We don’t rescue children or puppies from burning buildings.
We don’t save lives. We document them. Preserve fleeting moments in time. Forever – if they’re purchased and persevered – less so if they’re not.
We don’t provide what most would consider basic necessities. Food. Shelter. Medicine. Water.
What we create is certainly a luxury item of sorts.
And yet what we create is the very thing people grab when forced to flee their homes.
Photographs are the tangible treasure that can take us back in time.
Heal the wounds of living.
Bring comfort and soften sorrows.
Remind us of long since forgotten moments of joy and happiness.
Part time capsule and part time machine photographs are a way to show the world – and remind ourselves – what we were once like.
Before we got older or sicker or lost those final 10 pounds.
Or maybe just before we gained them back.
This wasn’t meant to be one of the last pictures I ever took of my mom. It wasn’t really even meant to be a picture of her at all. Really it was a quick snapshot to show off the collection of photographs I’d taped to the wall of my mother’s hospital room that night. All I wanted was to show why I value digital photography so much and how much less sterile her space felt.
Without it this entire project – and the joy it brought – wouldn’t have been possible.
You see on this day my mom was finally out of bed and in a chair for the first time in weeks.
A couple days later she was standing with a walker.
A day after that she was gone forever.
Without an organized collection of digital files there is no way I would have been able to pull this off before she passed away. Start to finish this project took me less than three hours. I downloaded images from my Zenfolio account, ordered about $60 worth of poster prints at the Costco near the hospital and hung them with a roll of packing tape that lives in the trunk of my car. All while my mom chatted with a steady stream of old friends that visited that day. I took this snapshot right after everyone had left for the night.
And you’ll see that some of the images are clearly professional in nature – including the moment my husband proposed last fall (thank you Toni!) and a few favorites from the wedding we had in the hospital with my mom a few weeks before this was taken (Thank you Alicia). Others are snapshots from random moments in our lives – family gatherings, graduations, vacations, or down time snuggling with the dog.
All are cherished and valued and important in their own ways.
This isn’t meant to be a “go hire a pro and spend a ton of money post” and it’s not meant to be a “your photographer should include your digital files for free” or even “your photographer should allow you to buy digital files” post. Although I do highly recommend finding a photographer you love, paying them well for documenting your life and family on a regular basis, and spending whatever it takes to get that digital set of images for your family archives – that’s not the point I’m trying to make. Because the truth is some of my all-time favorite pictures are not professional. Not perfectly focused. Not properly exposed. Not even taken with a ‘real’ camera. Yet somehow they’re still magical and enchanting to me. And to get to the point of this post – worth saving.
There is a never-ending debate amongst photographers about what digital files do for our industry and our society. It’s one of those things it seems like everyone has a strong opinion about and yet it’s rare to find anyone that has thought about it deeply enough to realize that the real issues they’re so concerned about are not a problem exclusive to digital image files. Or any one medium really.
Just as one photographer can tell me my photographs would be lost forever had they been on a 5 ¼” floppy disc from the 1980s instead of printed I can tell you about how most of my baby pictures from the same decade were ruined by water damage and thrown away before I ever grew up and saw them. In a single day of sifting through the boxes of family photographs I’ve recently inherited I found printed photographs that started out on film so ruined by mold I could barely tell who was in them as well as digital image files on a 10 year old CD that could not be read. The truth is this isn’t a film vs. digital issue. It’s not a printed digital file vs. cd issue. It’s not even a professional vs. amateur issue or “expensive” experienced pro vs. underpriced-too-inexperienced-to-know-how-much-it-actually-costs-to-run-a-business-newbie-photographer issue. It’s an issue of taking time to create images you’ll enjoy and treasure and doing what it takes to make sure you actually get to enjoy and treasure them.
So how do you do that?
Glad you asked.
For starters stop putting off that professional portrait. I know it’s a lot of work. It’s an investment of more than money. It takes time to plan out, find a photographer you love, figure out what to wear, choose a location, get cooperation from Mother Nature, fuss over your hair, go back to see the images and choose your favorites for printing, hang them on the wall, etc. But it’s worth it. I promise. The good news is portrait photography has evolved over the years and sessions can actually be relaxed and fun and result in images that make your heart sing every time you see them. Your portraits don’t have to be boring. Or cheesy. Know that the camera doesn’t add 15 pounds – bad photographers do. Find a skilled photographer whose work you love. Be glad in this day and age you have a lot of options and there is no need to settle for ‘good enough’.
Be in the snapshots at family gatherings. Even if you have to use a timer or take two images so there is one with you and one with someone else holding the camera. Trust me I know how easy it is to hide behind a camera. Don’t. Even if you frame the one you took your kids will love having the one you’re in when they grow up. And they’ll never even notice any of the things you’re self conscious about. By then my guess is neither will you.
Be in snapshots outside of family gatherings. Don’t go overboard and make your life a play by play homemade reality show or anything – but make a point to document milestones as well as some of the in between moments. The key is to make living your life a priority over documenting it.
Consider video. If a picture is worth a thousand words I think a video is worth a million. It’s not just what you looked like when you were talking – it’s a record of what you said and how you said it. Where did your voice shake with emotion? When did you laugh? Did you cry? Wave your hands? Sigh deeply? What was happening beyond that 1/160th of a second of a photograph?
Get the images someone else takes of you at the next family gathering, vacation, etc. before you get back to life and forget about them. Return the favor when you’re the one taking the pictures.
Get those images off your phone and onto a computer before your phone gets stolen, dropped in the toilet, or some other unexpected-but-still-tragic-beyond-what-insurance-can-replace end.
Organize your photos and videos in a way that makes finding things later easy because having it doesn’t matter if you can’t find and use it. A folder for each year is a good starting point because you can’t have an image taken in two different years. But you can have images of your dog, images of your kid, and images with your kid and dog which can make filing by subject tricky.
Get the images off your computer and onto paper. Or canvas. Or metal. Put a framed one on your desk. Stick one under a magnet on your fridge. Put them in an album. Hang them on the wall. Whatever. But print them and put them in a place you’ll see them and enjoy them beyond being in the background of whatever you’re doing with your screens.
Take care of your printed images. Exact instructions depend where you live and what format they’re in but remember things fade in the sun, magnetic photo albums will get too sticky to remove your photographs from over time, photographs can stick to the glass if they’re not matted properly, and certain materials warp or curl in humid weather.
Keep at least three copies of anything you’d cry over losing with one of them outside of your home . Backup is your BFF. Seriously. All hard drives fail. It’s only a matter of time. Discs get scratched. Things spontaneously stop working. Houses burn down. Computers get stolen. Natural and unnatural disasters strike and take printed and digital images with them. A lot of external drives can automate the backup process for you and many online cloud options exist for backing up your personal files – including photographs, videos, etc. It’s also prudent to back up the important old family photographs taken with film. If you have their negatives consider storing them in another location and/or printing additional copies of your favorite images and stashing those off site. You can also scan them and add those files to your digital image archives. Obviously be mindful of copyright laws when it comes to professional photography since buying a print doesn’t give you the right to reproduce the image. If you don’t have the option of purchasing digital files ask if they offer any sort of archiving service – many will do this for a small fee.
Store backups properly, check to make sure they still function regularly, and update them as technology changes. And it does change. Fortunately it moves slowly so it’s not like you’re going to wake up one day and not be able to find a way to read the CD you just got last week. But if you put it in a box and come back in 20 years you might run into problems.