Indexing Photo Collections

The primary purpose of indexing photos is to be able to find them again. This can be achieved with minimal effort using a software application such as Photoshop Elements. Each photo can be tagged with keywords and date; and selected instances of faces can be identified such that the application is then able to pick out all photos in which that face appears.

However, just relying on a software application has the following disadvantages and shortcomings:

  • You’re locked into the software and the need to upgrade it when old versions go out of support and when you upgrade your computer/operating system to a version which doesn’t support the version of the software that you currently possess.
  • If a photo is moved out of the application for whatever reason, there is only the information in the file name and file properties to identify the photo and its contents.
  • Any additional information you wish to hold about a set of photos has to be shoehorned into any available aspects of the software application and digital file properties of each photo, despite them not being designed for that purpose.
  • There is usually insufficient support for the process of organising and digitising a large set of old photos.

To overcome the problems outlined above, I have taken the following approach:

  1. Create an index list in Excel in which a set of photos  (for example a roll of 35mm photos) is allocated a sequential serial number. Serial numbers are included on each package containing negatives and/or photos.
  2. Each photo within a set is given its own unique number, for example, if set Number 72 is “Holiday in Crete, 1982” then the first photo in the set would be 72-1, the second 72-2 etc.. These unique numbers are written on the rear of the physical photo, and in the file name of the digitised version together with a short description of the photo’s contents, for example, “72-1 – View from the villa in Crete, Aug1982”
  3. For each entry in the Excel index, an unlimited selection of information can be recorded about the set in question. I currently record the following:
    • Set number
    • Title
    • Type (can include 110, 120, 126, 127, 127, 35mm, APS, Digital, Digital Movie, Disc Film, Ektachrome Slides, No Negs, Polaroid, Slides, Super 8 Movie, VHS Video)
    • Length (for videos) (hours, minutes, seconds)
    • Number of photos in the set (for still photos)
    • Number on media (any control numbers on the negatives etc.)
    • Year on Media (any year info contained on the negatives)
    • Month on media (any month info contained on the negatives)
    • Day on media (any day info contained on the negatives)
    • Start year (the year in which the first shot  in the set was taken)
    • Status (can include Created digitally, Digitised by shop, Not yet digitised, Scanned by X, To be developed)
    • File type (can include TIF, JPG)
    • Hue (can include B&W, Colour)
    • In PC (Yes, Not yet, No) i.e. specifies whether a digital version is stored in the PC)
    • In Album (Not yet, Yes, Some, Most, No) i.e. specifies if the photos in the set are included in the physical album
    • Album 1 (the name of the first physical album the photos have been included in)
    • Album 2 (should the set have been split across two albums, or should particular photos have been included in more than one album, then this entry will specify the name of the second physical album)
    • Photographer
    • Comments
  4. Once indexing and digitisation have been completed, the physical photos (numbered on the back) can be included in a physical album, and negatives (in numbered packages) can be put away for safe keeping.
  5. For the digital collection, a folder is created for each set with the folder title containing the set number, a short version of the title and the year, for example, “072 – Holiday in Crete, 1982”. The individual digitised photo/movie files are placed within the appropriate folders.

The rigour engendered  by such an indexing approach provides a solid basis on which to start organising a collection of photos – particularly collections containing many types of photos amassed over the years. Once the photos and movies have been indexed, labelled and digitised, they can be stored and managed in a wide variety of ways – including importing them into specialist applications. The challenge after that is to index new photos/movies regularly enough so as not to build up an overwhelming backlog.

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