Captions are Critical

They say a picture is worth 1000 words (and I’d argue that pictures can say much more than that), but what about actual words associated with your pictures?  Does the picture above tell you much without the caption alongside it?

2016-12-05 (18) 0027
My grandmother’s bad handwriting (she was left-handed but wrote with her right) on the back of the picture.

When you go through old pictures, you may be fortunate enough to have extra information to tell you what is going on in the picture.  Some people were good about marking information on the back of pictures (though the actual pen or marker was not good for the physical photo itself!).  Others put pictures in photo albums that allowed space to add information about the photos on the page.

My favorite captions are those that give more than the Who? What? When? Where? data and provide insight on the Why or How come.  What was Mom thinking when she took that picture?  What is the meaning of that particular gift?  Why were these people on vacation together?

One thing that makes me sad for today’s kids is the lack of stories attached to their photos.  Since most people aren’t printing photos out or organizing them properly on the computer, these stories are getting lost.  We have thousands of photos of the children born in the age of the digital camera, but they aren’t as meaningful as the handful of photos taken in the 1960s or 1970s in the family’s collection.

Stacy and Cheri (5 weeks)  Cheri sure makes her laugh!
“Stacy – 5 weeks.  Cheri sure makes her laugh!”

I was fortunate to be born in a family that valued photos, took more than average, and added information to them.  As I digitized my baby photos and my sister’s baby photos, I smiled over and over as I added captions in my mother’s words.  Even though there’s a five-year difference in our ages, apparently my sister and I were enamored with each other from the start.  How much does this caption strengthen our relationship now when we see how close we used to be?

Experts say it builds a child’s self-esteem to see family photos.  David Krauss, a licensed psychologist from Cleveland, Ohio, says, “It is so helpful for children to see themselves as a valued and important part of that family unit.” (  How much more meaningful are those photos when there’s a story along with them?

Set aside time each month to caption and tag your digital photos.  Even better, print important ones out and note your thoughts about them.  Use a photo-safe pencil on the back or put the pictures in a photo album with space for handwritten notes.  It’s more than worth the effort to have the story with the pictures we’re taking in this digital age!

The Impact of Before & After Photos

When most people think of the pictures in their collection, they think about vacations, family gatherings, and holidays.  There are many other kinds of pictures that need to be organized and sometimes retrieved, too.  Photos are a great way to compare before and after or changes over time.

When I bought my condo, I walked around taking pictures of each room.  This served as a reminder for the space I had to fill, the things I wanted to change, and even the types of outlets that were available for large appliances.  Once I moved in and made the home my own, I took pictures because I was proud of the organized closet and the decorated kitchen.  Placed alongside the first photos, I could see the difference in the before and after.

Many businesses use before and after photos as well.  Dentists show how crooked teeth became straight.  Remodeling construction companies show an outdated room becoming modern.  Landscaping companies show an overgrown yard turning into a beautiful garden.  What better way to show the quality of your work than with photo proof of your ability to transform?

Sometimes we use a common spot or pose in pictures to show the progress of growth over time in people or animals.  If you eliminate the magic of Photoshop, you can trust a photograph to show you a true comparison from picture to picture.  In the photos below, you can see how tall my niece gets each year by her height against the stone railing.

Taking the photos is only part of it.  The critical piece is organizing them so you can get your hands on the pictures you’re looking for.  To make the three-picture collage above, I simply searched my photos for Rackham (the name of the fountain) and Elizabeth (the name of my niece).  It took seconds to see the photos I had available because I’ve taken the time to tag my pictures with words that will help me find them again.  It’s much easier to look through a few dozen pictures that contain what you want than it is to search thousands (and thousands) to find them.

People and businesses with piles of photos need to use keywords that mean something to them.  I don’t expect most people to have the keyword Rackham in their photo organization.  This is a word that is important to me.  I use the vague word “car” to identify pictures with cars in them, but if you are part of a Mustang club, I would expect Mustang to be one of your keywords.  Construction companies should consider the room or type of material used as keywords so they can show customers a variety of kitchen remodels or specifically marble countertops if they need to pull up pictures in that way.

Think about the photos you take to show before-and-after situations or the growth over time of someone or something.  How can you organize these photos so you can quickly grab both the old and the new to see the progress?  Photos can be a great help in telling your story if you take the time to tag them properly.

Do Photos Evoke Emotion?

  • A preteen sees photos from when she was younger and understands how much she has always been loved.
  • A senior with Alzheimer’s looks at old photos daily to feel anchored in a world that is so confusing.
  • A couple flips through wedding photos on each anniversary to recall the emotions of beginning their life together.
  • A person who was adopted sees birth family photos for the first time and searches for physical resemblances.
  • A high school graduate pulls together photos from sports and activities throughout his school years and sees how far he’s come.

These are just a few examples of the powerful emotions photos can bring to every kind of person.  The longer I help people with their pictures, the more stories I hear about what photos mean to them.  Clients often get teary just talking about the photos they are about to hand over to me.

Snapshots of the past give you a foundation for the present.  Whether you are looking at old pictures of the city you live in or pictures from your college dorm room, you look up from the picture and see how far things have come.  It gives today’s life more meaning when you see what had to change to make today happen.

Even if you don’t know the story behind the photo, you can treasure a glimpse of someone’s life as seen by the camera that day.  When a loved one is gone, a photo of them is as meaningful as a recording of their voice or a sample of their handwriting.  It is a piece of someone who mattered.

A few months ago, I learned about savefamilyphotos (  This site, and the Instagram account that is its main feed, claims to be “On a mission to save family stories, one photo at a time.”  Sometimes the photos themselves make you smile, or pause to guess the story.  What people tell you about the photos they submit makes you go back and give the photos a deeper look.  The stories aren’t always happy, but you definitely feel something looking at strangers’ photos.

Think about how you can share your photos with others who will appreciate them.  Whether you hand over print copies or e-mail digital files, pictures in your possession could make somebody’s day.  Don’t keep these memories in a box for someone to discover some day.  You never know what emotions you can evoke in someone’s life right now.

Stories Then and Now

I spent a bit of time digitizing slides for a client this week.  I think slides are my favorite photos to bring back to life.  There’s something about the medium that requires an extra effort to view, so you know these pictures have likely not been viewed for decades.

Many of the slides I saw this week were taken in countries I’ve never seen myself.  I like to think that these historic places look much the same today, with only changes in hairstyles, glasses, and automobiles in today’s pictures.  I kept thinking of the old line, “Come over and see our vacation photos!”  Did the client’s parents invite their friends over and show these pictures on a screen or wall in their house?  Did they tell the stories of things that happened in each location they visited?


My beautiful picture
Family slide from 1961 vacation


There is a huge difference in the way people took pictures in the 1960s and the way they do today.  Film and developing were expensive, so most people took very few photos – even when they were halfway around the world.  Each picture had meaning, and often several stories behind the one image.  Today it costs nothing to snap a digital photo and we spend our vacation looking through the screen of our phone or camera as we click away.

Think about the stories you want to tell with your photos.  Instead of keeping your eyes on the camera, lift them up and enjoy the moment.  Take a few meaningful pictures that you will use along with your words to tell the stories.  Then make sure you take the time to tell the stories in your own words.  It worked for our ancestors…

Now is the time to digitize those old slides.  Get the stories behind them before it’s too late.  Make wall art or framed enlargements out of favorites so they can see the light of day again.  You never know what kinds of awesome pictures are hiding in those boxes!

Follow up:  after I posted this blog, I went to a rock concert.  I couldn’t believe the number of people who watched the show through their phone.  They missed out on the way the laser lights ran across the arena, the flirtatious expressions on the lead singer’s face, the energy of the audience.  What story do they have to tell?  Who is going to sit there and watch the video with them?  I’m not a curmudgeon – I did snap a few photos over the length of the concert, but the rest of the time the phone was in my pocket.  These are enough to spark memories.


Queen + Adam Lambert at the Palace of Auburn Hills (Michigan), July 20, 2017


Are You Missing Something?

If you look closely at the picture above, you can see the outline of my camera in my pocket.  One hour later, that camera would be gone for good.  It slipped out of my pocket on a ride and I never saw those hundreds of Disney photos again.  Fortunately, I used Disney’s PhotoPass to capture photos of my niece and me in front of big theme park landmarks.  Unfortunately, I don’t know where those photos from 2010 currently reside (except for this one, which I used in a project).

Before I knew better, I used to “back up” my pictures to CD-ROMs and USB drives.  Then I would delete them from my computer to make room for more.  There are several problems with this method:  only one copy of each photo, easy to lose/misplace formats, and lack of organization in my CDs and thumb drives.  The Disney trip pictures are not the only photos I have misplaced; half of 2012 is missing, too.

Let’s go back to losing the camera itself.  What if I had uploaded my camera photos each evening at the hotel?  What if I had secured the day’s memory card and put a fresh one in each day?  Before you leave on a big trip, think about how you will back up your photos while you are still gone.  If you’re using a camera or phone’s camera with WiFi capabilities, upload to the cloud each evening.  Otherwise, have another backup plan.  This will limit your loss if something happens to your camera.

Also, make sure your camera and phone pictures are backed up before you leave for a vacation – or even locally being out and about.  Things get misplaced and stolen more often than we’d like to think.  It’s good to back up your photos after each major event, or at least monthly.

Your print photos are fragile, and you are aware they can be damaged by so many environmental factors.  Don’t forget that your current, digital-first photos are vulnerable, too, and take steps to make sure today’s memories last well into the future.  Take preventive steps as a matter of habit and you will have less to lose if things go awry.

Summertime and the Livin’ is Easy

When you’re a kid, summer seems like endless days of doing nothing in particular.  From whenever you roll out of bed until whenever you can’t keep your eyes open anymore, you can play games, read, swim, bike or stare vacantly into space.  Adults do not have the same luxury, but summer is still a time to be more casual, take vacation days, and make use of extra hours of sunlight.

What will you make time for this summer?

If you want a break from photo organizing, Reader’s Digest recently published a post on 30 Little Chores You’ll Be Glad You Did a Year from Now.  Two of the tips are from Cherish Your Photos.  The rest are other great ideas to tackle with any extra time you have this summer!


Break Out of the Boring Photo Rut

Do you feel like you take the same pictures over and over again?  Formal occasion: pose in front of the fireplace.  Group picture: stand shoulder to shoulder.  It can get a little boring unless you mix it up.

There are many places online you can read about photography tips.  Some of the articles and blogs are focused on the professional, but they can remind you of ways to change up your picture-taking to make more interesting shots.  Little changes that make a big impact include changing your angle (standing on something and shooting down or crouching down and shooting up – like I did with the cat on the ladder in the main picture), using a bench to vary the height of your group of subjects, and seeking out new locations for your pictures.


Everyone touching and heads together make a great pose.


In group shots, make sure everyone is touching.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be with their hands or arms, but the closer together your subjects, the better the result.  I often say, “Pretend you like each other!”  Also, figure out who the goofball is and ask them to do something silly.  Everyone else will react naturally.

For a close-up portrait, look for an interesting background.  That beige wall is nice and not distracting, but maybe a wood grain door, a modern painting, or a bush in bloom does a better job of filling in the space behind the face.  Also – don’t let your subject stand right up against something.  A little depth looks better.


Don’t wait for a pose – catch the interaction!


Take candid shots.  Hang back a little and snap away as grandpa greets his grandchild.  Sneak up behind kids having a serious discussion.  Watch how someone at the table reacts to a story being told.  All your pictures won’t be winners, but it’s easy to delete in this digital age.  You might just catch something magical when people aren’t posing for the camera.

Before your next event, create a list of ideas for photos you want to try.  Consult your list to make sure you are actually using those ideas.  With a little practice, you will soon have a variety of different pictures to enjoy.

Take Time Now to Get the Story

Do you ever wish you could spend a little more time with someone who’s gone?  Ask a few more questions?  If you can, spend some time on Father’s Day getting more information from your dad, stepdad, grandfather, uncle, or other father figure.  As I’ve said before, stories are important.

As I digitized my family photos, I saw another side of both my dad and my grandfather.  They were people before I knew them, with their hobbies, vacations, and personalities that came before “dad” and “grandpa” roles.  They wore clothes that fit another time, posed in front of vehicles that belong in museums today, and often showed sillier, younger sides of their personalities.

What kinds of questions should you ask?  Here are a few ideas:

  • What was a typical summer day like for you as a kid?
  • What was your favorite meal as a kid?
  • What was your first job?  Did you work there long?
  • Did you go to school dances or sporting events?
  • Where was your favorite place to vacation when you were young?
  • What did you like about the woman you asked to marry you?
  • How did you feel when you were expecting your first child?
  • Where was your favorite place to work?  Or didn’t you ever enjoy your job?
  • What kinds of pets have you had throughout your life?
  • What was your favorite car?

As conversation flows, keep asking questions.  Imagine you are hearing a story from the author who will provide answers to all your questions.  Be creative!

You can set aside specific time to talk to a person, or you can casually work questions into your regular conversation.  You can record them (audio or video) or jot notes down to write up later.  The important thing is to ask!

And, of course, photographs make perfect prompts for your conversation.  Dig out those old pictures and see how many questions you now have to ask your subject.  You never know what might surprise you in those old albums.

Organize Your Digital Photos

How do you find a photo on your computer?  Do you confidently do a search for IMG_8473?  Do you open and close a dozen file folders skimming the thumbnails?

Think of your computer files like an actual physical file cabinet.  If you were looking for your proof of ownership of your car, you would open the drawer, look for the hanging file with your car on the tab, and find the file for ownership papers.  You apply the same principle to naming your photos.

Whether you organize photos by date or by subject, you start with a larger file, have a subfolder, and then find individual files (photos) within that folder.  For example: to find a picture of my nephew from his last birthday party, I would go to the 2016 folder, then the September folder, then the Birthday_Branden folder.

The folder structure is useful, but your individual photos should also have this information.  If you use the photo (share it, save it to an external drive, etc.), that information will all stay with the photo.  If someone e-mailed a picture named 2016_09_30_Birthday_Branden_11.jpg to you, there would be little doubt about what kind of picture you were about to open.  It is also going to retrieve this picture if you do a search of all of your photos for the word “birthday” since it is part of the name of the photo.

Create a system that works for you, then stick with it.  These are your pictures, so create a naming structure that makes sense to you!  You might find that same picture by going to the Birthday folder, then Branden, then 2016.  Set it up the way you think you’ll want to find the pictures next month, next year, or in ten years.

Here are some tips for naming conventions:

  • Watch out for special characters.  Computers don’t always handle spaces and symbols well.  I like to use capitalization (09SeptemberBirthdayBranden) or underscore (09September_Birthday_Branden) in file names.
  • Year should always be a four-digit number.  You don’t want a historical photo from 1920 next to a modern photo from 2020.
  • Use the number of the month (followed by the month if you want to clarify).  Why?  The files and folders will sort alphabetically or numerically.  Using only the name results in an order of April, August, December, February, etc.  Using 01January, 02February, 03March keeps your months in order.
  • Abbreviate where it makes sense to shorten the length of the file name.  For example: 09Sept_Bday_Branden.  Again, be consistent and always use 09Sept for the month in this case.
  • Structure should go from general to specific.  This includes using last name before first name if you are using that level of detail.  It will help sort like with like.  Example:  YYYY_MM_DD_occasion_lastname_firstname

Take Advantage of Free Education

We live in remarkable times.  When I was a kid, I had to go to the library (or sit in a classroom) to learn about something.  Today, people who want to know anything have the world’s brainpower at their fingertips.  Whether you want to learn by reading, by watching, or by listening, you can find someone to teach you – often for free.



Most conferences are expensive and cost hundreds or thousands of dollars.  However, corporate sponsors sometimes participate in a conference to help educate a certain group of people.  I spent part of every day last week at Detroit Startup Week, a local conference for entrepreneurs.  I went from session to session learning about marketing, social media, identifying customers and more – all at no cost to me.  Even the parking was free!  With a little research, you may find a conference that fits with something you want to learn.



Your community might have adult education classes on a variety of topics at a low cost.  Don’t forget to look at offerings from libraries, local city groups and associations, too!  Last week, I taught overviews of photo organizing and preserving at a local senior center and a public library.  Attendees were welcome to listen and ask questions during the hour for free, and now have a contact for future questions on the topic.  Most libraries bring in speakers on a variety of topics from financial planning to local history.  Take advantage of the free information!



As a librarian, I have to start with a warning to understand who has posted information online before you trust what you see.  You don’t want to take medical advice from someone with no qualifications!  However, people who know what they’re talking about write blogs, post instructional videos, and write encyclopedia entries all over the internet.  Where have you seen that actor before?  Go to IMDB and get lost in the actor’s list of appearances.  How do you properly fold a t-shirt?  Go to YouTube and pick your favorite method after watching a few different videos.  No matter what you’re looking for, you can be sure someone has posted about it online.

“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”
― Socrates

Learning about new things has always been important to personal growth.  Look for opportunities to pursue your passion and keep getting excited about the knowledge you acquire.  It’s yours for the taking!