Preserving The Photographic Records Of Your Family

I wonder if anywhere in this nation there is a house that does not contain, somewhere within its walls, at least one box of faded monochromatic photographs – images that reflect the era known as the twentieth century; an era that has all-too-quickly become “the past”.

It was my era. At 63, I am somewhat reluctant to give up “my era”. As midnight each 31st December arrives, I now find myself struggling to welcome the arrival of yet another year, yet another step away from the twentieth century

Next year will see the fiftieth anniversary of what is undoubtedly the pinnacle of technical achievement by the human race – the placing of the first human bootprint on the surface of another world. Ever since that event, I avidly began collecting together a huge archive of material about those early days of space flight, until it has now become a monster that can be difficult to control.

I soon began collecting articles and recordings of other news events and television programmes of that period (1950s to 1970s). But in recent years, I learned how cavalier attitudes had prevailed at television and radio archives, and in the 1970s most countries began to systematically throw away perfectly good material.

Fortunately (in America at least) coverage of the space programme survived quite well, but I wonder how many of you who remember favourite British TV programmes from the past, are aware that there’s a much better than fifty per cent chance that the recordings of those much-loved programmes from the Sixties were trashed within a few years of broadcast – thrown out like sacks of rubbish, to be carted away to the incinerator, or used as landfill.

Once I felt I’d done my bit to help preserve the news coverage, and other good programmes I felt were worth keeping, my mind turned toward some photographs, films, and video tapes that didn’t make the news, or appear anywhere on broadcast television – the images I captured of my family members on film, and later, video tape.

So that was the next task on my list – to gather together all the photographs, cine films, and video tapes I had taken throughout my life, and to begin the mammoth task of turning them into digital files. These files could then be copied an unlimited number of times – freeing them from the constraints of having just a single unique existing copy. I knew this too would be no quick job – and it wasn’t!

Having become extremely familiar with video editing over many years, it was absolutely no problem to digitise video tapes of the family, which dated back to 1989. Photographs, too, were an easy task for me. But where things began to get difficult was in relation to all those 8mm films I’d shot during the 1970s.

Most professional transfers of 8mm film are still to this day carried out in what, in my opinion, is a very unprofessional manner. What happens is, the operator sticks the film on an 8mm projector, throwing the moving images onto a screen. With a video camera placed beside the projector, he or she then records the moving pictures onto a video tape – or these days more likely a memory card – and these are in turn transferred to a DVD for watching and/or preservation.

There are severe drawbacks to this method. To begin with, a video camera running at 25 fps (frames per second) is attempting to record film that was shot at 18 fps., which was the speed at which Super 8 cameras operated. (Before Super 8 came along, Standard 8 cameras ran at just 16fps.) This will inevitably result in a number of technical issues that are too numerous to go into here. As video runs at 25 fps, the only way the film can be seen at the correct speed is to blend those 18 frames each second into 25 frames, which will cause a slight loss of sharpness.

There really is no totally satisfactory method of getting around this problem, although for archiving the frames can also be stored as computer data, where each individual frame of film is represented by one individual frame of video. But if you ran the film at this speed (25fps), it would, of course, be running too fast, and everything would appear artificially speeded up!

Also when using the projection method, the images usually end up being severely cropped. The colours look muddy, and bleed into each other. In short, they look horrible, as seen here (top right) in a frame from a film I shot on 6 July 1975 at Hunstanton. That’s my brother-in-law Roy in the picture. (Thought I’d better give him a mention!)

The second image (above) is that same identical frame, but scanned by a machine specially constructed for film transfer. Look how much cleaner the frame is – in every sense! The image is captured right to the edge, and is much sharper; and the colours are crisp and “clean”. Using this frameby- frame method, each image is captured as a separate digital frame. They are then reconstructed back into a digital movie, and the digital files are burned to a DVD for permanent storage

The DVD, of course, can never be erased, and, as long as you take good care of the disc, your family films are preserved for the future.

Unlike some of those favourite TV programmes.

Leave a Comment