Recovering Old Memories

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There's an ongoing discussion about how we, as a society, should be archiving our heritage to make it available to future generations; that is, if global warming, financial crises, and energy shortages don't finish us off before then. I suppose, for most people, the main focus for domestic memory archiving is all about video, still photos, and music. One of the topics that regularly surfaces is whether a digital format is better, or the old-fashioned "hard copy" approach.

The argument seems to centre on whether we'll actually be able to access the archived data once the storage or encoding format is replaced by newer technologies. Will we still be able to read CD-ROMs when even Blu-Ray becomes a legacy format? Will data on a USB drive still be readable in 50 years time? Will there be viewers or converters for JPEG, MPEG, WMV, and WMA? Or should everything be stored in RAW format?

In one respect, I can maintain the integrity of the digital files simply through the fact that the entire folder trees of our videos, photos, and music on my servers are regularly backed up, and moved as I upgrade machines. So I always have reasonably fresh copies on several disks and CD-ROMs. And I assume, based on the fact that you can still get conversion programs for very old picture formats, I'll be able to convert at least the photos to any new formats that come along.

However, I recently got drawn into the quandary of how to actually preserve old materials rather by chance. It started from conversations with two of my colleagues. One is an avid aircraft fan, and the other a railways enthusiast. As I fit quite neatly into both categories, I thought I'd collect together some of my better old photos from both worlds and pass them across for perusal. Of course, the actual prints are now well dog-eared or lost, but I discovered that my Epson flatbed scanner has a film attachment - and so I set to scanning the original negatives with the idea that this would produce first-class reproductions of the originals and allow me to preserve them for the future. And also view them more easily any time we like on our Media Center with just a few wafts of the remote control.

So it was with horror that I discovered both the degraded state of the original negatives and slides, and the lack of quality from the old cameras that I used over the years to take the photos. Even a borrowed semi-professional film scanner (the PlusTek 7600i) struggled to produce anything even remotely close to the quality of a cheap modern digital camera. Weird color shifts, graininess, scratches, ingrained dust, and general fading resulted in something that my more resembles the results from my rather aging 1 megapixel camera phone.

Each photo requires considerable tuning with an image editor to get something even remotely acceptable. But at least I discovered a good use for the Paint Shop Pro Photo program I was grumbling about in a previous blog post. It's amazing what the digital noise reduction filter, color balance adjustment, sharpness, and other effects can produce from an only half-recognizable image.

Of course, it takes ages to scan, sort, and edit the packets of negatives that go back over a considerable number of years. Thankfully, I'd labeled each set with the location and date, and it is wonderful to see them again after so many years. Definitely a good excuse for an evening reminiscing, wondering where that youthful figure and lack of gray hair went, and marvelling at the interesting sense of fashion we seemed to have in those days. And how we managed to cope with trans-Atlantic travel to conferences and meetings in Redmond, Florida (twice), Palm Springs, and Las Vegas all in in one year. Maybe that's the problem - I'm still suffering from jet-lag.

So far, I'm only around half-way through the stack of negatives, and itching to get started on the boxes of slides. Though I've managed to restore some amazing aircraft photos that go way back to 1986 and 1987 - especially some of the NATO Tactical Fighter Meet held at RAF Waddington, and the air show there the following year. So at least I have something to keep one of my colleagues happy for an hour or so. Here's some samples:

NATO Fighter Meet 1986, RAF Waddington

NATO Fighter Meet 1986, RAF Waddington

Lancaster Waddington Air Show 1987

I'll post some for railway enthusiasts in a few weeks time, after I investigate the large box full of slides...

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Recovering Old Memories