A visual legacy for future generations

Small boy with camera, taking photograph

One of my many Lockdown goals (I wrote about it in April 2020) was to conserve, organise and digitise all my old monochrome family photos. In fact I’ve only recently started work on that. This is because, before scanning and creating digital copies of the old photos, I decided I needed to tidy up my existing digital photo archives.

We got our first digital camera around 2002, but it wasn’t until I bought my first digital SLR in 2007 that I got serious and set up my own digital archive system. All of the digital images from that initial five years have been safely stored by my husband. About ten years ago he also used a specialist negative scanner to convert the negatives of all our analogue photos to digital files. We do, however, have different approaches to naming and archiving these files, and our ‘systems’, shall we say… don’t dovetail!

My Dad was an accomplished old-school photographer and I’ve had a camera for as long as I can remember, including a pretty decent Pentax before we turned to digital. I used to lovingly create albums with the photos, including tickets, memorabilia and notes about the events and locations. And so we come to the first of the only two disadvantages of digital photography that I can think of – being that very few people these days actually print off their digital images. I’m ashamed to say that since we went digital, although we have printed off a few individual images I haven’t compiled a single photo album.

I’ve been thinking about all this while reorganising my digital photo files. My archive system is good. Individual image files are stored in named folders, and since I upload them from my camera via my main processing software (Photoshop Elements), they are also visible in the Elements ‘media browser’ in date and time order. So they’re searchable by date in the media browser, by category (folder) in my digital archives, and also by keyword search in Elements. In theory it can take seconds to find the exact image I’m after. However, it isn’t always this straightforward. I might have returned home from a holiday in Sicily and taken a few photos of my children in the garden the following morning before uploading the entire batch with the filename ‘Sicily’ and storing them in a folder called ‘Sicily’. On my Photoshop media browser I can see the children’s images, and they will appear in date order, quite clearly taken the day after our return from Sicily. But if I want to find those images of the children in the garden in my digital archives, I probably won’t remember they are in the Sicily folder. This happens a lot, and that was why I needed to sort them all out. If I can lose images in my own pretty well-organised files, then how will my children and future generations fare? How will they even know what photos exist? And here’s the second disadvantage of digital photography: it’s so cheap and so accessible that we take many photos and often place little value on them. I’m horrified to note that having reached this stage of organising my folders, deleting quite a lot of images, copying the ones my husband had stored and renaming/incorporating them into my own system… I have just under 21,000 images in my Photoshop media browser. Many of them will be of no interest to anyone else (but they are to me) and although at least now my folders are meticulously organised and the folder names self-explanatory, it doesn’t seem such a loving legacy to expect my kids to go rooting about on my computer after my demise to rescue digital photos of their childhood days.

So it occurs to me that despite the ease of digital photography we’re in danger of having even fewer photographs to hand on to future generations than our grandparents and great grandparents left for us. Yet while there may be far more of these photos than the ones we inherited from our grandparents, these too are important. They are a visual legacy that we can pass on, alongside those old black and white images, to future generations – but only if we organise them so that they can be found and accessed. My reorganisation is now complete, and I’ve moved on to photographing and uploading the old monochrome photos, which are also being stored and categorised within my existing system. So with all this fresh in my mind, here’s my advice:

  • The first step is to organise them well, in a consistent manner that’s meaningful to you and hopefully also to others who you want to use them. Some digital photographers advise naming folders with the date. So the batch in this folder was taken on 2020 12 04 and in that folder on 2121 03 16. It’s very neat and easy to find the folders on the computer, but it’s not for me. My memories are linked to people, places and events, not to what I was doing on April 7th in any given year. So I have folders that reflect this: ‘York’, ‘Honfleur’, ‘Embroidery Projects’, a folder for each of my children for activities and friends as they were growing up, ‘home’ folders where family life is recorded, and so on. When I upload new batches my default settings are that each image is named with the date it was taken, followed by custom name, and then the number of the image from the memory card. All I have to do is decide what the custom name should be and in which folder the batch should be stored. Even if all your photography is on your phone (where custom names is not an option) you could still make images easier to find by organising them into albums.
  • Make multiple back-ups. I learned the hard way how important this is back in 2010 when my hard drive corrupted and I lost several months’ photos. I had them backed up to what I thought was two drives, but somehow backing up from there to remote storage kept getting put off and when the hard drive burned out I lost the lot. The advice is to save to three places, at least one of which is remote.
  • Keep the best, delete the rest! Once you have the equipment, whether that be a phone or a top-notch camera with digital darkroom software, actually taking the photos costs nothing, so we might take a LOT of photos. Part of my reorganisation has been to delete the excess or poor quality photos. There’s more to do, but it will have to be a work in progress.
  • Metadata. Every digital image file has text information embedded into it. Some of this data is generated automatically by the camera or phone. It includes date and time taken, possibly the precise GPS location, and the size of the file in terms of megabytes and pixels/dimensions. If the photo was taken with a camera rather than phone some technical details about the exposure will be included. If, like we did for our pre-digital photos, you create a digital file by scanning the negative, or indeed by scanning the original photo, the metadata will relate to the creation of this new file and not to when the photo was actually taken. Since it’s the metadata information that dictates where the image ends up in my media browser, I’ve had to go through and manually change the date metadata for every single scanned file. (Oh what fun that was!) However, there is other metadata that we can add manually that will really help in retrieving a file quickly when we want it. This includes the filename given to the image at the time of uploading (or as amended afterwards). It also includes tagging people who are in the image, and any keywords we add – I often use keywords when a person’s face is not fully visible and the software won’t permit me to ‘tag’.

Apart from all that, there’s the possibility of adding administrative data, including image owner and restrictions on use. I won’t go into that here since it’s not the sort of condition we would impose on our families and descendants. But if you have the right software and can make use of all these tools, it will really help you to find photos more quickly.

  • Be mindful of changes in technology. Goodness knows what the technology will look like in the future! All we can do is be mindful, and try to do what we must to ensure our images are still accessible.

There’s no underestimating the time consuming hard work that has to go into retrospectively organising the above, but it’s lovely to find photos you had forgotten about – and once it’s done you can start to have fun with your images, use them in creative ways and add context that will be meaningful to future generations. That’s what we’ll move on to in my next post. In the meantime, if you have any advice about how you’re building an accessible photographic legacy for your own future generations, please share.


Note: The image above is a digital scan of the negative of a photo taken in the summer of 1998 when we watched the final stage of the Tour de France from les Tuileries. Since it was a scan the metadata embedded into the file had a date of 2010. Using Google I’ve been able to date that stage, and therefore this photo, to 2nd August 1998. I changed the metadata on the file manually so it’s now named 1998 08 02_Paris_0039.jpg and is stored in a folder called Paris August 1998. Since it’s a scan of a pre-digital image there is no other metadata, other than the size of the file. Plus I have tagged it with my son’s name. The original photo is in a little scrapbook he and I made together about our trip to Paris. I still plan to experiment to see how these scans of the negatives compare to scans of the actual photo.

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