The best lesson I've ever had in what I should try to take pictures of, and how I should take them, was when I spent a week scanning over 5,000 family photos from across my childhood to young adult life.
Hardware talk: Epson FastFoto FF-680W
I recently tested the Epson FastFoto FF-680W photo scanner, an impressive system that makes quick feeding large sets of photos a breeze. It uses a sheet feeder system, rather than a flatbed, so you can drop in stacks of photos at a time - roughly in line with a roll of film worth of prints.
Over thousands of photos it jammed just a small number of times, never damaging the photos in the process, just a quick open, check and reset the remaining prints. It easily adjusted all final outputs so that any time a photo was slightly askew or in a different ratio or format it came out in the scan with the image captured just right.
The included software made it easy to give each batch of photos metadata related to content or theme, and date data could be applied either as a specific date or as a month/year or even a season (though the season system was northern hemisphere specific so best stick to months if you're using this down under).
One particularly clever feature was to also scan the reverse side of the photos, with sensitivity settings available to help tweak how sensitive it should be to automatically identify whether there was something worth capturing, like handwritten notes. Lots of false positives here but easy to delete those (captured as a second 'b' image) while it was lovely to have a few of those notes captured alongside the photos in question.
The biggest nuisance was some all too frequent nagging from the software to keep cleaning the scan head. But it's a valid nag. Old photos carry plenty of dust and a quick wipe with the included cloth seemed to help ensure things stayed as clean and clear as possible.
Overall, this $699 unit is an impressive option for quickly getting through those family archives. As mentioned above, in that one week of effort I got through five boxes of old photos, with a final tally of well over 5,000 photos scanned.
It's one of those jobs that's just too easy to keep putting off (even with the scanner here I spent a month not getting around to it), but now it's done it feels great to have those memories in digital format, ready to share with family and enjoy again. And it gives a warm fuzzy feeling to know that they're backed up in a secure cloud storage (not from Epson, my own cloud service) ready to stand the ongoing test of time.
The photography lessons
What I thought I was going to learn was really just a question of scan quality and scanner performance. But as I went through the photos I found myself critiquing the decisions I had made at the time I was taking those photos. The photos that seemed were the 'right' photo at the time felt too obvious and over composed now. And today my favourite photos were the ones that captured life warts and all.
So here then are the things I came to realise about how I should take photos today having explored the photos of my past…
1. More people
The places I've visited over the years have been beautiful. It's nice to still have those images of the cities and countrysides I backpacked through and visited all those years ago. But all those shots with no one I care about in them feel sterile.
Unless I captured the perfect frame, they're just empty. It makes a lot of sense why selfies have become such a big deal today. Memories are a lot more interesting when we put ourselves in the frame.
2. More normal life
So many photos, entire rolls of film, were focused around fancy parties and dinner functions, large gatherings of friends dressed up in fancy clothes. It's nice to have some of that, of course. But so many?
What I didn't see as much of was time sitting at home with friends and family. But when I did see those moments, unposed normality, so many more memories came flooding back. The unanswered questions of everyday life – Which house is that? When would that have been? What were we looking at? What music was playing?
The parties had clear answers but few memory triggers. Normal life delivered a flood of half remembered sound, scent and scene that made my brain work to rebuild the moment. It was magical and I want more of that in my future and for my children's future.
3. Less generic wide shots
When we were shooting film, our own images were one of the best ways to remember the places we'd travelled and the things we'd seen. But now a quick search can reveal thousands of photos of anywhere we like.
Memory triggers run like water on the web. But details are personal. The things that catch our eye that only we will care about, or the weird things we noticed that made us laugh. A photo of a detail that means nothing to most people is the kind of photo that means a lot more when we capture it for posterity.
4. Stop forcing those smiles
It doesn't take long skimming old photos to notice that same "I'm happy" pose appear again and again and again. The photos that feel special are the ones when we're acting a bit silly, or pulling a stupid face. A jump. A twist and look. A Blue Steel. The ones where we did anything but stand carefully to deliver generic attention to the camera. These are the photos that bring a real smile to my face here in the future while looking back on the past.
5. Take more photos
We have more photos now than ever before. But I've realised that I'm still mostly taking photos of what feel like photo moments. I'm going to try to make a habit of capturing things just because. To make a quick snap a better fidget response than pulling out my phone to check social media.
If my phone is in my hand, look around for something to capture. Not to share immediately. Not to send a friend. To treat my photo library like a time capsule of random moments that might not mean much today, but might make an older Seamus, when his memories begin to fade, smile at a half-forgotten moment that didn't seem like much at the time.