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As an advocate for documenting personal and family histories, the thought of losing precious family memories to a house fire or a flood has long been my greatest fear. After letting that paranoia percolate for a few years, I finally decided to do something about it and sat down to digitize all of the photos and videos from my childhood and early adult years (before I started shooting digitally). I fully expected that this daunting project would take me a long time to complete, but all told, it only took me a few weeks and was actually a lot easier than I expected. I cannot tell you what a relief it is to no longer carry the anxiety of possibly losing that part of my history.
If you have a collection of photo albums and old VHS tapes staring you down from across the room, never fear. Here’s a quick and easy guide to getting them digitized, organized, and backed up on the cloud for safe keeping.
DIY Digitizing or Hire a Service?
There are a lot of services out there that will digitize your family memories for you—for a price. I was tempted to just pay to have it done rather than doing the work myself, but when I calculated out the price, it would have cost me $2,500-3,500 to digitize the number of photos and videos I had. Even factoring in the price of my scanner, analag-to-digital video converter, and the time I spent (calculated at the same hourly rate I use in my design business), I still saved thousands of dollars by going the DIY route. Sure, it took time, but I did it on the weekends when I don’t do client work anyways.
That was the best decision for me and my circumstances, but it might not be the right choice for you. (I also didn’t have any slides or negatives to convert. If I had, I would have paid a professional to do those.) If you don’t want to or can’t take the time for DIY digitizing, Legacybox often runs sales on their services or Coscto members can have it done at their local warehouse.
Scanner vs. App
There are a number of apps out there designed to help you scan your photos, and many of them come highly recommended by those who use them. Apps like Photomyne can be a reasonable alternative if you don’t have a good flatbed scanner because they don’t cost much (if anything at all) and give you decent resolution output for scanned photos.
But you’re also limited by the quality of your phone’s camera, and the app can’t prevent glare or reflections on glossy photo surfaces. If you want to ensure that your backups are as close to the original as possible, you really are better off using a flatbed scanner.
My Scanner of Choice
When the printer/scanner combo we’ve had for years stopped working, we got a one month subscription to Consumer Reports to compare models for its replacement. Knowing that this scanning project was on my horizon, scan quality and color fidelity were important to me, but we also try to be careful with our budget. In the end, we got a Canon Pixma TR8620, and for the first time ever, I can honestly say that I love my printer. (Maybe I shouldn’t say that too loud—don’t want to jinx myself…) It has been free of the typical printer quirks, provides great scan and print quality, and the ink cartridges last for a long time. I highly recommend it.
When scanning photos, opt for a resolution of at least 300 dpi. Some scanners can scan at higher resolutions, but the scan time will increase and the photos will take up more space on your hard drive. The ideal resolution will depend on your intended final use. If you’re scanning for archival purposes, higher resolutions will be better. If your goal is just to back up photos that can be reprinted in case of loss, 300 dpi will be sufficient. Because I plan on making photo books with my photos, I opted for 600 dpi so that I had plenty of resolution to work with.
Clean the Glass and Photos
If you’ve been storing photos in boxes, there’s a good chance they may have collected some dust. Even photos stored in albums with plastic sleeves can pick up particles, and a flatbed scanner is prone to collecting dust and fingerprints. Before starting, use some glass cleaner (I like to use cleaner made for eye glasses) and a microfiber cloth to clean your scanner bed and pass a dry cloth over each photo. As you scan, you’ll likely end up with fingerprints on your scanner glass, so just give it a touch up between every few scans.
To speed up your scanning workflow, it can be helpful to scan multiple photos at once. This may mean that you will need to separate them later, but there are a few options for doing so. Many photo scanning apps and printers (including the Pixma) have the ability to separate multiple photos automatically. If you have Photoshop, you can also use the Crop and Straighten tool (find it under Automate on the File menu) to quickly break up groups of photos scanned together.
Regardless of which option you use, you’ll avoid many separation errors by leaving space between photos so the app, scanner, or software can easily detect photo edges. If you’re using a scanning app on your phone, putting your photos on a piece of plain white poster board will also help you get nice clean edges on your photos.
Don't Scan Every Photo
Scanning old photos is a great opportunity to purge your collection of duplicates or near duplicates, blurry or unflattering photos, or photos that don’t have the same emotional significance they once did. Being a bit more judicious with your scanning will prevent you from having to cull your photos later.
There’s nothing worse than looking at family history photos and not having any idea who the people are because the photo wasn’t labeled. So as you’re scanning your photos, be sure to collect any identifying information written on the photo. To speed up my workflow, I liked to use Airtable to track labels and notes. I set up a table with columns for scan ID, photo descriptions, dates, and other notes. I entered relevant information for each photo before placing it on the scanner bed, and then when it came time to rename my scans (more on that in a bit), I had dates, names, and locations ready to use.
If you’d like to use Airtable to track your photo captions, feel free to copy my base. Just click “copy base” at the bottom to add it to your free Airtable account.
Analog to Digital Conversion
To digitize your old video tapes, you’ll need an analog-to-digital converter, audio and video patch cables, and a VCR player. If you have VHS-C tapes, you will also need a tape adapter so you can play your tape in the VCR. For miniDV, you will need to use your old video camera as your player. (You can do this with VHS-C, too, but you may end up with unsightly timestamps over your video.)
For a while, I used the Dazzle DVD Recorder HD as my digital converter device. However, despite the product description claiming it works with Windows 10, I had issues with it right out of the box. I had to install a buggy patch to get the software to work, and even then, it only worked sometimes. I also had issues with the audio and video not always lining up properly. After a big Windows 10 update, it stopped working entirely and I couldn’t get it to work again.
I replaced it with an Elgato Video Capture cable, and it was so much better. Installation was a breeze, the audio and digital output is great, and the software is lightweight enough that I could run it in the background while I worked on other things. It does cost a bit more than the Dazzle, but the ease of use made it well worth the price.
Editing Your Videos
The one drawback to the Elgato software is that it doesn’t come with a native editor aside from a trimmer to clean up the beginning and end of your videos. If all you want to do is back up your videos, this might be all you need. But if you want to do more signficiant editing, you’ll need to use another software. Your computer might come with iMovie or Windows Movie Maker installed, but features will be limited. I love using Adobe Premiere Pro for editing videos. Sony Vegas Movie Studio is also a good option that’s a bit more economical for users who want more options than basic video editors will provide but don’t need all the bells and whistles of Premiere.
Organizing Photos and Videos
When organizing your files, it’s important to pick a file structure and stick to it so that it’s both easy to maintain moving forward and easy to find photos and videos later. Most photo organization advice out there recommends organizing by year/month/date, which works really well for a lot of people. But if you’re like me, you might be more likely to remember where something happened than when it happened. That’s why I organize my photos by location first, and then by specific events if needed.
As with your file structure, it’s best to pick a file naming system at the beginning and stick to it. It might be easy to just batch rename a whole folder, but that won’t do you or future generations any favors when it comes to finding photos again or identifying people in the photos. The best naming scheme will include dates, places or event names, and people—or at least, as much of that information as you know.
When I rename my photos, I use a “Date (YYYY.MM.DD) Location/Event – People/Description” pattern. If I don’t know the exact date, I’ll use as much as I do know – YYYY.MM or just YYYY. If I only know an approximate year, I’ll put the year followed by a “c” to indicate “circa.”
So, for example, this photo was labeled with the month and year, location, and people, so the file is named “1989.02 Ice Skating near Big Shute Highway – [Dad’s name] and [Daughter’s name].”*
Using a file naming system like this makes it easy to keep photos in chronological order. It also makes it easy to find photos, because you can search by location name, event, or person to locate the photo you’re looking for.
* Names redacted for privacy.
Writing Metadata (Optional)
If you use a photo editing/organizing software, you likely have easy tools for editing a photo’s metadata, which includes date and time taken, GPS coordinates, camera info, keywords, and basically any other information you might want to know in the future. Metadata also gives you more ways to find and organize your photos.
If you’re just using your computer’s native file explorer, you can still set much of this data manually, but it does take a bit more time. You can, however, apply metadata changes in bulk by selecting all of the files you want to edit, right clicking on one of the images, and choosing “Properties” from the popup menu. Once you’re done making your changes, just click “apply” and close.
A Plug for Lightroom Classic
You certainly don’t have to use Lightroom Classic for any of this, but I have found it to be incredibly helpful for organizing and editing a large number of photographs and videos. You can easily complete batch edits and write metadata to files that aren’t even in the same folder together. It also gives you more options than your native file editor will, including creating collections, adding color labels, and finding photos based on criteria beyond just date, filename, or file type. Plus, you can edit your photos without having to open a different program, and you can even use it to make a photo book with my favorite book printer, Blurb!
My Lightroom Workflow
Backing Up Your Photos and Videos
Archiving best practices suggest that it’s best to keep three copies of your photos and videos: a physical copy (such as your photo albums, photo books, and video tapes), a digital copy (stored on a hard drive), and a copy stored in a different physical location (so that it’s protected if something happens to your home).
Cloud storage works great for the final option, and there are a lot of different cloud services to choose from. I personally like to use Amazon Prime Photos because Prime members can store unlimited photos with their annual membership. (Honestly, it’s the #1 reason I have Prime. After crunching the numbers, the annual price of Prime was cheaper than any other cloud storage service,plus you get all the other Prime benefits as a nice perk!) You also get 5gb of storage space for videos. If, like me, you have a lot of videos, you can upgrade to 100gb for $20/year (as of this writing). There’s also an app that lets you access your photos from your mobile device anytime, anywhere.
I also like that Amazon photos makes it really easy to create and share albums with family members. I use the same file structure on Amazon Drive as I do on my hard drive, and then I created albums for each of my folders.
Enjoying Your Photos
Now that you’ve digitized all of your photos and videos, don’t just let them sit on a hard drive forever. This is a great opportunity to make photo books, especially if you borrowed photo albums from your parents like I did. (Even if you just digitized your own photos, photo books take up much less space than traditional albums. You can also include videos in your books by creating QR codes that link to your videos in the cloud.) You can make extra copies of your photo books to share with siblings, or host a family movie night to watch your old videos together. I’m also a big proponent of decorating our homes with meaningful decor, so get your favorites printed and framed or turned into beautiful canvas wall art. Whatever you choose to do, take time to enjoy those memories!
Photos and videos aren’t the only family memorabilia that I want to protect. While a picture is worth 1,000 words, my journals are my actual words. They’re a record of my life written in a way that only I can write them, and that’s worth preserving.
That’s why my next project is digitizing my old journals. Scanning books can be difficult with a flatbed scanner, so we bought an affordable but highly effective overhead scanner called the Czur Shine Ultra. It has made it a breeze to digitize my journals and other family history records, and then I can back them up on my cloud storage with my photos and videos so that they’re also protected from any disasters we might face.
There you have it! With a solid plan in place, preserving your family’s memories doesn’t have to be overwhelming. It’s a great opportunity to reminisce on old memories, and your family will be grateful for your efforts to protect those documents for future generations.
What questions do you have about digitizing your personal and family history? Start a discussion in the comments below to get ideas from me and fellow readers!
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