Monday, February 22, 2010
Easily digitizing old snapshots without a scanner
These Art Deco buildings at sunset were shot in Miami Beach in 1985.
I'm escaping from winter by going through some of my favorite old drugstore prints from warmer climes, mostly shot with my trusty Olympus XA, amusing myself by looking for prints that are eligible for quick-and-dirty digitizing by reshooting the prints with my digital point and shoot, the Nikon Coolpix P50 -- which like most modern digital compacts, shoots amazing closeups. The files are comparable with inexpensive low-res scans, though they fall far short of high-res film scans.
It only makes sense for prints that have a decent tonal range. With drugstore prints that's a real minority, but you get lucky every once in a while -- or the loss of shadow detail may actually serve the image, as I think it does here. (In most cases, the machine prints lose the shadows and/or blow out the highlights. Those will have to await scanning, to get the most out of what's on the negative, as there's no way to bring the lost detail back from a bad print.)
Reshooting with the point and shoot is surprisingly quick and easy. Find a spot with bright but indirect daylight and have at it. Make sure there's no glare reflecting off the photo. If you come in tight enough, you don't need to do anything with the file (the old 3-1/2x5" prints have close to the same aspect ratio as the 4:3 of digital compacts; the larger, newer 4x6" prints have to be cropped to fill the frame.) I prefer leaving some space around the picture, in order to do my final cropping in an image editor -- and also a bit of touch-up. But that's the frosting, and you can skip it. In most cases, if you start with a clean print with decent tones, you can can have a file to share on the web or email in literally an instant. A scanner takes a bit longer.
Eventually I'll have to start scanning the old slides and negs. I'm put off, not by the work involved (I've also had a wonderful offer of help), but by the decisions. Which still seem good enough to bother saving digitally? What hidden gems are in the contact sheets and slides, overlooked the first time around? Why spend time with the old stuff, when you've moved on, your eye has changed and you could be shooting new images? They can't all be saved. The trouble is, in deciding not to scan an old photo, you're basically agreeing to forget a memory. I always thought I would deal with this someday, but as "someday" draws closer, it's enough to make my head spin.
For now, it's less stressful and more fun to take the occasional shot with the Coolpix when the mood strikes me, upload it to the computer and play with it there.