A stone floor, wall, and stairwell. The wall has three square or rectangular areas cut into it, as it serves as a summer kitchen. Flower pots are all around.

Photo Detective Work in the Digital Age

A bit of detective work is always involved in photo organizing, and not just for old photos. Even with digital devices, timestamps aren’t always correct; you may need to determine photo order and rename files accordingly. A detailed travel itinerary won’t necessarily help you identify key sites such as the Gloriette, Neptune Fountain or Roman Ruin (all at the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, Austria). Photos taken on the same day may be from entirely different countries or cities; pay close attention to the timestamps to recreate a day’s journey.

A previous post addressed allocating space in a photo book. This post builds on the earlier one and includes scanning trip memorabilia to personalize a book, an explanation of the detective work mentioned above, and a few frustrations encountered along the way.

Organizing photos from three devices

The photos to be used in an Eastern Europe photo book for my sister’s 2018 trip came from three different devices: a digital camera and two iPhones. I could tell that the camera photos had incorrect timestamps (some showed times of 4:00 a.m.), and I was not sure by how many hours I should adjust them. I elected to compare photos of the exact same location (e.g., a waterfall at Krka National Park) across devices. I was able to determine that the timestamp for each camera file was off by about six hours.

A screen shot of a waterfall on the left and Exif data for the photo on the ri8.ght; the Exif data shows the photo was taken at 4:18 AM on 9/12/201
Waterfall at Krka National Park with 4:18 a.m. timestamp (digital camera).
A picture of a waterfall on the left and Exif data for the photo on the right. The Exif data shows the photo was taken at 10:27 AM.
Krka National Park photo with 10:27 a.m. timestamp, iPhone 7 Plus.

In addition to the time adjustment necessary for camera images, I noticed that the first few camera photos actually had timestamps for the year 2017 (the wrong year often indicates there was a battery issue with the camera). With the exception of the 2017 timestamps, the dates for the camera photos were reliable, but the time-of-day portion of the timestamp always had to be adjusted as I worked to integrate the camera photos with the iPhone photos.

To locate the timestamp for each image on an iMac, I viewed each photo in Preview. Under Tools, I selected Show Inspector and the Exif tab to view the Date Time Digitized and Date Time Original. A previous post discusses Photo date fields (origination, creation, modification) and why the dates that appear in Finder are not the ones you want to rely on for photo organizing.

Converting HEIC to JPG

Some of the images were in HEIC format, others were JPG. My sister and I had agreed the photo book would be designed using Shutterfly, so all of the images had to be converted to JPG (Shutterfly does not accept other file formats). Fortunately, I had done batch conversions for a family wedding in late 2019, so I applied my saved Quick Action to convert all of the HEIC images.

Scanning memorabilia

My sister had wisely saved a small number of memorabilia items to be scanned and included in the photo book as appropriate. Readers familiar with Shutterfly will know about Stickers and Backgrounds, which are particular to each photo book Style. Scanning memorabilia is a way to personalize photo book pages with unique backgrounds and stickers; some examples follow.

  • Scanned memorabilia becomes a “personalized sticker”

This page includes Shutterfly Stickers and a “personalized sticker.” See below for information on the street map as a background.

A screenshot of a Shutterfly photo book page. It has four photographs and a Hotel label. The background is a street map of Vienna, Austria.
The coffee pot and thumb tacks are Shutterfly Stickers; the hotel logo in the lower right was scanned and uploaded to Shutterfly (what I consider a “personalized sticker”).
  • Scanned maps as page backgrounds and images

The scanned street map of Vienna, Austria (above) served as a page background, as did a map that includes the Island of Šolta (below).

A screenshot of a photo book page. The background is a green map of the Adriatic Sea. The page also includes 5 photographs in frames.
The background for this page is a scanned map of the Adriatic Sea; the map was on a brochure for an olive oil factory that my sister toured.
A screenshot of part of a photo book page. It features two photos taken after dark and a map that shows a restaurant location in Split, Croatia.
The middle image is a map showing the location of a restaurant that my sister dined at in Split, Croatia.
  • Incorporating hotel key cards

The key card image of this hotel turned out to be the only picture the group had of it (no one had remembered to take a photo).

A screenshot of a photo book page with a light green background. Split appears in the middle, with two images above and four images below.
The front and back of the Hotel Marul key card (top two images), incorporated here as photos.
  • Postcards: “Personalized sticker” and Shutterfly Sticker

Fortunately, the design of the scanned postcard was a good match for the Shutterfly book style that my sister selected.

  • Memorabilia I was unable to use

Not every memorabilia item scanned well. One hotel had a maroon business card with gold lettering. I previewed the scanned image, realized it wasn’t appealing, and didn’t even bother to scan it.

I wish it was possible to upload PNG files to Shutterfly – a way to truly create our own stickers. I was happy with the scanned version of this round paper coaster from a hotel, which Preview allowed me to crop as a circle and save as a PNG file. But, I could not upload it to Shutterfly (remember, only JPG files can be uploaded). A picture of the same item with 90-degree corners was not useful. I ended up not including the coaster in the book.

Itinerary provides guidance

A group of five individuals traveled to Eastern Europe; the trip was coordinated for them by an Ohio-based travel company. A seven-page itinerary (not pictured) was provided for my reference; it was invaluable in determining what section of the trip the various memorabilia items aligned with. The abbreviated version of the itinerary that appears in the photo book (below) shows that for multiple locations, there were day trips to nearby sites.

A portion of a photo book page. The countries visited (4) appear at the top, and the dates in various cities appear below.
Zagreb, Split, and Dubrovnik served as bases – with day trips to the other sites.

By comparing photo timestamps to the itinerary, I was able to determine that photos taken on the same date were actually from three different locations (the GPS tab can also assist, if populated with data):

A photo of a church appears on the left; Exif data about the photo, including the date and time it was taken, appear on the right.
Since this was a morning photo, the itinerary confirmed it was taken in Medjugorje.
An image of a man and woman seated at the side of water, with small boats in front of them, their backs to the camera. Green hills appear on the other side of the water.
Notes from my sister indicated this was a lunch spot between Medjugorje and Dubrovnik; the timestamp confirms this.
An image of a sunset over water appears on the left; on the right, the date and time of the photo appear as Exif data.
The travel group arrived in Dubrovnik for dinner at their hotel (evening timestamp).

There were only a few photos from Medjugorje, so instead of devoting an entire photo book page to this location, I used Ribbon Embellishments in Shutterfly to create a different background within a page for two pictures. The Medjugorje photos were taken on the same day as other images on this photo book page, but at a different time.

A screenshot of a photo book page with two photos from a church in the upper right and six photos of a lunch spot on the water in the lower left.
The purple ribbons in the upper right provide a background that separates the Medjugorje photos from the lunch spot photos.

Allocation of pages in the book

To allocate pages within the photo book, I used the same method described in an previous post. One difference this time around was that I did not select the front and back cover photos in advance. I was not on the trip, so I decided the best approach was to “live” it and create the entire book first; I expected this would enable me to identify which photos best captured the trip as experienced by the travelers. For this particular book, that approach worked well (the feature photo for this post was the book’s front cover photo).

This Excel spreadsheet captures my approach to determining how many pages to devote to each segment of the trip.

A screen shot of an Excel spreadsheet with 7 columns. The far right column explains the reasoning for how many pages are allocated to each part of the trip.
I calculate the number of pages for each event based on how many photos were taken at various locations, then I adjust for special circumstances as noted in red font.

Foreign characters

Shutterfly does offer foreign characters (e.g., umlaut) in some instances. I followed these instructions on how to insert them. Inserting an umlaut on the Schönbrunn Palace page was not a problem, but I was unable to insert a caron for either Šolta or Šibenik (I received the error, “Invalid characters removed”). I tried changing the font within the photo book style, but that did not prevent the error. I got a bit creative on one page and placed the olive from an olive branch Shutterfly Sticker above the S to mimic the caron.

Viennese coffee

I had an unexpected benefit from working on this photo book: an introduction to Viennese coffee. It was referenced on the trip itinerary, and I wanted to give it a try. I made ours with Nespresso Lungo pods (no particular flavor), fresh whipped cream (whipped it myself), and Hershey’s Special Dark chocolate syrup. It has become our standard late-morning treat while staying at home for COVID-19 social distancing.

A screenshot of a travel itinerary fro 9/5/2018 in Vienna. A sentence about Viennese coffee is highlighted in yellow.
Espresso infused with whipped cream? Count me in!
A lime green Nespresso machine holds a small white espresso cup. To the right of the machine are Hershey's Special Dark Syrup, heavy whipping cream, and three Nespesso pods.
Ready to make more Viennese coffee.

Shutterfly photo book style: Vintage Travel. Size: 12 x 12.

Photo credits: Susan D. DiGiacomo and Eugene F. Pushic

A group of five girls on a front bench and three behind them, each holding white slips of paper for a swim heat.

21 Hi8 Tapes Transformed For the 21st Century

The transfer of 21 Hi8 tapes to a digital format took 28 hours; splitting the resulting files into 452 edited movies required months of detail work.  Is it worth it?  I believe so, since the end result is the way we store and consume videos today:  we don’t have a series of unrelated events in a single file that is one or two hours long; rather, we have a number of separate video files that we can view individually or combine in a creative way if we choose.  Fortunately, the way we consume video in the second decade of the twenty-first century provides us with much more control than was afforded us in decades past.  It is simply more practical to share clips from old tapes than it is to share a digital file of the entire tape.  

In a previous post, I discussed the benefits of breaking videos that are hours long into individual clips.  I still believe that a first step should be to capture the videos in their entirety, if your only copies are on tape.  Tape degrades over time, so preserving your memories in a digital format is something you should tackle immediately.  The upper end of the life span for tape is 20 years.  Some of the tapes I recently worked with were older than that (1990 – 2011), and they were in fine shape, but yours may not be.  Don’t tempt fate if the only copy you have is still on tape.

The client’s 21 Hi8 tapes (and 2 audio tapes); I grouped and labeled them by type of tape.

Transferring using Vidbox

I discovered the Vidbox device a few years ago.  I have used it with a VCR and with two different camcorders, with S-Video, RCA cables, and camera-specific cables.  I did experience problems with a continuous feed when using the S-Video, which I solved by avoiding all USB hubs and power strips and disconnecting unnecessary devices.   Power was not an issue when using just camera-specific or RCA cables.  

There are demonstrations of Vidbox available, and all were positive; I can add my experience to that list.  I have now transferred over 30 tapes with the device.  It connects to your computer via USB and then to either a VCR or a camcorder using the appropriate cables.  The instructions on screen are clear, and if you encounter issues (as I did with the S-Video), then Vidbox support is available by phone.

Another option is to have the tapes transferred by a local camera shop, a photo organizer, or a national company.  If you use one of these approaches, be clear regarding what file format will be delivered to you, whether you will be able to edit the files, and what media will be used (USB, EHD, DVD, etc.) for delivery.  

The client did not know how much footage was on the 21 tapes. As shown in the chart below, eight tapes had about two hours of material, nine had about one hour, and the remainder had a half hour or less.  The total number of hours for all tapes was just under 28.

Creating and editing clips

I used iMovie 10.1.9 to separate hours-long video into separate clips.  Consider a hypothetical one-hour tape that includes Christmas, an indoor birthday, and swimming at an outdoor pool.  I begin by selecting all of the Christmas footage and copying it into the iMovie project pane.  Then I watch the footage and observe breaks in the filming.  I separate the footage and add transitions for each of these breaks (Cross Dissolve is my favorite transition).  The Christmas movie might end up having four different clips (opening presents, cooking in the kitchen, eating dessert, playing with toys), with transitions between them.  The indoor birthday movie might have ten different clips.  The outdoor pool movie might have just a single clip.  

I inserted transitions between these basketball game clips wherever there was a break in the original footage.  The yellow tint can be improved with auto color balance (below).

Auto color balance

A number of the clips benefitted from auto color balance, which was part of my base rate.  Examples of video that improved after auto color balance included:  indoor basketball games (above), some outdoor swim pool shots, and events in the kitchen.  Generally speaking, outdoor shots with grass did not improve with auto color balance (e.g., soccer games, Easter egg hunts).  I found that whether auto color balance would improve a clip or not depended on the direction of the light source relative to the camera, use of a camera light while filming, and the source of light being natural or artificial.

Auto color balance improved this footage from a preschool pumpkin-carving video; the yellow tint was removed.  

It also improved this footage of father and child at an outdoor swim pool by removing the unnatural shade of blue.

This footage from a neighborhood Halloween parade did not benefit from auto color balance, since it was filmed outside.

So many Power Rangers (1994)!

I always apply auto color balance to the individual clips within a project.  As the videographer was shooting and possibly changing position, the light may have shifted.  While one clip benefits from adjustment, a different clip may actually look worse.  Although it can be tedious to apply to each clip and view the impact, I highly recommend it; one size does not fit all.  

Manual color correction options (versus auto) are available in iMovie, but that level of adjustment was not within the scope of this particular project.

Determining dates of clips

If cases and/or tapes are dated

For this collection of 21 tapes, some cases were dated with years and a brief description of contents (eight cases were not labeled at all):

  • Softball 2002
  • End 4/5/96
  • Beginning 10/7/93  End Myrtle B. 1994  

The tapes themselves were not labeled, so I had to be aware that if a tape had been placed into the wrong case, then the case label might not be appropriate for the tape inside of it.  I made a note of each case label as I began to work on that particular tape, as it was my first indication of what might be on the associated tape.

If the video itself is dated

The case labels were a starting point.  Dates recorded using the camcorder proved to be very reliable, when they were available.  The camcorder manual explained how to view the date while playing the tape (it could be toggled on and off).  While capturing the footage using Vidbox, I made sure to toggle the date and timestamp off.  While editing the clips, I would replay the tape in the camcorder, toggle the date and timestamp on, and use it to date the clips.  The camcorder date and timestamp were not always available, even on a single tape (i.e., it would be available for some footage but not for all footage).  I utilized it whenever I could.

A toddler in a bath tub; his mother appears to the right in the picture.
A Christmas bath.

If neither of the above are available or reliable

There is always a bit of detective work associated with dating of tapes and clips.  The client provided me with some key dates (anniversary, birthdays, baptism, etc.)  If you cannot determine the date for a particular event, continue working with other material that follows on the same tape.  If you ultimately determine the date of events before and after an event in question, the two known dates can at least sandwich the unknown one.  In many cases, I ended up labeling with seasons if months could not be determined.  There is a caveat to this approach, however.  In a few instances, I could tell that an event was out of order on the tape.  Perhaps something was accidentally recorded over (someone grabbed the wrong tape), or perhaps the intent was to record over something that was no longer needed.  You cannot always rely on the order of items on the tapes themselves.  Consider the age of individuals in the footage and the season to help you determine if something is out of order or not.

Information can also be gathered from the video and/or audio.  This does require taking time to watch and listen to the recording so that you can identify any clues.  Below are a few examples of dating clips using clues within the audio and video:

  • July 4, 1990:  reference to July 4 (Independence Day) in the audio, and I was confident of the year.
  • Sunday, September 2, 1990: audio reference to Sunday night; this clip followed Labor Day weekend clips (known from audio).  I was confident that the year was 1990, so I could determine the dates of Labor Day weekend that year.
  • October 20,1990; Notre Dame score was 29 to 20 (on audio); they played Miami on that date with that score.  This date also matches the newspaper headline in the video – Oakland As and Cincinnati Reds in World Series (those dates were October 16-20, 1990).  
  • Friday, April 1, 1994:  I was confident of the year, and there was mention of it being Good Friday on the audio.
  • January 7, 1996:  date was available from local newspaper coverage of a blizzard on this date; it was revisited by the newspaper 20 years later in 2016.

Most of the examples above were audio clues (except for the newspaper headline).  An example of a video clue was this brochure from a piano recital (a bit hard to read:  June 4, 2000).

This is how the brochure appeared, briefly, in the video.  Upside down and a bit fuzzy.

Diving terminology

Both children in the family participated in springboard diving during the summer months.  I was unfamiliar with this sport and the associated terminology, which made dividing the clips and naming the movies challenging.  I didn’t know how many dives were performed at a particular meet, whether the kids alternated or not, and what “DD” meant (announced as each diver stepped onto the board).  

I learned to use background imagery to help determine if diving clips had been filmed on the same day or not.  The umbrellas at the tables, where the dives were positioned relative to other structures (buildings), and the attire of spectators and coaches all helped me to determine if what I was viewing was a different dive meet than prior footage.

The site USAdiver.com had a table that helped me decipher the terminology used when the divers were announced.  Each dive had a number (101), a letter (A, B, C), a description (back dive straight), and a degree of difficulty (DD = 1.7).  Having access to this information enabled me to label the movies with more accuracy and to add appropriate titles.

File formats

I used an iMac for this project, so Vidbox Video Conversion for Mac provided me with .MOV files.  After creating and editing the clips in iMovie, I researched export options.  I ultimately chose Quality:  ProRes.   The higher the quality and resolution, the larger the file size.  There is debate as to whether ProRes is “overkill” for video shot in the 1980s and 1990s.  However, the goal here was to enable preservation of these videos/clips for the long term (i.e., decades).  There is general agreement that ProRes is a format that is likely to enable future editing (the larger file size means there is a lot of data retained) and easier migration to new file formats when the time arises.  Since ProRes files are large, individual movies can always be further compressed if smaller files are needed in specific circumstances.

Vimeo’s blog post was helpful as I considered archival needs, and this Video Compression Guide points out that further compression is always possible if you retain a higher quality master version.

Don’t forget the Memory Stick

This particular camcorder had a Sony Memory Stick.  It was similar to an SD card, but longer.  I set it aside while I focused on the tapes.  Fortunately, I made a note to remember to check it before wrapping up the project.  I truly did not expect to find any material on it.  

The camcorder manual, which the client still had, provided information on how to view the Memory Stick contents using the camcorder.  About 20 images were templates of some sort, but then still images began to appear.  There were ultimately 33 of them.  I wasn’t sure if the client would want to save these images or not, or what quality they would be (the manual specified they were JPG, but not what resolution).  I knew she had invested in a good camera and had used it at the same events where the camcorder was present.  I wondered if these still images might already be reflected in her print or digital photo collection.  I used my iPhone to film the images as they played on the camcorder.  I shared the resulting video with the client, and she confirmed that she wanted to retain the still images.

I found out the Sony Memory Stick was proprietary technology.  Sony customer service was helpful and directed me to Best Buy for a device that could read a Memory Stick.  There were a couple of devices with widely varying price points.  The less expensive one was out of stock, but I found a comparable device elsewhere.  The client was agreeable to spending the $24 needed for the device to access the Memory Stick, so those 33 images were copied to a CD and an EHD for her use.

Wrap up

I give credit to the parents, the videographers in this family.  They still had the camcorder, cords, and manual.  The tapes were in good condition, with some labeling.  Often, audio had been used to record the relevance of the event being filmed.  There was not a lot of wasted tape between events filmed.  Occasionally, the camera had been left running, capturing grass, the lens cap, or a counter – but there was only a handful of situations like that.  Overall, the video was easy to work with and decipher. 

I shared a selected number of movies with the client via Vimeo as I progressed through the project, so I received some early reactions to the work product.  I am anxious to hear from the family as to which events surprised and moved them the most, upon viewing all of them for the first time in a decade or more.

“I love these!!!  Thank you SO much! I am so grateful that we are preserving these diving memories. The middle school birthday party is HILARIOUS…and slightly painful to watch, haha. I was, in fact, a teenager once.…”

~Maria M. in Richmond, VA (July 17, 2017)

“I was able to view the videos and was delighted with them.  Thanks so much for doing such outstanding work!”

Rebecca M. in Richmond, VA (May 1, 2018)

ALL IMAGES ARE USED WITH PERMISSION FROM THE CLIENT.
A memorial service bouquet in a vase with greenery, pink roses and carnations, a purple flower, and three yellow sunflowers; adorned with a turquoise ribbon in a turquoise vase.

A Celebration of a Life, One Year Later

My mother passed away almost one year ago, on November 13, 2017.  She lived with Alzheimer’s disease for about 15 years.  I am the only sibling who lives out of town, nine hours away.  I was grateful when my two sisters and father were agreeable to me contributing to her memorial service and reception by preparing a slideshow and several photo collages of her life.  As a photo organizer, this participation enabled me to utilize that passion.  The items I prepared were easily transported by car when we made the journey north for her service and reception.

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Deere snow removal equipment on a flatbed truck. The Rocky Mountains are in the distance, with significant cloud cover.

Roadblocks in Digital Photo Organizing

Depending on the challenges encountered, digital photo organizing may involve the evaluation of thousands of photos for a variety of reasons. There are apps and software to assist with various parts of the process, enabling you to navigate around the roadblocks you will face.  Preserve the original file structure for reference, and then apply a systematic process to a copy of the original files.

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