The Resurrection of DVDs

I will admit to laughing at people who collect DVDs. I’ve considered it a giant waste of money and space. But now I’m started to wonder if I was wrong.

Samsung announced recently that they’re done producing new Blu-Ray players. It was seen as the first domino to fall in the inevitable death of physical media for film.

This set off a panic among some DVD and Blu-Ray enthusiasts, but it delighted others who have kept DVD collections, or make a living off of selling rare DVDs. Why? There’s a perceived scarcity coming and streaming advocates may be on the wrong side.

There are advantages to DVDs and Blu-Rays we give up when we rely on streaming services:

  • They often include commentary, documentaries, and bonus features unavailable on streaming services (or even in later releases of the same DVD). These features are sometimes suppressed by studios if the latest batch of executives didn’t care for the originals.

  • You own the film and can watch it whenever you like (as opposed to whenever Netflix decides you can watch it). Even when you “buy” a movie online, it’s really just a license to access it, totally dependent on the whims of studios, streaming companies, the market in general, and new/changing laws.

  • You can watch the version you prefer. Movie and television studios are constantly tinkering with their releases, removing songs, editing endings, and changing who shot first. Typically there’s only one version of a film available for streaming or buying online, and it’s probably not the best — it’s the most palatable to the masses.

  • They allow small, indie studios to make money when they are ignored by streaming services.

  • They make classic films more accessible. Classic films are rarely available on streaming services and cable. When they are, what’s available is often the most well-known, and doesn’t include the smaller films you may love (if you got the chance). The DVD craze of 20 years ago gave re-birth to many classic films that might have been totally lost without the profits possible from a physical form of media.

  • You can sell, trade, or pass them along. Again, you own them. Rare and out-of-print DVDs are actually a blossoming business right now. What will happen when they grow even more scarce?

  • You can get them real cheap, new or used, for now. On Black Friday, Blu-Rays are dirt cheap. At thrift stores, they’re practically free. Parents know how much milage can be had from a Pixar DVD, proving they can be dirt cheap even at full price.

  • They’re free to rent at your library.

  • They don’t rely on a connection.

  • They’re privacy-friendly. Netflix, Hulu, Google and Amazon are watching you while you watch that movie.

  • They allow for more and better bootlegs. If your film has enough fans, it will spawn new versions, or foster the environment needed for the “release” of studio versions that the public was never meant to see. These versions may be downloadable with some effort, but they will probably never be streamable from a legitimate service.

  • They encourage and preserve music documentary and concert footage. My favorite concerts and musician’s videos are being removed or copyright-stricken from YouTube by the labels. These artists (even the big ones) have no intention of ever releasing streaming versions of this material and the streaming services have no interest anyway. We’re probably losing access to performances every day we’ll never see again. Some were only released in the first place due to the music VHS gold rush of the late 80s/early 90s and music DVD gold rush of the late 90s/early 2000s. This doesn’t even include the bootleg concerts I’ve loved watching on YouTube. I hope someone is capturing them somewhere before it’s too late.

  • They can be superior in quality to the streaming version. I put this as the last reason, because (to me) it’s the least important reason. Some of my favorite films never made it to Blu-Ray, let alone 4K discs or Netflix. If the film isn’t even available, quality doesn’t matter. The best quality version a concert film from the 80s may be on VHS. That’s better than nothing.

I’m not going to kid myself. Streaming is the (near) future of media. And I may be too old to care by the time it all shakes out. But if recent history has taught us anything, from books to vinyl, physical media will always have a market. Cassettes are even making a comeback!

Maybe in 20 years there will be enough nostalgia for all the points I made above to trigger a resurrection in physical media for film along with boutique, retro playing devices sold by Shinola.

As for my like-minded minimalist friends who embraced streaming media to cut down on their physical libraries, I pose this question: Is spending more money on less enjoyable things really minimalist?

If you have a favorite movie, or TV show, I recommend grabbing the physical version you love on the cheap while you can. It will last you for at least the rest of your lifetime. It’ll look good on a shelf next to your favorite books, and in a few decades you’ll have the jump on the next generation of hipsters.

Organizing Your Paper Photos

If you were alive before the 2005ish, you probably have boxes of old prints and negatives rotting away in a basement or a closet. You've been meaning to organize it, but the project seems overwhelming.

Believe me, I've been there.

I've had to organize my own photos and the photos of my family going back to 1914. Thousands of photos in no order whatsoever.

I'm sharing the lessons I've learned, so you can avoid some of the mistakes I made, and possibly save some money along the way.

I'm not an archivist. There's plenty of sites that will suck you down that rabbit hole with glee. I just wanted the fastest, easiest way to preserve my family's photographic history.

After completing this process, you will have a set of organized prints that will be far easier to scan and refer to in the future.

Step 1: Write on the Backs of the Photos

Write on the back of each of my photos to give it context: who, what, where and when (why is a bonus). I use an archive safe pen or soft pencil to write lightly so it doesn't disturb the other side of the print.

I don't write on older prints. I let relatives tell me the context and facts of each print on notes that tie back to print somehow (through numbering or as notes within the binders mentioned in the next step). This is crucial for scanning and publishing. Get all the facts you can before people forget.

Step 2: Sleeves and Binders

Transfer all prints to non-PVC binders with non-PVC plastic sheets (top loading only - trust me). Some people swear by using acid-free envelopes and boxes. I've done that. Binders are better. Here's why:

  1. Binders are less expensive overall.
  2. Binders can hold any size/format photos, negatives and slides a normal person has (I'm not normal, so I do have 1 giant box to house poster-sized prints). 
  3. Binders offer the most individual print protection.
  4. The prints can be looked at by anyone at anytime without damaging them further.
  5. It takes up much less space. An entire shoebox of photos can fit in a small binder. 2 boxes in a large.
  6. Archives.gov recommends it as the "perfect" solution for home storage.
  7. It's safer for future generations who will thumb through everything.
  8. There's the ability (if needed) to view both sides of the old photos without manhandling them all. Some of my ancestor's photos have fountain pen writing on the back. Seeing both sides is a difficult problem in digital, but easy in these binders.
  9. Sleeves offer separation from close, decaying photos from the same time period.
  10. Blinders offer much easier separation of subjects/years.
  11. There's more room for writing and non-photographic items that may have accompanied the prints. I love collecting old photo processing envelopes.
  12. I get to keep my grimy hands off the photos which makes me feel better about the whole process.
  13. After the prints are in sleeves, they can be organized into any context I want. Bookmarks or notes can be added to the binders to show where scanning left off and notes about how you scanned them (so future generations can understand the care you took and that they probably won't need to duplicate your work).

I have to face the fact that I will not be forever in charge of these photos. To give them the best possible shot of lasting a long time and not being too damaged, they need individual protection in sleeves and binders.

Step 3: Scan

If you're doing this yourself, it can take forever, but the quality and the context will be better. Having organized the prints above, it's much easier now to know what you've scanned and in what context (by year, by subject, etc.).

I scan prints at 600dpi, using a few different scanners depending on the type of print.

Step 4: Publish

Ultimately, you'll want to create photo books. I love what this blogger has done. You'll have to compare services, but some swear by Apple books and Blurb. It's not cheap, but it's better for your family to see the writing and the photos together in a place where they can't harm the actual prints.

It's also a much more fun way to experience family photos than flipping through binders or pawing through boxes and envelopes.

After your book is printed, preserve a copy in print and digital in case of fire or flood.

Step 5: Create

Now it's time to get back to your own story.

What Film Does that Digital Can't

Lesser photography doesn’t necessarily mean analogue photography, it just means finding ways to boost your creativity by recognizing the power of constraints, editing and storytelling.

For some photographers, that means choosing film over pixels. Why? There are still some things film does better, while remaining a constraint.

There are obvious technical differences that makes film a great choice for long exposures and easy panoramics, but more intriguing are the differences that affect more than can be measured.

Eric Kim recently wrote about why he switched over to film for his street photography projects (via Mike McKniff). He noticed that not focusing on individual images in a monitor helped him concentrate on the story he was trying to compose. He could also refuse to delete an image when asked, because it wasn’t possible. His camera doesn’t need to be upgraded every few years - in fact, it will last the rest of his life. But over all, he reports a sense of mindfulness that comes from the process of telling the story and developing the images by hand that seems missing from digital.

Mahesh Venkitachalam wrote about why he’s a better digital photographer, because of his slide film use (via Peter Wingard). Slide film is an unforgiving mental boot camp that forces you to consider everything you know about exposure and composition before every click of the shutter. You can’t hide the holes in your photography education when using slide film. It’s a learning process that can’t be taught any other way.

One more thing digital can’t do: be archived.

"Why I Print"

David duChemin seconds a sentiment I wrote about a little while ago:

“I encourage you, even if you never print at home, to print your work. The artist’s life is about creating and sharing, not creating and hoarding. The ability to see and experience the world, and express that experience through your work, is a gift; keep it moving.”

Pass Along Your Best Stories

Images corrupt and apps are unreliable. Your backups may not be backing up what you thought. Websites suffer neglect.

A few years after you die, your files may not even be readable, if someone even cares to look after them.

The truth is, there’s no such thing as an archival digital format. There’s nothing wrong with that necessarily for the photographer. The photographer’s enjoyment is in the moment.

Once a year, put your best images (stories) in a book. It’s not for you. It’s for anyone who enjoys a good story, even long after you’re gone.

Reshoot Your Archives

My best friend, Tom, had a house fire in the 90s that destroyed all of his photos and negatives (during his most prolific period as an enthusiastic young hobbyist). As a result, he developed an entirely different way of approaching archivism and we all could learn something from it.

Recently, I was talking about my own archives from that same period and how I was going to deal with scanning the thousands of negatives I had amassed. I wanted to create a digital archive I could easily back up to avoid the same destruction Tom faced.

Tom advised me to revisit the places in those negatives and produce something better than I had produced back then. Then, throw away the old negatives. He gave me a few hundred new projects in under 5 seconds and I couldn’t wait to get started.

Life is fleeting and you can’t take your archives with you. Chances are, no one will tend to them even a few years after you’re gone. The real value in photography is an appreciation of the present.