Organizing, Editing and Enhancing Images

Picturing the Past – Part 4 of 6

Whether you download them, scan them or shoot them yourself, most pictures can be improved with a bit of basic editing. In his part of the series we’ll take a look at several editing tools, recommend a fantastic free graphic design platform and offer suggestions on organizing your images so they are easy to find, easy to share and easy to use. 

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Scanner or Smartphone?

Image scanning technology is everywhere and it’s relatively inexpensive. Many printers and copiers also function as scanners. If you’re not in the market for a new printer or copier, you can purchase a small desktop scanner for as little as $75.

There are also portable versions which run on batteries and do not need to be tethered to a computer. They store images on a memory stick so you can download them whenever it’s convenient. Portable scanners are small and lightweight enough to carry in your purse or backpack. They range from $50 to $100.  

Before you buy a scanner, ask yourself whether you really need one. If you regularly scan lots of photos or documents, you may indeed need a special piece of equipment. But for most of us, a digital camera or a smartphone may do the trick. Due to their small size, smartphones are particularly useful when you’re working with oversized or awkward items like big maps or books with very stiff spines.

The best way to find out whether the camera/smartphone option will work for you is by experimenting. You might be pleasantly surprised by your results, especially if you incorporate some of the simple editing suggestions below.

There are dozens of free scanning apps that essentially use your phone’s camera to photograph the image you are trying to capture. The cameras in most phones are so good that you may not need a separate app. However, since the scanning apps are free, download a couple and see what you think. This article from ITworld rates several popular apps for Androids and iPhones.    

Organizing and Naming Your Photos

No one wants to end up with the digital version of hundreds of unlabeled photos stuffed in shoe boxes. Do yourself a favor. Organize and properly label your pictures from the start.

I recommend creating a master folder for your vintage photos. The create subfolders within that folder so that you can sort and store your material logically. You will know where to put new images when they arrive and you’ll be able to find what you need quickly. Add subfolders as you need them. I name most of my folders for streets, neighborhoods and business types. Others are catchalls for groups of people, railroad pictures, etc. I also put contemporary images that relate to the vintage ones – Then and Now shots for example – into the folders.

Some photos go into multiple folders. For example, I have a shot of the Lafayette Hotel on Front Street during the 1937 flood. I place copies of it into the folders for Hotels, Front Street and Floods.

It’s important that you name your photos. Your camera or phone will assign each image a label like 38116_2697249871651_1178615880_n. You may not feel the need to rename the shot because you know exactly what it is. There are two very good reasons to do so, however. One is for posterity. Anyone who has spent time sorting through unlabeled or mislabeled shots knows how helpful this seemingly small step is.

The other reason to clean up your labels has to do with SEO or Search Engine Optimization. Search engines, like Google and Bing, cannot see images. When a search engine crawls over your site, it only reads text. If the image file does not have a descriptive name, it might as well not exist.

Give your images clear names. Let’s go back to the Lafayette Hotel example from above. Name it: Lafayette Hotel Front Street Marietta Ohio 1937 Flood. That’s all there is to it. Now Google knows what it is and can index it which will help your picture and its associated post appear in search results.    

Editing Platforms

There are dozens of excellent image editing platforms and apps that allow you to do amazing things. Although many offer a paid and a free version, for most of us, the free version will do everything we want and more.

Your computer may already include photo editing software. My laptop came with Paint, which is part of Microsoft Office, and a basic version of Nero. If nothing is already installed on your device, or you’re ready to try something different, here are links to a few popular photo editors. Enter “free image editing” into any search engine to find many, many more.      

Editing Tools

Cleaning up your images, sharpening the contrast, cropping them to focus on the interesting elements and removing blemishes will improve your shots, whether they’re more a century old or brand new.

Always Work on a Copy – As you edit and modify images, the single most important thing you can do is protect the original image. Make a copy and work on that. Mistakes happen. You may get carried away with your cropping, accidently erase an element or introduce a special effect that just doesn’t work. There are “undo” buttons, of course, but occasionally you can’t find your way back to square one. If you have the original it doesn’t matter. Make another copy and start over. 

Use the editing tools in the following order. Not every step is needed on each project.

  1. Make a copy of the image
  2. Resize it
  3. Straighten it
  4. Crop it
  5. Increase the contrast
  6. Add any special effects
  7. SAVE IT with an appropriate name

Resizing – Digital images are stored as data files whether they come from your camera, your phone, or are something you scanned or downloaded. Many image files are enormous. File size does not refer to the physical size or clarity of your image. It describes the storage space the image needs which impacts the amount of time it takes to load.  

For example, when I scanned an old photo from the library, the resulting image file’s dimensions were 2864 x 2286 pixels and the overall size was 14.2 MB. I used Paint’s resizing tool to reduce it to 720 x 461 pixels and 102KB. There is no difference in how the two copies of the image appear online. Resizing the file does not change the height and width ratio of your image.

You don’t need to worry about file size when you post pictures to Facebook and Pinterest. Those platforms automatically resize your files. Other services, such as MailChimp and Squarespace, have buffers that detect huge files and give you the option to resize your images before posting them. There are also WordPress plugins like WP Smush.it that handle resizing.

If you don’t have resizing software on your website, adding huge image files can make your site load so slowly that visitors will leave before they ever see what you have to offer. This is especially true for visitors who try to access your site from a mobile device.

Email is the other area where image files can cause problems. We’ve all stared at the screen waiting for a big image file attachment to upload and transmit. The only thing more tedious than sending a bloated email is receiving one.

The free image editing sites listed above include resizing tools and instructions on how to use them. It’s usually a one-click process. 

Adjusting or Straightening – Most pictures are slightly crooked. It’s easy to straighten them and it’s amazing what a difference it makes.

The top image was straightened, cropped, the contrast was enhanced and the blob near the top of the telephone pole was erased 

The top image was straightened, cropped, the contrast was enhanced and the blob near the top of the telephone pole was erased 

Cropping –This is the easiest, quickest and most dramatic way to improve your images. You can crop out big expanses of grass or sky, background clutter or blurry areas. The specifics of the various editing tools vary, but cropping generally involves drawing or placing a box over the area you wish to save and eliminating everything else. As opposed to resizing, cropping does change the physical size and proportions of your image.

Contrast – Increasing the contrast sharpens the image and accentuates the details.

Erasing – Many old shots are stained, torn, taped or have fingerprints or writing on them. Erasing tools allow you to remove, reduce or disguise damaged areas. Erasing takes a little practice, but is worth learning how to do.

Special Effects – There are dozens of interesting effects you can add to your images. Convert color pictures to back and white. Turn them into line drawings. Blend two shots by combining a vintage and contemporary view of the same building. The range of special effects varies by editing platform. Once you are comfortable with the basic tools, special effects are worth exploring.

Creating Custom Images

There are several free design platforms that allow you to add custom graphic elements to your vintage and new photos. PicMonkey and LunaPic, both mentioned above in the Editing Platform section, are popular choices that offer lots of great options. My favorite is Canva.

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Canva contains dozens of short and helpful tutorials that will have you creating well-designed, beautiful graphics in no time. It includes templates for Facebook, Pinterest, ebook covers, Twitter backgrounds, business cards, posters, etc. You choose the colors, backgrounds, text sizes and fonts.  

When your new creation is ready, download it as a jpg or as a PDF and use it however you like. Add it to social media posts, presentations, documents, email headers, flyers, etc. Canva also offers an enormous library of stock photos for $1.00.  

Now that your images are spruced up, what are you going to do with them? We'll talk about social media next in Part 5