It sounds nice, doesn’t it? Having all your family memorabilia in one place is practical and having everything in a beautifully bound book that you can pass along for generations to come is nothing short of genius.

MaudeAudreyWatsonSmithThanks to companies like Blurb and Mixbook, everyone can create and publish their own masterpiece. No, I’m not exaggerating with the word. That’s exactly what it is – your masterpiece. Before you are finished, you will be a master organizer, data processor, writer, restoration pro and designer extraordinaire. But there’s more. Preparing photos for family heritage books takes planning. IMPORTANT: Do not remove old photos from original frames. Instead of scanning, take a good quality photograph instead.

Interesting things happen as faces emerge from dusty boxes and fill your computer screen. The first thing is you take more care in cleaning the photo before scanning. You would be surprised how much dust is clinging to that photograph and wiping it off on your pants before scanning does not do the trick and neither does blowing on it. Get yourself a Pec-12 emulsion cleaning kit and some white cotton film gloves. When using any kind of solution, always follow the directions from the manufacturer. The compressed air cans are good, too, for getting any surface dust off. There are brushes made for photo cleaning too, but the less you move something over the surface of the emulsion, the better.


I see ‘tips’ on the Internet that include using water, distilled water, icy cold water – just don’t. Not ever. I know some places recommend it and perhaps it may even be necessary in a pinch to ensure no further damage occurs but this would apply only if you are rescuing photos still wet from a recent flood. It does not apply to the dust and dirt of time. Water softens the emulsion and you may see your whole image disappear. Old photos are especially problematic because processing was different in the early days. Don’t wipe them with a microfiber cloth either. You are moving the dust and dirt across the surface and this scratches the photo. Microfiber cloths are great for placing the photos on for cleaning because they are dust free. They’re also great for cleaning the glass on scanners. If you really feel your photo needs some sort of water treatment to clean it, please don’t do it yourself. Take it to a professional.

Rather than risk damaging the surface of any photo, you can always import it into an imaging program and clean it digitally but be aware, this is time consuming. It’s not a bad idea to do it as a backup though, just in case your cleaning efforts result in damage.

You are on your way to creating your masterpiece

Now, with clean photos and a sparkling clean scanner, the magic begins. Let’s suppose you are going to reproduce a photo in the exact same size. For instance, the original photo is 4 x 6 and you want one for your book in the same size. Scan it at 600 ppi (pixels per inch). Remember to always double it for same size reproduction. Photo book sites need your photos at 300 ppi because print books reproduce them at 150 ppi. Beginning to see it now? Whatever the end result will be, you need double to work with in the first place. Get out your calculator and you will be fine.

Calculating for Scanning: Let’s try it

Let’s pretend we have a small print that we want to enlarge for our book because we want to crop and zoom in to see the person’s face. The original photo is 2 x 3 and we have cleaned it nicely. We want to crop it and zoom in to double what it is now. Okay. If we are doubling the size, we need to double the scan. Normally, we would scan at 600 ppi but now we will scan at 1200. Sometimes, if I want to get in very close, I will scan it a lot higher so I can to give myself more room to crop and adjust. I just did one last night this size at 4800 ppi and a negative at over 12,000. In both cases, I wanted to zoom in to a much smaller part of the photo. It worked well, but dust sure is big at this size! Don’t even think of trying this if you are on an older computer. You need ridiculous amounts of room in your memory for this.

Who are You? Let’s play C.S.I.

While I am scanning trays of negatives and print after print, the obvious questions have arisen. Where is this? Who is this? Yikes. Here I am creating a book for posterity and there are gaps in my information. If any of the people in the photos are still alive, you can call them. Even if you haven’t been in touch for years, this is a nice way to re-establish some family connections. Just about everyone is interested in talking about themselves and will be happy to share old memories with you. If we’re talking really old photos, the next generation down may have some information. If you are truly on your own with this, don’t give up. There are ways to identify people through a bit of research.

In my case, all the people in the photos I am working on were married at the beginning of the last century or earlier. It’s a safe bet that there is no one alive. They have children and grandchildren probably, but the children are most likely gone, too. In some cases, they were born in 1898 or in the first decade of the 20th century. As for the grandchildren, I have no idea who they are and where to find them. Sounds like a lost cause? Not a chance! It can be done thanks to the second interesting thing that happens as you open them on your monitor.

Unlike the human eye, computers read everything and map the tones. Sometimes, faint pencil marks emerge out of nowhere and you have either identification or a major clue like a date. This has happened for me more than once. Someone back in 1902 wrote on the photo lightly. Someone else in 1942 tried to erase it but the pencil tip bit into the emulsion surface just a little. Now, thanks to computers, all of this is on the surface of the photo and can be read because we are zoomed in to 400% at high resolutions. Pretty cool, huh? It’s a little like treasure hunting. Check the back of the photos, too, and scan them just in case.

It also helps to know a little history. For instance, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, couple portraits were often done within a year or two of marriage and sent out at Christmas to family and close friends. Some say Season’s Greetings on the back and often have a year written. This is pure gold. What I do at this point is go to a place like (pay site) or (free site) and find more details. For instance, on the back of one such photo, it had Seasons Greetings 1898 written in beautiful penmanship. Under this was a very faint pencil outline of the letters Huttson. My cousin copied all the recorded information from the old family bible years ago and I have a photocopy so I found a boy born February 17, 1868 named Huttson Andrew Watson. This was my grandmother’s beloved older brother. But who was his bride? Off we go to

Note: I found that while free sites are great for some information, I often need more than what is available there so it’s worth paying a little for the access to more databases. Just plan well and you can make the most of your time there.

I entered the information I have for Huttson Watson and suddenly, the document recording a marriage in 1896 between Huttson Watson and Henrietta Maria Dodsworth appears. A little more research and I see they had a daughter. Bingo! Now I have the connections I need and the family begins to come to life, literally. Their daughter was my mother’s dear friend and cousin and I have photos of her in my collection. This is how it happens. Some days are more productive than others but eventually the family portrait takes shape.

Document Everything!

I have a document open at all times on my desktop and add notes to it as I’m working. I’ll jot things down that I find in my research and anything else I think might be useful later. However, it’s only of use if you save it. You need only see 10 hours of writing disappear once before you become more vigilant. It happened to me last night. After I finished groaning, I felt grateful it was only hours of work and not days of work that disappeared. It’s retrievable but that will take hours more retracing my research steps so now I save my work after every new notation.

The third interesting thing that happens as you work on a photo is that the people come to life. It’s not just a small photo in a box now. It’s life-size on your computer monitor. When you are cleaning the dust or retouching scratches it’s important to work with your view set to 100% so at high resolutions, it brings things pretty close. More than once, I have found myself very moved while gazing into the eyes of a relative who lived and loved more than a century ago. It’s not uncommon to find yourself smiling. You are meeting through time and genetics and for the first time ever, they look back at you.

This is quite a journey…

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