More Thoughts on Choosing to Scan “Duplicate” or Nearly Identical Photos

Headshot - Art Taylor
by Art Taylor
updated: February 16, 2024
Headshot - Art Taylor
Art Taylor
February 16, 2024
This is a guest post by Art Taylor

Curtis raised some interesting points in his post about scanning “duplicate” prints and slides called “Should You Bother Scanning Your Duplicate Photos?

How literally do you define the word ‘duplicate’? Do you interpret it as being a true, identical image, or more broadly, as a third, fourth, or higher number copy of the same image? Or do you perhaps include very similar photos, such as slightly different studio portrait shot poses?

Additional questions may arise, though, if there is or was an avid photographer in the family. Are you trying to preserve only strictly ‘family photos’, that is, photos only of family members, close friends, special occasions and events, and vacations, or are you trying to preserve a family photographer’s photographs as part of that individual’s life and character?

If the latter, are you concerned only about his/her photos of family, people, and events or with all his/her photos? Some people may devote the great majority of their photographic effort to documenting some subject of special interest, such as architecture, flowers, or vehicles (cars, trucks, buses, planes, or trains), taking very few ‘family’ photos in the usual context of that term.

“Nearly Identical” Examples of ‘Duplicates’

Having known several avid photographers whose main photographic interest was trains, I’ve personally seen them using two cameras, mounted on a bracket, to take nearly identical photos simultaneously, using two shutter release cords to fire both cameras at once.

Sometimes, one of two identical cameras had black-and-white film, while the other had color slide film. Other times, one camera had 35 mm film, and one had medium- or large-format film.

Since the cameras were mounted either side by side or one above the other, so long as the equivalent focal length lens was used on each camera, the photos would be nearly identical in composition, although shot on different kinds and/or sizes of films.

Take a look at the three images below. Would you define these as ‘duplicate’ images?

4" x 5" b&w negative, CPR 8557 and train at Locust Hill, Ontario
Note the two triangular notches at the top right and the “Kodak Safety Film” label along the edge of this 4″ x 5″ negative. The notches told the darkroom tech who was developing the film its identity so the proper chemicals could be used.
4 x 5" contact print of CPR 8557 and train departing Locust Hill, Ontario, on a summer evening
This is a print made from the previous negative. If you have the option of scanning either the negative or a print from it, you’ll usually get better quality from the first-generation negative than from a second-generation print. Experience has shown that unless a print is custom-made by hand, a certain percentage of the image will be cropped around the edges. By scanning the original negative, it’s possible to include everything in the image.
35 mm color slide of CPR 8557 and train departing Locust Hill, Ontario, on a summer evening
A 35 mm color slide of the same train, made a few seconds later than the black-and-white negative above. The difference in the composition is a result of the photographer switching from one camera to another, and the train continues to move during that interval.

On other occasions, a rail photographer might very well have been active in trading slides of locomotives (known as ‘roster shots’) from his locality with railfans across Canada and the US. At least one photographer I know of is reputed to have routinely shot several rolls of 36 exposures per roll on one locomotive to get that number of identical shots to sell or trade. He could easily expose a dozen or more rolls of film in a single photo ‘shoot’.

This individual, who ran a business selling roster shot slides to others, is also reported to have had his own film pickup and delivery from Kodak to get his films processed. If anyone were to inherit his collection of images, there would clearly be no need to scan every slide of every locomotive.

When virtually identical images are shot on two different sizes of film, both black-and-white or both color, do you scan both images or just one? If you decide to scan only one, which do you scan? If both images are equally sharp and exposed correctly, the larger one will likely give better scan results.

Photographers of any particular subject matter, such as trains or planes in particular, would likely have one or more favorite photo locations. In this case, there are likely to be many photos taken at any one location, differing mainly in the particular locomotive or plane shown.

If the paint scheme is different from one shot to another, the photographer would be very unlikely to have considered two or more such shots ‘duplicates’, even though the train might have been in exactly the same location in each photo. On the other hand, if the paint scheme was always the same, but the road number, by which each locomotive is identified by its owner for maintenance purposes, was different in two or more otherwise identical shots, non-railfans might consider two such shots to be ‘duplicates’.

04 CP Rail 4015, 8454, 4407 wb on bridge over Grand River, Galt
Westbound CP freight crossing the Grand River at Galt, Easter Weekend 1975.
Two different trains, likely on different days, possibly different months and years, but at the same location, a favorite of the photographers. There may well be many similar shots in a collection, with different details but at the same location. Which you choose to scan depends on your objective.
13 res grandpa with kids A, B 2013-08-01_Scan-130809-0002
Photos ‘A’ and ‘B’ show a grandfather with his grandchildren. They were clearly taken in the same photo session, but note the different facial expressions and slightly different positions.
11 res bridal party A, B, C 2013-08-01_Scan-130809-0003

These 3 prints were found in the same envelope of prints. They all show the same bridal party, but there are sufficient differences among them to perhaps justify scanning them all.

Photo ‘A’ (top), cuts off the feet of the 4 main people but includes a bit of the doorway and wall of the church as well as the bride’s parents on the right and another person behind the bride’s right shoulder. This photo could help establish a location and help identify people who attended the wedding, although the extra people might be considered distractions.

Photo ‘B’ (center) is similar to ‘A’ but the facial expressions are different, all the feet are included, and some more figures are visible on the right. Here, the matron of honor, on the left, is looking away from the bridal couple and possibly not paying quite as much attention as she could be. This could be considered a negative factor and a reason not to scan this version.

In Photo ‘C’ (bottom), we see the bride’s parents behind the bride and groom, more of the church steps, and no extra people. This is a nice shot with the bride’s parents but no other extra people.

Which of these photos would you choose to scan or would you scan them all?

12 res bridal party proof print 2013-08-11_Scan-130811-0001
On double-weight print paper, this appears to be the photo the couple chose to keep. It’s most like Photo ‘C’ above but without the parents in the background.
These 2 photos were taken by a student photographer for possible use in the college yearbook. Photo ‘A’ shows a little more of the school building but has some trees obstructing the view. Photo ‘B’ cuts a bit off the left side of the structure but has fewer obstructing trees in the shot. Factors such as this should be considered when deciding which image to scan for your archives.
These two photos were taken by a student photographer for possible use in the college yearbook. Photo ‘A’ shows a little more of the school building but has some trees obstructing the view. Photo ‘B’ cuts a bit off the left side of the structure but has fewer obstructing trees in the shot. Factors such as this should be considered when deciding which image to scan for your archives.
18 res twin albums 2013-08-01_Scan-130809-0006
These appear to be identical albums from Kodak’s processing lab. One of them seems to have more photos included than the other, so it’s likely some have become detached at some time since 1951 when the shots were taken. The other difference is that one album has a hand-written label identifying the subject location and date on the back of each print. For those prints that do appear in both albums, it would be easy and possible to scan them side by side, with one album showing the print and the other album the corresponding label.

My Thoughts on Which “Nearly Identical” Images to Scan

If you are trying to preserve such a photographer’s work as historical documentation of the railroad scene, such as might be the case if the photos are to be donated to a museum or historical society, then every slide or negative should be scanned and preserved. If you’re trying to preserve only representative samples of the photographer’s efforts, then maybe scanning only some examples would be sufficient. It really comes down to “What do you want to preserve, and why do you want to do so?”

Where strictly ‘family photos’ are concerned, again, one’s definition of ‘duplicate’ comes into consideration. Before the prevalence of digital photography, many photographers did their own black-and-white and color film developing and printing in home darkrooms. While obvious test prints would most likely have been discarded before they made it out of the darkroom, favorite negatives may have been printed at various sizes, such as 4″ x 5″, 5″ x 7″, 8″ x 10″, or larger.

As the photographer’s darkroom printing skills improved with experience, those same negatives may have been reprinted at the same or additional sizes at a later date. If you’ve found or inherited a collection of prints from somebody, how will you decide which ‘duplicate’ to scan and which to discard? Do you scan one print of each size, assuming the same negative created all the prints? Do you scan the smallest, the largest, the oldest, the newest?

If the images are all equally sharp, equally exposed, with equal contrast, and equal color balance (for color prints), then it’s probably safe to scan only the largest size print you can fit onto your scanner, likely an 8″ x 10″ print. Scan it at 300 or so dpi, at the highest quality settings available, and archive the digital file. If the prints are not of identical quality, then scan the best-quality ones.

Cropped Examples of ‘Duplicates’

06 res family, home, field Scan-2013-01-11-027
This family group shot shows what is likely the family home and some surrounding property to help in establishing a location and possibly a date if that information is not already known.
07 res crop family, home, field Scan-2013-01-11-027
This image was scanned by cropping in on the people in the previous shot, so their faces could be more easily seen and identified. It takes only a short amount of additional time to do a second scan like this but it can be time well spent if you’re trying to preserve family history and genealogy.
08 res 2 generations and house Scan-2013-01-11-012 VS restore fading
grandparents and grandchildren
Another example of cropping a photo in scanning to enlarge the people.
grandparents and grandchildren
Later in the same scanning session, this cropped version of the previous photo showed up in a photo album. The black border here is the album page.
4 similar images of a man sitting but of various croppings
These four photos were taken during the same photo ‘shoot.’ How would you choose which to scan for your digital archive, or would you scan them all? (The date and time appearing at the lower left corner are incorrect since the camera’s clock and calendar were not set correctly.)

“Color-Toned” Examples of ‘Duplicates’

If the photographer was keen on darkroom work, there might be selenium- or gold-toned prints from the same negative. There might also be cyan-toned or sepia-toned prints to simulate older photographic techniques. There might be ‘litho’ (pure black-and-white, with no grays) prints, solarized prints (with the image exposed to light during development, giving a somewhat negative appearance), and/or posterized prints with areas of flat color (or grays).

How do you decide which of these to scan, or do you go ahead and scan them all? My preference would be to scan them all since they are visually distinctively different, even though they were all possibly made from the same negative.

19 res ghost train 2013-08-09_Scan-130809-0003
Entitled ‘Ghost Train,’ this print was made by exposing a color slide in the enlarger and printing on regular black-and-white printing paper. A 16″ x 20″ print of this image won the photographer an award in a camera club print competition. For this image, both the original color slide and the print (since there is no negative) should be scanned. Information about how the print was made should be included in the EXIF data so future viewers can understand the technique.
20 res CP 8716 Galt 2013-08-09_Scan-130809-0001
Here’s a straight black-and-white print from a regular negative.
21 res red toned 8716 2013-08-09_Scan-130809-0002
This print was ‘toned’ red digitally but photographers used to use various chemicals in traditional ‘wet’ darkrooms to achieve a variety of color effects on black-and-white paper. Each black-and-white developer had its own characteristic color tone, and different kinds of printing paper also had distinctly ‘warm’ or ‘cold’ tones. These characteristics were carefully considered by enthusiastic print makers when making their purchases in the store.
22 res green toned 8716 2013-08-09_Scan-130809-0002
The printmaker may have decided to use a green tone for this print to emphasize the color of the foliage rather than the red of the diesel locomotive. While this image was toned digitally, traditionally, smelly and potentially toxic chemicals would have been used to achieve a similar effect.
res blue toned 8716 2013-08-09_Scan-130809-0002
A ‘cold’ toned paper and developer would have helped achieve this blue tone in a traditional ‘wet’ darkroom. While not particularly effective for this specific photo, a blue tone could enhance a cold snow scene.
res brown toned 8716 2013-08-09_Scan-130809-0002

This brown toned print would have used a warm-toned developer and paper. Special toners were available in camera stores that carried darkroom supplies.

Sepia (a lighter variation of the brown shown here, and other colors provided an easy and relatively inexpensive way to add a color element to black-and-white prints. They were often used by darkroom enthusiasts before color films and printing papers became widely available.

There were also transparent inks available for skilled individuals to use with fine-tipped artist paint brushes to add more-or-less realistic colors to hand- colored prints. Sometimes an entire print would be so colored but other times, only a person would be colored and the background would be left in its various values of gray, black, or white. You’ve likely seen modern versions of such images, especially in magazine ads or TV commercials, where only the product is colored against a gray background. Today, such images are created digitally instead of laboriously by hand.

Portrait Examples of ‘Duplicates’

Other situations you might find in a photo collection would also involve a decision as to which print or prints to scan. Photo booths used to be common in malls and amusement parks. If you deposit a sum of money in the machine, you can usually get four different photos in a matter of minutes. The idea was to take a number of different poses in the booth, and those poses sometimes were markedly different, but sometimes they’d be nearly identical.

Do you scan one or more of such photos, usually received from the machine on one strip of paper, but maybe they were later cut apart?

At least in the 1960s, when I was in high school, a photo studio sent photographers out to shoot school portraits of pupils. Each class would have its turn going to the gym, library, or maybe cafeteria, where the photographer would have lights, a stool for the students to sit on, a background cloth, and the camera set up.

Each student would be posed for two to four different shots, and a week or so later, would receive a package of prints to take home to the parents. The parents would make a selection from the prints, which usually included at least one sheet of wallet-size prints (1.0″ x 2.5″), a sheet of 2.5″ x 3.5″ prints, some 3.5″ x 5.0″ prints, and a 5″ x 7″. In the package with the prints was a price list, and the idea was that the parents would choose to keep all the prints and return the money to the school to pass on to the photographer. Often, the largest size print was kept by the parents, but some of the smaller prints would be shared with family and friends, but not all of the smaller prints always found new homes.

Printed contact sheet of wallet sized school photos

How do you decide which of these prints to scan, or do you scan them all?

I’ve tried to show some examples of when you might want to scan more than one copy of a photo from your family photo collection. It’s not necessarily going to be easy to make a decision in some instances, but hopefully, you’ll now be better equipped to make such decisions about your own collection.

These questions might face anyone trying to preserve family photo collections. Be sure to consider them carefully if they apply to your situation. If in doubt, scan them all to be sure you don’t miss something important, thinking you’ve already scanned a particular image. The extra storage space and time involved are minimal when you consider the long-term importance and value of your family photo archives.

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