Are you still keeping photographs in shoe boxes? Do you think of your paper prints and digital photos as two separate collections, never quite sure which one contains that great family picture from Thanksgiving 2000? Do you crave a little organization? Me, too.
A year and a half ago, I sat down and took stock of my photo situation–and it wasn’t pretty. I had three years’ worth of digital snapshots on disk, a dozen shoe boxes full of 4-by-6 prints, and a slippery pile of aging 35mm negatives. I knew the time had come to either pull this mess together or resign myself to losing a lot of cherished memories.
Reining in my photos was a two-part project. First, I had to create order among the hundreds of randomly named JPEG files that I had taken over the years with my Canon S300 and Kodak DC210 digital cameras. And second, I had to find a way to pull my old 35mm prints and negatives into my PC, so I could build an all-digital photo album.
The results are hard to argue with. Today I have more than 9,000 photos–some dating back to 1979–consuming just over 24 gigabytes of space on my hard disk. Now my pictures don’t yellow over time. I can print photos whenever I want or post them to my Web site. And I reclaimed lots of closet space where those old shoe boxes used to be. Here’s what I did.
First I had to get my digital photos under control by creating a filing scheme that made sense. With a coherent filing scheme, you can find photos easily or let a photo management program sort things out based on your organization.
It’s all about folders. In Windows I went into the My Pictures folder and created a bunch of folders by year: 2000, 2001, 2002, etc. In each of these folders, I created 12 subfolders, numbered 1 to 12, representing each month of the year. In most cases, the file dates displayed in Windows XP’s File Explorer recorded the date and time I had transferred the photo to my PC. So it was a simple matter to drag JPEG files from their current location into the appropriate folder for the month and year the photo was taken.
Want to get more specific? Windows XP helps things along with its built-in Thumbnail View, which displays tiny previews of image files in a folder. This feature makes it easy to cull my kids’ soccer photos, for instance, and shuffle them off to a folder dedicated to their on-field antics.
Photo Management Tools
It’s one thing to order photos by month and year, but quite another to really organize a collection. For that you need software that lets you view, track, and manage digital photos. Fortunately, there’s a slew of programs that can automatically scan your existing photo directories and create a database. From there, you simply add metadata–information about the files–into the program. You can select one or more images and assign keywords like “family,” “reunion,” and “vacation.” As long as you’re consistent about the way you assign keywords, it becomes a snap to find every last photo of Aunt Edna or every snapshot taken in San Francisco.
These packages also recognize data produced by digital cameras that is stored in JPEG and other file formats. Information such as the camera model, lens aperture, exposure time, and the time and date the photo was taken can all be displayed and used to search for pictures. Want to find every photo taken with a flash? No problem.
In addition to viewing photos, this type of software lets you select files and create custom slide shows or build Web photo galleries. Many of these packages offer limited editing capability for rotating and cropping images, removing red-eye, and performing minor touch-ups. Other nice features to look for are sophisticated file renaming–so you can easily replace cryptic file names like IMG5446.JPG with something more descriptive–and the ability to perform batch operations like resizing a set of images or converting them to another file format.
There are lots of photo management programs out there, including a favorite, Adobe’s $50 Photoshop Album. Photoshop Album is very intuitive, especially when it comes to the potentially daunting task of adding metadata to stored photos. Just create a series of visual tags that describe your photos, then drag and drop those tags onto any thumbnail to add the metadata.
For casual users, Cerius’ $50 ThumbsPlus is a popular option with a long track record, while $30 newcomer Picasa, from Lifescape Solutions, has turned heads with its slick, attractive interface. If you’re not ready to drop $30 or more, you could do worse than FotoTime’s free FotoAlbum software. It’s designed to work with FotoTime’s online photo album and processing service, but it works just fine as a stand-alone product–and you can’t beat the price.
If your image files number in the thousands, and you’re reasonably good at navigating advanced software, you might consider a more robust photo manager. ACD Systems’ $50 ACDSee is a longtime favorite that stands out for its exhaustive feature set and ability to manage large portfolios–even if users sometimes complain about its confusing interface. Another option for hard-core collectors is Photools.com’s $50 IMatch, which is arguably the most feature-laden and customizable product on the market. You can even select a file and have IMatch seek out other images with a similar visual profile. Say you want to find all your pictures of the Grand Canyon. Just select one Grand Canyon photo and start a search. The results won’t always be perfect, but this is a quick and unique way to find similar pictures; and it’s especially useful if you haven’t been disciplined in how you assign keywords to photos.
From Silver to Silicon
So what about the thousands of pictures you took with your 35mm camera? Most folks started taking digital snapshots only in the past 24 months or so. When I decided to unify my photo collection, I knew I couldn’t spend thousands of dollars on a professional-grade film scanner. Fortunately, it’s possible to get analog photos into the digital realm at a reasonable price; although a good price doesn’t always guarantee quality or convenience.
I purchased an Epson Perfection 2400 flatbed scanner for less than $200. In addition to being a very serviceable document and photo scanner–perfect for scanning my 4-by-6 prints–the Perfection 2400 can scan 35mm slides and negative strips using a supplied adapter. The adapter holds four negative frames at a time, which the software then recognizes as going to four distinct output files. The process is a bit cumbersome, however: You have to slip each negative strip into the adapter, perform the scan, and then manually tweak each image in the scanner software.
The bigger issue with this inexpensive scanner is image quality. The Perfection 2400 offers plenty of resolution, but the results I got were less than optimal. With negatives, the scanner sometimes produced muddy output that took quite a bit of work to correct; this is a real issue if you are scanning any more than a handful of strips. In addition, scratches, lint, and dust marred many of the scanned negatives. You can use a photo editor to brush those flaws out, but it takes a lot of time to do so.
If you want to preserve your 35mm negatives in digital format, a better (but more expensive) solution may be a dedicated film scanner like the Canon FS4000, Minolta 5400, or Nikon CoolScan IV ED. These compact scanners are tuned for pulling images off 35mm negatives. If you decide to go this route, you should almost certainly invest in a unit that supports a technology called Digital ICE, known as FARE in Canon scanners, which finds and removes scratches and flaws in the negative surface. (Flatbed scanners are starting to use Digital ICE to help remove flaws in prints as well.) Expect to pay $700 or more for a desktop film scanner with this advanced capability.
Now, Where to Put It All?
By the time I was done scanning my negatives and prints, and moving and managing my vast collection of digital photos–a process that took months to complete–I had created something of a crisis. The 60GB hard disk in my PC was filled to bursting, and I had yet to back up my data. I added a fast 120GB hard disk to my system to make room for the photos, and later purchased a 250GB external hard drive that uses USB 2.0 to connect to the PC. Viewing my photos on another computer is now simply a matter of plugging in the external drive.
Another option is to store digital photos on removable optical media like DVD-RAM or DVD+RW discs. Photo management software like ACDSee and IMatch comes in handy, letting you manage your image database information and view thumbnails without actually opening the files themselves. To a program like IMatch, your collection looks like just that–one large collection, regardless of where the files themselves live. When you view or edit an image file, the software prompts you to insert the correct disc. The only drawback is that swapping DVDs can become a nuisance with very large collections.
Even if you don’t plan to access your digital photo library from DVDs, make sure you back up your collection. Again, photo management software can help, letting you save both your images and the metadata you’ve assigned to them to another location.
It all sounds like a lot of work, but most PCs are well equipped for hosting a digital photo library. Massive hard disks and fast rewritable DVD drives are standard equipment on home and small-office PCs. You can find low-cost flatbed scanners that double as film scanners. And there’s no shortage of capable photo management software to turn your pile of digital snapshots into a powerful, searchable database of visual memories. All that’s left is to rearrange your closet to take advantage of the newfound space–and maybe wonder, “When the heck did I wear Hush Puppies?”
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