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Curating digital photos

The rise of digital photography over the last 15 or so years has had many side effects. The most obvious is that analog film cameras have largely, though not completely vanished. No longer did you have to pay and wait for processing, hoping that your photos came out, or that you loaded the correct speed film. Digital gave you instant feedback either on the camera or once the files were transferred onto your computer.

My school is 59 years old as of this post. We have an archive of digital photos reaching back to the year 2000. The previous 43 years of school history is on film, but sadly most of whatever was taken was either lost or destroyed as the years went by. It seems there wasn’t much effort to archive and protect the slides and negatives at the time. While there are some slides and negatives, a large portion of the school’s history may be irredeemably lost. This is great pity, as what I have found, scanned and posted online has brought many happy memories back to people, most of whom may never have seen those photos.

Digital photos are far easier to store, backup and replicate to more than one location, which gives a huge amount of protection over analog slides and negatives. However, with the increase in megapixels and sensor quality over the years, combined with larger memory cards has lead to an unforeseen consequence: we have exponentially more photos now than we have ever had before. It’s so easy to take hundreds of shots of events now compared to the days of film when you were limited by how many spools you had and how much you were prepared to pay for developing and printing. Not only that, but since digital is now so ubiquitous, more people can contribute photos than ever before.

To give an example of this point: imagine a school sports day. Lots of activities all over the show that one photographer can’t cover on their own. Now imagine that there’s 5-10 students taking photos as well, covering all areas. Say each person takes 250 photos and suddenly you can end up with a total of 1500-2750 photos from one event – and that’s using a conservative figure. Obviously not all of these photos are going to be useful, which is where the time consuming art of weeding out the bad photos comes in. Most amateur student photographers I’ve spoken to never take the time to actually curate their photos. In fact, most staff members who have taken photos of school events haven’t done so either. It’s too easy to simply dump the whole contents of a memory card into a folder on the server and leave it there. This is what has happened with our digital archives over the years, to the point where we have something like 138000 files taking up over 480GB of space on our photos network share.

That number was a lot higher before I decided to take on the task of curating and cleaning up the mess the share had become. Not all of the files on the drive were photos, as I’ve deleted a number of Photoshop PSD’s, PowerPoint presentations, AVI and MP4 movie clips and other odds and ends. I’ve also deleted a huge amount of duplicates. Last week I brought home a fresh copy of all the files in the drive and imported it into Adobe Lightroom. It took a long time, but Lightroom calculated there was something like 128000 odd photos. I’m not sure about the discrepancy between that figure and what Windows Explorer tells me, but I think there may have been more duplicates that Lightroom ignored on import.

Now with the power of Lightroom, I’ve been able to really start going through some of the albums. I’ve curated 5 sub folders now, rejecting and deleting up to half of the photos in each case. Factors I look for when deleting photos include the following:

  • Focus. My most important metric really. 99% of the time, I’m going to delete out of focus photos.
  • Resolution. Photos of 640×480 or smaller are of no real use to us, even as an archive. I made the call to delete these, even if they are the only record of an event.
  • Motion blur. Too much of this ruins the photo. This usually occurs because shutter speed is too slow and it leads to a strange looking photo.
  • Framing. Things like cut off heads, people too distant, people partially in the edges of photos and so forth usually end up being binned.
  • Damaged files. Caused by bit-rot or due the camera/memory card being faulty, these are tossed.
  • Noise. Too much digital noise due to high ISO speeds or older sensors lead to very unpleasant, soft and noisy photos. I rescue where I can, but otherwise these too are binned.
  • RAW files. RAW files are fantastic for many things, but as part of an archive they are problematic. Every camera manufacturer has their own RAW format, which doesn’t always open well in 3rd party software. The alternative DNG format as created by Adobe is an option, but unless you take extra steps, they aren’t easily viewable. By contrast, JPEG files are universal and can be opened on just about any platform in existence.
  • Severe over or under exposure. Files that are extremely exposed in either direction are usually useless, especially if they are in JPEG form right out the camera.
  • Too similar photos. When you take photos in burst mode, you’ll often end up with many photos that are near identical, often only with small variations between frames. I usually pick the best 1 or 2 of the lot and delete the rest. This is especially true in sports/action shots.

I still have an incredibly long way to go. I’ve deleted well over 20000 files by now, but a mountain is still in front of me. Of course, as 2016 goes on and more photos get added to the 2016 archive, that mountain is only going to grow. Still, I’ve made a start and I am happy with what I’ve done so far. Thanks to the process, I’ve been able to upload many albums of decent, usable photos to our Facebook pages so that pupils, parents and staff can view, tag, share and download them.

In closing, I would suggest that any person who enjoys their photo collection to take the time to properly curate said collection. It isn’t always easy to delete photos, especially if they are the only one of a special event/person. However, unless one learns to be decisive, the collection is just going to eventually grow to the point of overwhelming you. Take time to savour the quality, not the quantity.

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Saving old memories

The school I work at will be 60 years old in 2017 – a pretty decent milestone for a school, though there are many older schools here in Cape Town. As with any institution that has survived this long, there are bound to be many old photos of events in years gone by. A school is a very busy place with hundreds of events each year: sports matches, outings, camps, tours domestically and/or internationally, dramatic presentations, musicals, concerts, prizegivings and more all lead to many potential photographic opportunities.

Unfortunately, for the last 30 years or so, the school has largely relied on one person to take photos and keep a visual record of the school: my direct boss. From when he arrived in the mid 1980’s through to today, he has been building up a massive collection of photos. Since 2004, all the photos have been taken digitally, so there is a good archive that has built up the last 11 years. However, prior to that, everything in the school was done on 35mm film and this is where the problem comes in. All the photos on colour slides are in a slow race against time to be preserved. All colour slides will discolour and fade in time, more so if they are not stored properly. Once the colours are gone (or shifted too badly to rescue,) all the unique memories on those pieces of plastic are gone forever. Colour negatives are a bit more stable if stored in the plastic strips they came from the photo store. Black and white negatives are probably the most stable of the lot.

At the end of 2014 through a chance discussion with the school librarian, I discovered that there was a batch of slides sitting in a box in one of her cupboards. I asked her if I could take them to start scanning them, as we luckily have a Canon scanner that can scan slides and negatives. I was thinking of having them professionally scanned by a specialised company here in Cape Town, but the price would quickly become prohibitive for the number of slides that needed to be converted. As such, I’ve been slowly chipping away at the first box of slides, scanning them at 4800 dpi and saving the resulting large JPEG file. My boss has promised to colour correct and touch up these slides in Lightroom/Photoshop Elements when I am done scanning, after which we can upload these photos to our dedicated Past Pupils page on Facebook.

So far I’ve managed to scan about 165 slides, most of which I’ve taken out the holders to do so, especially the glass ones. It’s become clear that many of the photos were soft or slightly out of focus when taken originally, but it probably wasn’t noticed at the time. Also, 30 odd years of age on the film itself also doesn’t help either. There’s still a pile of probably about a hundred to go, though I’ve managed to whittle out private slides of my boss or slides that were too far gone to bother rescuing.

With the end of that box in sight, I went back to the library last week looking for anything more. As many slides as there were in the first box, they only cover a small time period of the school’s history – 3 or 4 years at the most in the 1980’s. After some more scratching and an impromptu spring clean by the librarian, I took possession of another box of slides, as well as dozens of packets of negatives, both colour and monochrome as well as some printed photos. Once the initial box of slides are done, I can focus on the negatives. Thankfully, scanning the negatives will be a little less time consuming, for the simple reason that I no longer need to take the film out of holders. I simply mount the strip of 4 negatives and scan away, estimating a saving of about 5 minutes per batch.

The biggest downside of the 35mm products is that in today’s digital world, you cannot share the memories on those pieces of plastic if you don’t digitise them. Digitised, you can share them online as well as use them inside the school for projection during events. Projecting slides today isn’t impossible, but getting a slide projector isn’t easy, not to mention that the mere act of displaying the slides will reduce their lifespan even more due to the heat of the lamp. For archival purposes, having the photos in JPEG format allows the files to be replicated all over the show, avoiding any one point of failure. If the film is damaged and destroyed, there is nothing to fall back on, especially in the case of slides. While JPEG isn’t up to true archival quality or standards, in computing terms it’s probably the closest thing there is. Every consumer operating system since Windows 95 can view the files, which is a good 20 year track record now. It’s of course nowhere near film’s 130+ years of service, but for now, it’s a good enough solution.