Free Containers for Sorting Photos!

A shipment of cat food arrived the other day and it made me think of photo organizing. How is that even possible, you ask? Well, to start with, I pretty much think about photo organizing 24 hours a day (yes, I even dream about it!). So I look at just about everything through the lens (haha) of organizing photos.

In this particular instance, though, I was looking at packing materials. We share our home with 10 rescue cats, which means we buy a lot of cat food. In the olden days, we went to our fantastic local pet store to buy food and supplies (and pet the resident cats). This year, however, we have switched to ordering our food online so it can be delivered at the end of our lane. This is super-convenient for us, since we live 45 minutes from town, but it does mean extra packing materials that we wouldn’t otherwise need. (It also means a lot of heavy lifting for our FedEx driver, but we put out snacks and water to soften the exertion!)

Look for packing materials you can repurpose, such as these cardboard trays that come in shipments of canned cat food!

I’m always looking for ways to repurpose items rather than send them to recycling (or – worse – the landfill), so when I saw the little cardboard dividers protecting the cases of canned food, I immediately thought how they would make perfect (and free!) sorting containers for photos and keepsakes! The smaller sizes are the exact width to hold an envelope of photos, and the bigger boxes are great for larger portraits, newspaper clippings, etc.

The smaller trays fit film envelopes perfectly!

I wanted to share this idea with you to demonstrate that organizing photos doesn’t have to be costly or complicated. Yes, you can buy special plastic containers or other items to help with your sorting, with the advantage that they will look nice, be sturdy, and might even be easily stackable. They might protect your photos from dust and other environmental damage until you’re ready to put them in their long-term storage. 

But don’t let the fact that you don’t have the “perfect” sorting containers stop you from getting started! Look around your living space – you’re bound to see a variety of boxes or tubs that could work perfectly and won’t cost you a cent. They could be as humble as a shoe box or as attractive as a decorative container. Just be sure they are as clean as possible, without any edges that might damage your items.

Who knew my handwriting ever looked like that?!

Don’t stop at containers! Think about other materials you might have on hand that could help. I discovered I still had index cards from a paper I wrote in high school! (Did I mention I hate throwing things away?) They’re even still in their own plastic box. I can repurpose these to use as dividers between film rolls, or for signs, note cards, etc. 

Treat yourself (and your photos!) to some beautiful archival storage, like these boxes from Archival Methods.

Then, once everything is sorted, organized, and curated, you can transfer everything to beautiful archival storage, like these gray or black boxes (you can find these particular boxes at Archival Methods). Won’t that be an amazing feeling when you get to that point? Let’s get going!

Motivation to Start #10: Sharing!

I had intended to finish my “Motivation to Start” series back in August with what I think is the biggest motivator of all – sharing – but somehow here it is mid-October already!
As some of you might remember, my mom celebrated her 80th birthday in August, and I was preparing some photo gifts for her to help her feel like her friends and family weren’t so far away, even though they were scattered across the world (or at least 6 feet away!). 
But everyone in my family and my husband’s family knows that the chances of getting a photo-related gift from me in any given year for any occasion (or no occasion at all) is going to be pretty darn high. Why? Because I think there is something magical about sharing images of a life event with a loved one. Whether they are photos from a shared experience, such as a holiday or reunion, or a special event in your own life that you want to share with others, these gifts let the recipient experience and remember special moments in a way no other medium can. 

If you’re like me, you might feel compelled to sort through and organize 100 years’ worth of photos and memorabilia and curate the most beautiful and poignant images into a full-color, professionally printed book that would look dazzling on any coffee table. And, of course, that’s fine if you have the time, patience, and know-how.

But sometimes these lofty goals become overwhelming, so the project never gets off the ground. Which photos should I choose? How should I arrange them? Should I add captions? What’s the best printing company? And so on.

That’s why it’s important to remember that sharing photos doesn’t have to be complicated, time-consuming, expensive, or require special products or services. In fact, how many times have you come across a photo while scrolling through your library and texted it to a friend because you know it would brighten their day? Free, instant, and magical.

Apply that same notion to a photo gift. For example, years ago I made duplicates of photos I took when my husband and I visited my parents in Durango, Colorado. I had some colorful construction paper lying around, so I just glued the duplicates onto the paper and made silly captions to go with the photos. Now that my dad has passed away, I love looking back on this fun time we all had together.

Another time, I glued duplicates of a family vacation into a journal made of handmade paper, which was a bit more fancy than the construction paper. It didn’t matter that neither of these was archival quality because these weren’t original copies of the photos. 
Of course, there are a variety of professionally printed products you can create, too. Everything from books and albums to wall art to mugs…and new innovations every day! I always look forward to my sister’s yearly calendars, which feature photos of her life in Scotland. And yes, I have, in fact, created a photo book of photos curated (some restored) from seven decades of photos for a 70th birthday. So much fun!

The fun ways to share photos are endless, and in my opinion, the joy that these photos bring to the recipients is a great motivator for getting started on organizing your photos. Maybe you know where some great ‘70s Halloween photos are in your collection that you can quickly pull out and share with a parent, sibling, or child in a couple weeks? Maybe the “person who has everything” would cherish a special photo album for Christmas, featuring vacations through the years or milestones in their life?

I challenge you to go to your physical or digital photo collection right now, organized or not, and open any tub, album, or folder and find one or two photos to send to someone, either digitally or through the mail. Letting someone know you’re thinking of them is truly the best gift of all, and the photo is just the icing on the cake! And everyone could use a little more cake these days.

I’ll start: I recently came across a photo of my sister-in-law in a Halloween costume in 1970. Isn’t it adorable? I can’t wait to email it to her and the rest of the family as a Halloween greeting. They likely haven’t seen this photo in decades, so I think it will be a fun surprise!

You’re next! Does sharing a photo give you new motivation to take a stab at getting your collection organized so you can easily share more in the future?

Scanning Prints versus Negatives

As I was working on a client project today, it occurred to me I could illustrate one of the scanning principles we often talk about: it’s usually best to scan negatives rather than prints.

The first photo is an example of three original prints (the smaller squares) along with three photos that I scanned from the negatives then printed on my printer. I could still do a little tweaking of the colors (the blues are a bit too blue, for example), but overall you can see how much better the versions from the negatives look! And even if the negatives are a little scratched or worn, chances are they haven’t been handled nearly as much as the prints.

Also, if you look at the close-up photo of the graduation photos, check out the difference on the right-hand side: you can see how much of the image got cut off when they printed the original print. There’s an entire book missing! (I circled it in red.) This isn’t so important in this example, but I came across a photo where a person’s face was cut off so you couldn’t see who was in the photo. Scanning from the negative solved that problem!

If you’d like to get some of your photos scanned, see if you can find the negatives to go with and have those scanned instead if they’re in good shape – you’ll be amazed at the difference!

Motivation to Start #9: Albums!

A client recently told me she didn’t need to do anything with her physical photo collection because her best prints were all organized in albums already. From an organizational and enjoyment standpoint, that’s fantastic! But from a preservation standpoint, it could be disastrous.

Choosing your favorite shots and arranging them in albums or scrapbooks is a really fun way to enjoy your photos. Plus, having a curated collection is a wonderful legacy for future generations of family members. And, beautiful photo albums can be stored on open bookshelves or on a coffee table so all can enjoy, rather than being crammed into bins tucked away in a closet.

All of this is great if you’ve chosen albums and scrapbook materials that are archival quality, or if the photos in the albums are duplicates and therefore disposable. Chances are, though, you probably have a “magnetic” photo album in your midst, or even a much older album, that contains some original photos.

If this is the case, you will want to prioritize these photos in your preservation efforts. Why? Because photos degrade over time anyway, but when they are exposed to certain chemicals, the degradation is accelerated. 

Take, for instance, the so-called magnetic albums. Those are those sticky cardboard pages with a plastic sheet that peeled back so you could insert your photos or other memorabilia. After arranging everything just so, you would smooth the sheet over the items and, like magic, everything stayed in place. (Don’t get me started on how hard it was to get the plastic wrinkle-free…!)

The thing is, the cardboard in those albums would give off peroxides that caused yellowing, and the adhesive and the plastic sheets were acidic and caused further damage to the items in the album. You can see an example of this in two albums from my own collection: the one with the photo of me (above) is in an album I put together in the ‘80s. You can also see some mildew stains on the inside front cover. The album below, featuring our kitty Appaloosa, was an album from the ‘90s. The yellowing is quite extensive on all of the pages in both these albums.

To further complicate things, the sticky material that holds the photos in place can develop a death-grip on the photos so that removing them without further damage becomes really challenging.

But it’s not just magnetic albums to watch out for. Many other non-archival materials used in scrapbooking can cause dire consequences. The photos in this album from the early 1900s were glued in, and as you can see, the glue has created yellow spots on the photos. So not only will it be difficult if not impossible to remove the photos without damaging them, the photos will need to be scanned and digitally retouched to try to return them to their original glory.

If you’re looking for a good place to start with your photos, take a look at the albums in your collection. Chances are, these are the best photos in the bunch – that’s why they were chosen for the album – so you won’t need to decide what to keep or toss, and you’ll be preserving the cream of the crop before they have a chance to degrade. 

And in the future, be sure to choose albums and storage containers rated as “archival quality” for your original photos, or, better yet, get extra prints made of your favorite shots and use those in any album you like! For instance, maybe I’ll finally get around to adding some photos to this beautiful album my friend brought back from Florence, Italy in the 1980s!

Image Resolution: What’s the Difference?

I recently treated myself to a 50 megapixel Canon camera for my birthday (I know, I’m a geek and proud of it!). I won’t be using it for frog and toad portraiture, which is one of my favorite pastimes. Instead, I’ll be using it in my camera scanning rig.

I think there is a lot of confusion when it comes to scanning and understanding the differences between scanning options, and it’s not surprising! Words like megapixels, resolution, DPI and PPI all get thrown around a lot, and it can be hard to really understand what people are talking about.

So, I thought it would be fun to do a quick comparison! The image above is a photo I took with my iPhone SE. The subject is a small, vintage photo, and I have it next to a ruler so you can get a feel for how small it is. The iPhone actually did a pretty remarkable job of getting a good representation of it! This was about as close as I could get and still be able to focus.

The second photo has three items: one is the tiny original photo; above that is a print of an iPhone SE shot, printed at full size; and to the right is a print of a shot from my new camera on 13×19 paper, which is as big as my printer will go. At full size, it would have been over 20 inches square. I didn’t do much editing to the photos, just tried to match the iPhone and Canon shots in overall look (I have to admit, I’m not crazy about the reddish hue and would probably tweak things a bit so it was more faithful to the original, but this gives you the basic idea!).

Now, you may never need to print a 20” photo of Aunt Bettie from the turn of the (previous) century, but this illustration demonstrates that the more information you’re able to capture in your scan, the more you’re able to do with your images. Think about displaying your family’s vacation slides from the ‘60s on a large-screen TV! You’ll be seeing photos in a way you’ve never seen them before!

Just something to take into consideration when you’re investigating scanning options!

When Duds are Keepers

I was going through some photos today that I had gathered for a photo organizing presentation back in February in Stockholm (remember when we used to be able to gather in one room?? Or travel overseas, for that matter?!!). I wanted to share one of them here to illustrate one of the criteria for deciding which photos to keep and which to toss.

In general, we know that it’s best to toss photos that aren’t the best quality – blurry, dark, random, etc. But here’s an example of a blurry photo that I will keep. Why? Because sometimes a photo of lesser quality still tells a story, or it may be the only photo you have of a person or event and even though it’s sub par, it’s better than no photo at all.

In the case of this photo, I was studying in Leningrad, USSR for a semester and I had purchased a new camera to take with me. Back in the olden days, it was always recommended to shoot and develop a roll of film with a new camera to ensure everything was working properly, but I didn’t have time to do that before I left.

Lo and behold, I became the living example for why that recommendation was a good idea. Every shot I took was out of focus, and because I wasn’t able to develop the film until I got home four months later, I had no idea the camera was malfunctioning.

So, I will always keep these “imperfect” photos as a reminder of my time in Russia, and I have come to appreciate how the images, like my memories of the time I spent there, are soft and nebulous. But I will want to be sure to keep this information with these photos so that years from now, if someone were to come across them and wonder why they were in the collection, they would understand the story behind them.

Just something to keep in mind as you’re sorting through your own photos, deciding what to keep or toss, or if you’re wondering why those before you chose to hang onto less-than-perfect photographs!

Motivation to Start #8: Improve Damaged Photos!

Here’s another fun before and after. You’ve probably come across vintage photos that have a silver mirroring in the dark areas. That’s often because the chemicals weren’t fixed properly when the print was made. Since the silver is highly reflective, it makes the image difficult to see.

There’s a trick in camera scanning, called “cross polarization,” that allows you to remove that glare. You accomplish this by adding a polarizing lens filter to your camera, and polarizing sheets (called “gels”) over your lights.

The results are pure magic! Here is a shot I took without the cross polarizing, and another I took with (plus a quick pass with Photoshop to take out some of the speckles). Isn’t it amazing?

Suddenly, an image that was difficult to discern with the naked eye is restored to its former glory! Won’t my great-uncle’s family be thrilled to see a photo of Uncle Buck like they’ve never seen it before?

What kind of magic can you work with your photos today?

(P.S. Even though Buford passed away some time ago, I did get permission from his family to use this photo. It’s always a best practice to ask before sharing publicly!)

Motivation to Start #7: Technology is Your Friend!

Have you had a chance to delve into your photo collection yet? Any pleasant surprises? If you’re still needing a little motivation, here’s another thing to remember: technology is your friend!

You don’t have to be a computer genius to benefit from all the help technology can offer. I’m working on my digital photo collection at the same time I’m working on my physical collection (glutton for punishment, I know, but I love it!), and I’m reminded every day of all the cool things technology can do for me when it comes to dealing with photos.

One of my biggest setbacks with digital photo collections in times past was that I would have to back up my large digital photo libraries all over the place because we didn’t have the luxury of giant hard drives back in Ye Olde Days of digital photography. 

So, when it was time to merge all of those photos into one Master Library, that meant – you guessed it – duplicates! 57,902 duplicates, to be exact, and those are just exact duplicates with the exact same file names. 

If I was calling it a “Photo Disaster” in 2005, imagine how it looked 15 years later!

If I were to go through my 118,630 digital photos and compare each one to see if I had more than one of each image, it would literally take me until the end of time. Or, more likely, until my eyes fell out. 

Instead, I can let the computer do what it does best: compute!! I can run a deduplication program like PhotoSweeper and have it compare all the images in my photo library and return the ones it thinks are duplicates. I press start, walk away (because with a library this big, it takes a little while), and voila! The computer tells me which photos to trash. All I had to do was click a button.

But deduplicating isn’t the only fun tech you can enjoy when working on your photos. There are countless programs that help you spruce up your pictures to give them new life and help them shine. From simple filters in programs like Instagram to more robust programs like Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom Classic, there are options for people of every tech comfort level. And the programs are improving all the time!

For instance, here is a small photo restoration I did with Photoshop 13 years ago for a photo album I was making for my father-in-law. Nowadays there are programs that can do this kind of work for you. The quality may not be quite what it would be if it was done “by hand,” but if you’re not interested in doing it yourself or having someone do it for you, this is always an option.

And let’s not forget other fantastic things a computer can do with your photos, such as facial recognition and location services! With little effort on your part, you can easily find every photo of Great-grandma Betty or every photo taken with a location-enabled camera on your trips to Sweden. 😉

What are your favorite technology tools?

Motivation to Start #6: Duplicates!

Here’s another tip that might help you get started organizing your photos, both physical and digital: DUPLICATES!!!

If you’re like pretty much every person on the planet, you have a bunch of duplicates. And those are taking up a ton of space, either in real life or on your computer or device.

Why is knowing you have a gob of duplicates going to make you want to start organizing? Because you can shrink your collection quickly and dramatically just by getting rid of them! What originally seemed like a mountain of photos has suddenly become a more manageable collection.

The great thing about deduplicating is that it doesn’t take a lot of brain power or emotional effort. For digital photos, you can run a deduplication program that will find a lot of those duplicates for you. You don’t need a lot of technical know-how to find exact duplicates, so you can cull a lot of photos really quickly. Then, depending on how comfortable you feel with the software, you can tweak the settings to find different subsets of duplicates, and you can even find photos that are similar to each other so that you can pick the best photo from a series of shots.

When it comes to print photos, there’s a good chance there’s a span of time in the ‘90s and beyond where you got duplicates (or triplicates! Quadruplicates?!) every time you developed a roll of film. It was that golden era when printing photos was fast and cheap, and we figured we might as well get extras in case there were a few good ones in there we might want to share with friends or family.

If you know there are boxes or envelopes from that era that have duplicates,  that could be a great place to start your organizing! It takes no time at all to zip through those rolls of film and weed out the duplicates. And suddenly you’ve halved the number of photos you need to deal with!

A quick sort through some of our own photos yielded a bunch of duplicates!

But as I am going through my own family photo collection I am reminded that there can be print duplicates from any era. Even images from the early 1900s could be represented by multiple copies. As I’ve been ingesting photo collections from various family members, I’m discovering the same photos over and over. In my family, at least, it was common practice to send copies of photos to family members near and far. What’s so great about this is that not only will I have fewer photos to archive – I can pick the best from the bunch to keep – but when people sent these photos to family members, they often included a lot of information on the back of the photo! Now I’ve got all kinds of metadata and stories that go along with these photos.

Be sure to take note of any differing information that you might find on the backs of these print duplicates. As you can see from my example, I found two photos of my great-grandmother with a bunch of turkeys. 😹 The top photo is clearly the keeper because it is darker. But take a look at the backs of the photos: one says “Kate Klapp” and the other “Grandma Kate.” In this instance, knowing that Kate was someone’s grandma isn’t particularly helpful, but what if those labels were reversed? If the underexposed photo was labeled “Kate Klapp,” I would want to be sure I added that last name to the photo I was keeping before tossing out that lesser photo.

This goes for the information that comes along with digital duplicates as well. A recent client of mine had a lot of digital duplicates in her genealogy collection, but what made deduplicating them tricky was that each copy had unique information attached to it that the second didn’t have, and vice versa. So, in those instances, it’s important to be sure you’ve gleaned all the important info from the extra copy before you toss it.

Speaking of tossing, the next question is: what do you do with all those print duplicates? In most cases, photographs are not recyclable because of the chemicals used in processing. However, that doesn’t mean they have to clog the landfill! You can pass them along to people who might be in the photos and would enjoy having a copy; you can get crafty and use the photos for any number of projects, like this box I made decades ago by shellacking duplicates to a shoe box; you can donate them to local schools and colleges to be used for crafting or art projects; you can ask local historical societies if they’d be interested in your older photos; and you can even shred them for use as sturdy packing material! All it takes is a search on the internet or Pinterest and you’ll find no end of fun ways to use those extra prints. 

It’s really rewarding to suddenly have a box of photos (or a digital trash bin) that can go off to another life and not keep clogging up your collection!  

Motivation to Start #5: Photo Treasures!

As I continue to sort through my own family’s photo collection, I keep finding unexpected reasons I’m glad I finally took the plunge. I mentioned the other day what fun it is finding treasures that aren’t even photos.

But the obvious payoff I think most of us are expecting are the photos themselves. And in my collection, there are certainly no end of photos of family members that are charming, sweet, funny, poignant, etc.

I came across this photo, though, and it took my breath away. I don’t even know who is in it or when or where it was taken (I have some guesses), but it is such a beautifully captured moment in time that it could stand alone as a piece of artwork. And this is just a quick camera scan without any editing!

Have you come across anything like this in your own family’s collection? A photo that stands out not because of who is in it, but because it is just a stunning photograph in and of itself?