folder at once; I can organise photos into an appropriate order instead of just by file name or date; I can create albums of photos taken from any folders organised as I wish and upload the albums to the web for public or private viewing; and I can do basic enhancement of photos such as cropping, contrast adjustment and red-eye removal while saving the original in a separate folder. I can also add captions to each photo. The size of the thumbnails can be controlled – larger to recognise individuals, as in the photo; smaller to see what’s in the folder at a glance. Picasa is one of the Google family of tools and is well-designed and reliable. I like software that plays nice together with others, but there are alternatives.

FastStone Image ViewerI also use FastStone Image Viewer, which allows me to do bulk renames, resizes and conversions of photos, as well as the standard viewing and organising. Thumbnails are, again, very quick to load. It has a long list of features that I have not even begun to explore in depth, including the ability to crop, adjust contrast and colour, change resolution and add text or watermarks, all in batch mode, and all at once if you prefer, so you can whip through a whole folder at once. I use FastStone for preparing images for the web and for my family tree software.

Both tools can be downloaded for free. Of course, if you rely on these programs to include extra information on your photos there is no guarantee that it will be available to future generations.

Another possibility, although more limited, is to use the features of your family tree program. I use The Master Genealogist which allows the inclusion of exhibits – photos,scanned images of documents, audio, video, etc, and extra information can be stored about the exhibit concerned. The drawbacks to relying on family tree software are – 1. the possibility of changing software in the future; and 2. not all the photos you take will be included. If you take 30 photos at your grandchild’s birthday party you might include one as an exhibit, or perhaps two.

It’s a difficult issue to come to terms with, and I wish I could say that I have been diligent in recording information on my own photos, but no. Other than using the name of the file to identify the people, date and place of the photo, I have not, as yet, been systematic in recording information about the photos I scan, and even less in the photos I take now, but I have been inspired to continue. Possibly the File Properties solution is the best so far, especially if I could find a batch method of updating it.

I would love to know what your solution is.

Comments

  1. First-off, don’t use pencil. It’s sure to rub out in the longer term (and bear in mind that you’re talking about 70+ years here, comprising numerous house moves and the like). Best bet is to use a felt-tip pen although do check that it’s not one that uses ink which’ll go straight through the paper.

    Also, if you are printing the photos, bear in mind that most modern inks aren’t designed to be fade-free! Aside from going down the black and white route (and even then it has to be old-style silver halide ink and not inkjet or laser) there’s not really much that you can do about this.

    You’re asking for trouble in using the computer cataloging in the way that you are currently. These packages have been around under 10 years and have virturally zero compatibility between current versions or backwards. Therefore you’re almost certain to lose the info you’ve typed in sooner or later.

    Personally I wouldn’t like to depend on solutions relying on features of the Microsoft operating system. The file properties that you refer to have only been on offer since Windows came along and that’s not even 20 years old. Other operating systems don’t support it in a compatible way and file properties are one of the most difficult things to transfer over which is easy to see: manipulate any of your photos and you lose lots of information that the camera saved.

    Archiving places currently tend to specify that Adobe’s PDF format is used for any computer media submitted to them but even that’s quite dodgy in that it has changed over the years.

    At the moment, I suspect that the only really dependable way is printing and hand labeling but a good second choice would be to upload the photos to your site and label them there. That way they’ll get archived too.

    Incidently, don’t forget the archiving. I suspect that we are probably the last generation who’ll be able to look at a photo of their great grandparents. Right now, you can lift up a photo of them and look at it but there are very few devices capable of reading the computer media even as far back as 1990 (ie 3.5 ” floppy discs).

What do you think? Leave a reply here.