I was fortunate to inherit boxes filled with family photos. And I’ve filled more boxes with my own prints and digital images. But I don’t want to scan each and every photo. I know it’s unlikely my descendants will want to preserve and peruse thousands of original family photos, so I am becoming more selective in what I choose to digitize and archive.
Yes that might sound like heresy, but I don’t need to scan six pictures of Uncle Herm and his siblings enjoying birthday cake when one great photo will preserve the memory far better than several renditions of the same faded print.
Those of us old enough to remember old-fashioned color slide shows can never forget family photo nights featuring seemingly endless plastic carousels of vacation snapshots. Digital slideshows are no different. I want my family to call out “MORE” not “When will this be over?”
There’s no family historian certificate for Greatest Number of Family Photos Scanned. No Digitizing Hall of Fame. No merit badge for Most Photos of the Same Ancestor.
Remember When Film Came On Spools?
Lately, I’ve been spending time in the family archives and all those old family photos remind me that most of our ancestors were frugal picture-takers. One roll of 12 or 24 exposures might span several weeks or events, from summer birthday party to holiday family dinners.
When every picture had a per picture cost there were fewer duplicates of the same people at the same event doing the same thing. Our relatives snapped one or two pictures, hoping one would be good enough.
Which begs the question: How many pictures do we need to scan to have ONE photo of all the aunts and uncles at the reunion?
Scan the Best
How many pictures of cacti, unidentified mountains, and limb-less folks do you need to scan? Answer: One.
(And you might ask, Why even one? Well, to keep the context and the story it’s a good idea to have some evidence of that desert vacation or the people at the reunion whose feet were amputated by the photographer.)
Those are the easy ones to set aside at the scanner. The harder choices might be selecting photos you snapped in pre-digital camera days. It’s almost easier to send shoeboxes of prints to a scanning service than to go through the box and select the best to scan and save.
Easier for you, perhaps, but your children will thank you when they inherit a curated collection of family photos instead of Terabytes filled with digital images.
Select the best, share the story, preserve the memory.
Pick or Reject?
Professional photographers integrate photo selection with their total workflow. It’s a skill that takes practice, but it’s simple and the results are well worth the effort.
A pro photographer is looking for the best composition and technical features. As family historians we care mostly about people, places, dates, and events. So, while a pro might reject an image because the subject has an unsightly pole growing out of his head, a genealogist might pick that photo because the sign on top of the pole identifies a location. Genealogy first, photo technique second.
Rarity — Always save one of a kind photos, the only photo of the person, house, reunion group (no matter how blurred or out of focus, or damaged)
Age — Old photos, including unlabeled prints and cased images
History — It’s not the photo, it’s the story. Sometimes a photo triggers a memory. If there’s a great story tied to the photo, save it.
Problem: Multiple photos of the same people at the same event. How do you choose which one to scan and preserve?
Place two similar “candidate” photos side by side. Look closely at each image. Here’s a shortlist of potential “picks”:
- Clear and sharp full front or profile view of subject
- Personality jumps off the page
- Interaction between people suggests “more to the story”
- Props, signs, furniture, etc. help to date the photo
Move your “Pick” to the left-hand position and the “Reject” to a pile on your right. Place your next “candidate” photo in the right-hand space and repeat the evaluation. If this photo is better than #1 (the left-hand “pick”) move it to the left-hand position and place the reject in the discard pile. Continue interviewing each photo in a group of similar images until you have selected the Best One (or two).
If two or more photos have the same “genealogical value,” look again at photo composition and technique. Select the photo that is shows better composition, exposure, and lighting.
Scan the best. Share the rest.
Pass on duplicates to relatives, make a “real” scrapbook, donate them to your local historical society. Scan the best, share the rest. And if every single photo in your archive is a “Pick,” congratulations. You are one lucky curator.