Photo of me on my first pony ride

Here's the first photo from my family's collection I scanned. (Yup that's me apparently on my very first pony ride)

I didn't scan it for an immediate use such as to print it out for our refrigerator or to send it to my Aunt K. through email (though I am sure she would have appreciated it). I scanned this picture with quality in mind so if properly cared for, this digital master would not only outlive the paper print, but would also be more useful due to the benefits of digital replication. What I am talking about here is archiving.

Well that flash of genius was on August 8, 2001 – about 8 years before I started scanning again.

So why the long delay?  Why couldn't I get my act together?

Even though my family's photo collection is made up of thousands of prints, slides and negatives, I'm pretty sure it wasn't the amount of work involved that slowed me down. I have been a “computer guy” ever since I set eyes on my school's Atari 800 in 1980, so it wasn't an intimidation of technology. And I can't even blame it on a lack of time because I could have made some time on weekends or even 30 minutes on an occasional weekday night to scan in a few.

So if I'm completely honest with you, the real reason for my procrastination was my often crippling nature to achieve a personal level of perfection with almost everything I do. I knew I didn't want to start scanning, I mean really scanning the lot until I knew I had a proper workflow that produced a level of quality I would be content with.

I didn't want to reach the finish line with a completed digital collection and be told by someone I did it all wrong and should start over from the very first scan.

And let me add here that even though I set the standards for my photo collection high, I don't believe I am trying to achieve a level of professionalism that one should only expect with the most expensive equipment and years of talent and experience. I am merely refining a formula where I am doing the best I can do with my modest scanner, software and abilities.

I wouldn't be surprised if most of you feel you have the same goals as well.

And before you ask, of course it occurred to me I could send them all to a scanning service. As much as I love what these services do and how much they help those who aren't interested in doing the work themselves, I am just not one of those who can part with their irreplaceable photos – not even for a few weeks. One of my wife's grandfathers wouldn't even allow his own grandchildren to take his photos out of his living room! So I think I can forgive myself for my conservative caretaking here.

Some of you new to archiving photographs might be asking yourselves, “Well how hard is it really? You just place a photo in the scanner, set it to ‘full-auto' mode, hit the scan button and out comes a digital file on your desktop.”

Archiving is a Different Animal

Maybe it's the meticulous conditioning from being a professional video editor for many years, or maybe it's just this level of perfectionism I have always placed upon myself. Either way I had to shut down my production line back in 2001 because I was having way too many questions in my head every time I went to scan in that second photo.

  • What is the best resolution to scan prints for archiving? 200, 300, 600… 1200 ppi?  Even higher?
  • Do I allow the scanner to automatically color correct my photos or is it better to do this later in my image editing program? And if I do allow it to, what if later I want to return to the nostalgic “deteriorated” look of my 1970's photos?
  • Should I scan in my square prints from the 1960's with the white border around them? If I don't, what I if I want them back later because they have information on them such as the printing date or handwritten captions?
  • When two photos look similar, what's the best way to give them filenames? If I go with “christmas 1989-1” and “christmas 1989-2”, how do I know this is the correct chronological order? When my software sorts them by filename, this naming methodology will be important to get them to sort in the correct order.
  • Is scanning in 48-bit mode necessary to get the best quality?
  • Wouldn't it be best to buy a the latest and greatest scanner? Won't I get a better image this way?
  • Do I have to buy the $699 Adobe Photoshop to touch up or restore my images?

The complete list was much longer – trust me. But I think you get the idea.

The thing about scanning your photographs for archival purposes, which really is the way we all need to be doing it for long-term preservation, is you need to go into each scan assuming this is the last time you will ever get to digitize this photograph.

You never know if tomorrow your house will be burned to the ground, flooded or robbed. Maybe you are borrowing a set of photographs from a relative. You may never get the chance to borrow them again. And let's face it, the amount of time or money this requires will probably discourage you from doing it all over again years from now. So it's best to believe this a one shot deal.

Whichever formula you settle on to scan with – however you set your scanning software's settings today before you hit that scan button –  will affect the amount of choices you have when repurposing your master images tomorrow.

So please let me persuade you into believing it's in your best interest and the future generations ahead of you who will be accessing them when you are no longer around, to leave behind the “rawest” and highest quality masters as you possible can.

Plastic bin full of family photo albums I get to scan

In this plastic bin lies my future – just some of my family's photo albums jammed full of prints and newspaper clippings that I get to scan.

An Expert Education

For those 8 years in between scans, I was reading up on how the experts as well as the dedicated novices were archiving their own photographs. And I wasn't just trying to learn how they were scanning but also how they were saving, correcting and managing all of their images. I was devouring as much information as I could find to extract and refine the perfect digital workflow. And of course, there was some so called scanning procrastination on my part in between. Okay yes a lot of procrastination.

Well it turns out there is a fair amount of “expert” opinions out there vocalizing what they think is best for our photographs. And even though I was learning a lot, I was becoming frustrated because the second I thought I had learned a hard and fast rule for say a particular scanner setting, I would find another expert who also had a good yet contradictory argument to use a different setting.

For example one expert will state it's best to scan paper prints at the “highest optical resolution” your scanner will capture yet another will swear there's no noticeable benefit scanning paper prints above 200 dpi. Many advocate buying an additional and expensive piece of professional scanning software so you can restore (crop, remove dust and scratches, color correct etc.) during the scanning process instead of later in “post” with an image editor. While others argue there's no need to use the corrective tools in scanning software because the algorithms in image editors are always better. And some swear by Adobe Photoshop even with the expense and learning curve and others say it's complete overkill.

There Really is No One Perfect Workflow

Technology is always going to change and improve, but what often stays the same are one's goals for their archived digital photo collection.

Right now, from everything I have learned so far, I could write out for you a complete list of steps that in my opinion you should do to properly archive your photos. And your photos will look good – I mean really good. But in the end, if you aren't willing or for any understandable reason you aren't capable of following along, you too will be stuck for 8 or more years without a digitally preserved collection. And those prints, negatives and slides aren't getting any younger are they?  (Your head should be shaking back and forth here)

We each have our own bar to set – a threshold of quality we need to achieve to satisfy our own expectations.

The quality you expect from your master files could quite possibly be abominable to me and my OCD tendencies. But seriously that's okay if it's an ideal fit for you and your collection. And on the opposite end, I know certain things I am willing to let slide may not suffice for those looking for true professional “museum-like” archival perfection.

And I am not just speaking to those who want to scan their own collections. If you're seeking help from a scanning service, finding a company that uses the right workflow is just as critical. For example, those with the greatest expectations will find a “stack fed” automated service probably won't suffice. Your time will be well spent choosing a service that inspects and personally scans and corrects each photo by hand and eye. And if your expectations are low, you may decide it's not worth the money for this “white glove treatment.”

My list of scanning services will help you considerably. Not only does it rank them in order by personal user ratings, but the data I collected on each company will provide you with all of the hard to decipher details to help you find the perfect fit.

The best way for us all to digitize our photographs – this formula … this “perfect workflow” – is the one that will actually get us to the finish line with our individual goals met and a complete digital collection we are proud of.

And one last thing – that first photo I scanned, you know the one of me on the pony – don't you think I have my parents to blame at least a little bit for my touch of OCD? I mean check out those matching socks! The pressure I must have been under as a child trying to maintain such an obsession for order. (Now your head should be shaking up and down)

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