Preserving & Protecting Old Photographs

Cousin1 (my third cousin) went to visit Cousin2 (my first cousin). Cousin2 allowed Cousin1 to borrow the photographs that live with him at the old homestead (the one that was built in 1830) so she could take them home (far away) to scan. Most of these pictures are of people who died eons before Cousin2 was even born and Cousin2 is quite old now. In less than a week Cousin2 was on the phone to Cousin1 asking, “When are you sending those photos back?”

It’s not that Cousin2 has any particular use for them; they’re just part of the old house. They and It and He are crumbling together. Most of these photos weren’t even hanging in glass frames, just tucked away in drawers and the proverbial attic and under the couch with the spare change. But still, the pictures being gone would be like someone walking out with the kitchen sink. It’s something you’d notice.

Well, thank God for Cousin1 making the trip, because 125+ years later these photos had a continuing life expectancy of another minute before they were not only buried but returned to dust.

Cousin1 in the meantime was up to all hours on a scanning blitz, due to the pressure from Cousin2. And she was sending JPGs over to me by email. I wrote her a couple of emails back and then gave up and asked her to call me collect. Fortunately, she’s good-natured and was willing to be swayed on this matter because I got her to scan the photos as large as possible in an uncompressed, editable format and mail them to me on CDs.

A couple of things:
– If you have old photos, scan them before they turn to dust – preferably before they start growing photo fungus.
– If your photos already have a fungal problem a good photo editor can do miracles so don’t panic.

scanned & edited photo

– Do not scan and then save photographs as JPGs. Or, if you’re going to, don’t tell me, it’ll make me cry.

– Scan them as large as possible and save them in an editable format (i.e. TIFF). No-one wants to see their ancestors in wallet-size; it’s truly heart-breaking.

– The original photos will be eaten up by time and that which eats everything. Save the original scans in their original large size. Make as many copies as possible and put them somewhere safe. “Safe” in the digital world is a little nerve-wracking, so optimally on as many kinds of devices as possible and all over the country. Use a copy of each photo to edit to your heart’s content. Make smaller JPG copies, if you must, of your edited versions for casual viewing and emailing. The edits of the originals should be large enough for re-printing.

You may only have one shot at this so try to see the bigger picture. LOL

4 thoughts on “Preserving & Protecting Old Photographs

  1. Nik Finney Post author

    I really don’t want to make you cry, BUT….

    All of my genealogy pictures are saved in ‘jpg’ format. As a photographer for over 50 years, I too believed that images should be saved in a “lossless” format such as ‘bmp’ and not encrypted in a “lossy” format such as ‘jpg’.

    Since getting into genealogy, my thinking has changed, because:

    1) If pictures are scanned at a high resolution (300 or more, dots per inch), they don’t have to be printed in postage stamp size to get a reasonable reproductions of the original.

    2) If you have a decent scanner program, the amount of compression for a ‘jpg’ image can be specified. Quite acceptable compressions can achieve less than a fifth of the file size as a ‘bmp’ image, resulting is good prints at 4×6 inch (less compression and/or higher dpi => larger prints).

    3) ‘jpg’ images are just as editable as ‘bmp’ images with the current crop of graphics programs (I use Paint Shop Pro). Scratch, colour balance, brightness, contrast, red-eye, dust removal, repair of missing corners, etc, are all possible with ‘jpg’ images.

    4) _*MOST*_ importantly for a genealogist, is the ability to _*embed comments*_, _*notes*_, etc., right into the ‘jpg’ image. This is equivalent to Great Aunt Maude writing on the back of a photo the “who, where, when” information. This information is preserved whenever a copy of a ‘jpg’ image is made. Thus the association of a person with their picture is NOT dependent on a genealogy program. It is right in the picture. This is *_NOT_* possible with a ‘bmp’ file.

    ALL versions after 3.98, of the _FREE_ image manipulation program called “Irfanview” contain features to add these genealogy notes, as well as organize and rename the pictures for easier filing in genealogy programs such as Legacy.

    The notes are embedded into a section of the image file called EXIF. This section is used by digital cameras to store ALL of the information about the conditions used to take the picture (F-stop, Shutter Speed, plus a whole whack more), but has space for the comments, copyright, printing info, etc.

    Hope this helps in persuading you that the alternate is perhaps better. I think so.

    PS: Digital cameras make great portable scanners. Super for tombstones. Essential when cousin Sarah does not want you to take family documents home to scan. With a small tripod and “No Flash” setting, even pictures under glass can be saved for future reference.

    Thanks for setting up the blog, it provides good forum for genealogy related topics. I got connected through the Legacy newsletter.


    1. JL Post author

      Thank you very much for your well-articulated comments. Sorry I can’t fit in your attached example. Too small webspace.

      I guess after all that I should be convinced. But I think I’ll stick with my PSDs and TIFFs. I’ve seen too many ancestor photos scanned at low dpi and saved in small size, or scanned small and blown up to be saved in a pixellated version, so I’m on a mission of sorts. I realize these are different issues than choice of file format, but why compromise picture quality at all if you don’t have to? I have around 10,000 photos taking up about 20 GB of space, kept in two sets on two external hard-drives. Not a big deal for a hard-drive to handle or even a small number of DVDs.

      I have a post coming out soon on a program I like much better than Irfanview that will also carry JPG comments. TIFFs can also handle comments, (called IPTC which is something different than EXIF info) through something as simple as Adobe Elements. I was talking with Legacy tech support awhile ago about having those comments importable into the description box in the Picture Galleries. We got side-tracked somewhere in a discussion about LZW compression on TIFFs and I’m still waiting to hear back.

      By the by, I have thousands of Finney cousins and wonder if you might be one of them.


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