I am so pleased with myself that I can’t stand it. I finally, FINALLY, got down to the task of doing something about the old photographs. And I now have a system in place that lets me name the digital file, and put information into a spreadsheet. Best of all, I figured out how to link the file name in the spreadsheet to the image file on my computer so that if I click on the link/filename the image opens and I can see which picture it is.

This may not sound like so very much to anyone who is more knowledgeable about using a spreadsheet program. I, however, am an amateur. Anything more than putting titles on some columns, or making the date format look the way I want it to, is breaking new ground.

All right. Enough with the self-congratulations. Here is what I have come up with. Anyone who has struggled with how to handle digitizing and organizing images from old photos will recognize that I have taken various ideas from a number of people, so many I don’t even remember. They all deserve a loud round of applause and Thank You.

There are two software applications that are central to my solution. Disclosure: these are both freeware and I am not affiliated with either group in any way. I merely use a product they create. First, I discovered a graphic viewer named XnView. This viewer lets you view, convert, and otherwise manipulate graphic images in a number of formats. If that sounds complicated, it really isn’t. Or doesn’t have to be. I use it to look at my digital pictures, to convert them from say a jpeg to a tiff format or vice versa, and to crop the part of the picture that I want to use. That’s about it. No fancy manipulations to make the pictures look better. (I hope I will learn how to do that in the future, but it will require something more than a viewer.)

This is the metadata screen

I actually discovered this viewer when I recently learned about metadata . With the viewer I had been using you can’t write metadata to any format but jpeg. Since I save my master copies in tiff format I want to be able to add metadata to those too.

This image shows the box that opens in XnView to let you put the information in. I think of metadata as the writing on the back of the picture, but it doesn’t hurt the picture. It is a way to put the person’s name, the date of the photo, where it was taken, all of the information that we wish we had for each and every old photo. I’m planning to take DearMyrtle’s webinar this week about putting such information on the front of the image. Then I’ll have the bases covered.

The best part of all is that XnView will export this metadata, or information about the image into a spreadsheet.

This is what the exported information looks like

What the database looks like


So creating a list of image files and important identifying information is actually just a question of, first creating that information, and then second, exporting it into a spreadsheet. The last step is cutting and pasting, because XnView exports one at a time into a new spreadsheet every time. So you have to cut and paste it into the big spreadsheet where you have all the files listed.

The other software application is Open Office, which I use for my spreadsheet. I first tried to create this using Excel, which I have no experience with. I ran into a big problem when I got to the point of trying to link the filename of an image, which is the content of a cell, with the image file that lives somewhere else on my computer. I could link the two but not have the image open in my viewer (or at all if I linked to the tiff file). I looked and looked for a way to fix this issue. I finally concluded that I could make it work in Open Office and so I converted to that. Now it works just fine. On the picture you can see that the first column is the filename and is sort of grayed in appearance. That is where the link to each image file is, connected to the filename.

The last obstacle to my having scanned and organized photographs is what I do with the picture once it is scanned. At the moment, like many others, I have boxes and boxes of pictures – large and small, framed and unframed. I have various albums as well. I don’t want to scan and put back in the box. The loose ones can be put into archival binder sheets and put in binders. What about the framed ones, the albums, the daguerreotypes or ambrotypes? Should I take pictures out of old frames? At least one of the albums is falling apart; should I try to have it fixed or try to take the photos out? How does one store dageurreoypes/ambrotypes archivally? Ok, there is more than one obstacle left. I’m still thrilled.

Our friend Ann and I spent the day recently trying out a technique she had discovered that allows you to use your digital camera to copy things that are not scannable for some reason.  Ann is my more-or-less local photography expert.  I had been talking with her about some old family things I wanted to digitize but couldn’t put on my scanner.  For example, I have a number of daguerreotypes and/or ambrotypes (which I still have trouble telling apart), some photo albums that don’t open flat, and some large photocopies of a family ledger with information that take up 2 pages for each ledger page that I would like to scan but it won’t fit.

Ann had discovered this site that describes a very simple way to set up a tripod and camera to take pictures of such things.  For those of us who don’t have, or have easy access to, a professional copy stand, this is the way to go.

We finally managed to schedule a day to get together.  I drove out to her house with my bags of photo albums and the ledger pages.  I had decided strategically not to try to take the daguerreotypes for this first attempt because I know they will require some special handling and they are the most fragile items.  Ann was the designated photographer and I assigned myself the helper role, and also the photo-journalist of the proceedings.

Although the model we were following reasonably suggests setting up a location in your home office or other space that can be modified, we thought that if you can use this technique in an archives or library we could do it in a temporary setting at Ann’s.  This is a picture of our set up in her living room.

Using camera to digitize old photos

Using camera to digitize old photos

You will notice that we used a folding table and two lamps (one desk lap and one floor lamp) to provide the extra  lighting.  You may also notice that this leaves the camera eyepiece out of easy reach.  We used a little step-stool for Ann to be able to use the eyepiece and make any focus adjustments necessary.  We were trying to be careful about focus and any glare on the image so she needed to be up there for each shot.  This is a very make-shift way to do it, and if I were planning to do very much copying this way I would certainly figure out a more permanent location and furniture etc. to use.  On the other hand, what we learned is that once you have the idea how to put it all together, it should be very possible to use the set-up anyplace that has a table or desk you can attach the tripod to.

The most tricky part of our getting set up was figuring out exactly how to make and use the clip fashioned from a metal coat-hanger.  This is actually the genius of the whole set-up.  We hadn’t closely read the original description and were trying to use a whole hanger, bending it this way and that.  Didn’t work.  Obviously you want the tripod to be stable, both for the quality of the pictures and for the safety of the camera.  When we finally read the description of the clip, and looked very closely at the one picture provided we figured it out.  Only took an hour or so!  This is a picture of the clip attached to the tripod leg. The long straight legs fit under the table and helped stabilize the tripod.

Clip to hold tripod stable

Clip to hold tripod stable

Once we got everything set up it proved to be pretty fast and efficient to take a picture, flip to the next one, take another.  In a couple of hours or less, Ann took more than a hundred pictures and we transferred mine to a thumbdrive. (We netted 142 images, Ann says.)  Since we also had time for lunch and a nice walk around a local lake, and I was only there for the afternoon, you can see that it was efficient.

A couple of suggestions I would make about using this system: although the original author says you don’t have to look in your camera or use a remote shutter, this will only work if all of what you are copying is the same size and distance from the lens. Of course if you have a pile of similar items, it will be much faster to set up and not have to check focus and distance each time. I also think that the remote shutter is a good idea to remove one way to jar the camera and move it out of position. On the other hand, we were using Ann’s camera which is a digital SLR, not my little point and shoot, so it was heavier and had more settings. The last suggestion is about format for saving your images. Ann was able to set her camera to shoot in RAW format, which doesn’t compress the image as it is saved. Most digital cameras that are point and shoot won’t give you this option but will only save the images in JPG format. If you have to take the pictures in JPG be sure to convert them to a non-compressed format when you have saved them on your computer.

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