Personal photo management has been one of those holy grail of tech problems where a graveyard of startups that have tried to solve it over the years lay buried. There are many possible reasons why this is the case but a lot of it had come down to timing, the technology available and the sheer amount of manual work required from the user.
In 2010 my mother suddenly passed away and I found myself the custodian of 3 generations worth of physical photos and film. I spent the next few years completing the tedious task of digitising approximately 7,000 photos (which included all sorts of slides and film). I thought the hard work was over but in reality it had just begun!
I’ve spoken with dozens of people who have found themselves in a similar situation to me and everyone seems to have their own makeshift solution and painful war stories on how much of a difficult process it is from start to finish.
As cloud storage has evolved over the years, it has never been too much of an issue keeping backups of your photos as long as you keep track of which service or services you are using (and quickly migrate them when that startup inevitably has their funding pulled).
But the issue here is making sense of them. Sharing them with the people in them. Finding out who those people are in the photos to then share with them. Guessing the baby. Getting their stories. Finding out where and when they were taken. Being the son of a refugee who came to Australia to escape war, there are stories that I really want to be recorded or they’ll be lost forever. With my mother and grandparents not around anymore, I had no clue who some of these people are in the photos that she left behind. And my Australian born father was scratching his head about most of them too. Heck – I scratch my head at photos I took myself a few months ago.
And herein lies my problem: photo services treat the metadata of the date you created your scanned photos with the same credibility of the snap you took with your phone of your Açai Smoothie Bowl that you had for lunch. Google Photos is great at serving up movies and trying to reconnect you with old photos — but showing you pictures of your 1st birthday saying it happened in 2014 can break the space time continuum!
Side rant: Even in today’s day and age you still need to be wary of the metadata of photos that people sometimes send to you. It’s amazing how many people share photos with WhatsApp — which is great and convenient in group chats and means you will fulfil your promise of sending photos — but it will re-encode the photo to the date you received it, not the date and time it was taken. This may not get your goat like it gets mine but it will make a big difference later on when you eventually need to curate them. For me this is as annoying as the digital cameras throughout the noughties that simply changing the battery would default the settings to 01-JAN-00. If they are nearby and you are both on iOS then use AirDrop instead (the most underrated feature of the iPhone) or share through the new AI-assisted feature on Google Photos.
In the last few years I have struggled to find a suitable solution to organise these photos. Software such as Picassa and iPhoto were great for what they were but still required tedious manual labour in trying to time stamp the exact minute, hour and date of 1000’s of historical photos. It really was an admin nightmare. There is a reason that Google and Apple have evolved their photo offerings to what you see today.
I’ve tried them all — Flickr, MiMedia, PictureLife, EverPix. But I have finally settled on one — Google Photos claim to have over 500 active million users (as of May 2017) and over 1.2 billion photos are uploaded each day so they aren’t going away anytime soon. But Google Photos’ secret weapon in achieving photo bliss — is it unlimited storage? Is it easy sharing? Is it auto-uploading? In my opinion what sets them apart is the way they use their Artificial Intelligence. In what is a deliberate design decision they have pulled back on features that required manual input as for most users the less work you need to do with your photos the better. This has been great at identifying landmarks to work out which city the photo had been taken in, or even what language a random sign in the background is in to identify the country. And although it‘s not perfect — the facial recognition technology currently available has been eerily accurate identifying baby photos with their adult likenesses.
But you still need to apply your very own V.I. (Vague Intelligence) to bridge the intelligence gap between what A.I. or Google Lens can figure out, and what your family can tell you while they are still around.
Here’s a tip — find the dates of all the important events in your family’s lives. Back when they had to lug their big chunky camera around they mostly came out during special events. There’s a good chance a majority of your family photos will revolve around weddings, christenings, birthdays and holidays. Then you can focus on clues in the photos such as how many birthday candles are on the cake and any other clue that can date the photo. Also if your parents have boxes of “stuff” in their garage then they may have kept momento paperwork such as flight itineraries, church documents and tickets. People sometimes keep old passports — the stamps in these can go a long way in determining where and when travel photos were taken.
This still doesn’t completely solve the issue of trying to manually sort 1000’s of historical photos. Photo services these days have moved away from the design of the humble “Photo Album” being the central focal point of your photos and have designed their platforms to display your photos in a timeline as the default way to view them.
So according to my Google Photo timeline, the 24th September 2011 was when my parents got married, had 2 kids, christened me, hosted Christmas and chucked a birthday party — all in a day’s work. A year after my mother’s death no less! Now of course I could just edit the time stamp but where do you start? Sure, my parent’s wedding date is an easy one. But what about all the others? How about that photo of me standing in a random playground?
Currently if I want to adjust it on my photo timeline I would need to know the exact time, the exact day and the exact month. From a guess I would say I look about 4 years old in the photo which would date it sometime in 1989. A workaround would be just to label it 12:00 01-JAN-89 but is that great User Experience? Just like early digital cameras that would default to 00:00 01–01–00 this would just be bloody annoying and not a clean solution. It’s still giving the metadata the same credibility as your newer digital photos. Not to mention the Timehops you’d get on those random placeholder dates.
My solution is a simple one — make the year, month, day and time fields optional. I could then date this photo as 1989 and remove the other fields (and could change this at a later date if I ever find out when I randomly stood in this park). And as you scroll through the years of the timeline on the homepage they can either be displayed at the start or end of that particular year. And if you have no date or time stamp at all then these would be at the very bottom of the page when you scroll down. This would keep the integrity of the timeline and would be a way to seam the old world of analogue photos into the new world of digital photos all in one continuous memory. Artificial Intelligence can then fill in the rest, like who is in the photo and where it was taken. And possibly in the future — be able to accurately date the age of the people in the photos.
This sort of detective work can take years to unravel and going through your family history is an iterative process. More and more millennials are going to face similar issues in the years ahead as their older generation passes on. Google Photos is an excellent solution to the dilemma of limited phone storage and multiple devices. And they have done some fantastic A.I. work to bring new life to photos that would otherwise never see the light of day including amazingly colourising black and white photos. To many users, the timeline is a memory bank to their history and their legacy. Applying a digital solution to an analogue problem has been great — but applying a blanket digital context to it can leave that solution just short of where it needs to be.