Good family history requires documentation

An entire wall at the Columbia River Gorge Interpretive Center Museum near Stevenson, Washington, features family photos of residents of the area. The grand building on the Columbia River is filled with historical information about the residents through time.

Why include family photos along side artifacts of the area’s Native Americans, historical images of Mount St. Helens, interesting tidbits about the Oregon Trail and facts about the historic visit by explorers Lewis and Clark?

Because “regular” people are part of the fabric of history, too.

labeled family photo

I fell in love with this image of the Bevans-Moore family from 1936. Why? I appreciated the symmetry of the composition, I suppose, with the kids and grandkids surrounding the matriarch. But I really loved the smiles. Sometimes historic photos lack personality, but this one has tons. After reading about the sorrows on the Oregon Trail and the calamity of Mount St. Helens’ eruption in 1980 (compelling, sure, but not exactly uplifting), the Bevans and Moores made me smile. It reminded me of why people live in Stevenson, Washington.

What can the “regular” family historian learn from this photo?

Labeling matters.

If it had not been labeled with name, date and location, it probably would not have been added to the interpretive center’s collection.

So if you aspire to add a photograph of your family to the local historical society’s archives, take the time to label your photos with basic information.

How? First of all, if it’s a digital image, print it out. Someone might display your digital image in some high-tech museum, but I wouldn’t count on it. Use a No. 2 pencil or photo-safe pencil on the back (so you don’t indent the photo), or write the details in the margin on the front with a photo-safe pen. Or preserve the photo in a photo sleeve, and write the details on the sleeve.

Now, someday when a museum curator runs across your photo, your family can be a part of documented history, too.


It’s free, it’s fun, it’s filtered!

Today I’m thankful for photo filters. A smartphone with a photo filter app makes me look like an amazing photographer.

My latest obsession: Prisma.

This app, available for FREE! (another thing to be thankful for) on both Droid and Apple phones, transforms your photos into works of art using styles of famous artists. Here’s a look.

First, the original image, unfiltered.


My husband bought me an autumn bouquet of flowers at Costco (because he’s thoughtful and cost conscious like that). Honestly, it’s beautiful in all its naked glory. But check it out when it’s filtered with Prisma:








Illegal Beauty


Thota Vaikuntam

The Prisma filter automatically converts your photo to a square and gives you the option to upload directly to Facebook and Instagram. Or you can email the image to yourself in a variety of sizes. If you want to get really clever, you can split the image to see the before and after together — half and half in one image.

I can imagine creating some very cool personal images to use on gifts for the holidays — cups, mousepads, framed images and the like.

I love it so much, I used Prisma’s Mosaic app (my favorite, I must confess) to create a new profile image for me on Facebook:


Happy Thanksgiving from me to you!

No. 1 rule for taking better landscape photos

Real fans of landscape photography probably own several types of lenses and pairs of good hiking boots. They already know how to take good landscape photos.

The rest of us tend to take pictures of what we see outside our car window.

Which is why, when I’m winnowing a lifetime of photos for someone, I usually put a lot of landscape photography in the C pile–the trash Can. Most of it is just bad.

So the best tip I can offer you for taking better landscape photos on your next vacation or visit to the county park is this:

Don’t be lazy!

Walk around. Squat to get close. Climb to get a better view. Try a perspective that’s different than the one that’s easiest to get to. Get up early or skip happy hour (sunrise and sunset are great times for landscape photos). Move a little, and you’ll find better shots.

Here are a couple personal examples.



Note the power lines. And the fence. And the lack of any sort of anchor. The clouds passing over the dunes are beautiful. But this photo is not.



This image required me to scramble over two, yes two!, berms. I also had to get up early enough to catch the sun in some position other than overhead; my positioning tells the story of a blindingly bright day in the desert.

I know I can do better so I will continue trying. I know I will be rewarded for s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g a little out of my comfort zone, and I bet you will, too.

How many photos of one lifetime does one person need? The answer is 17

Have I mentioned how the most powerful letter in the ABCs of photo organization is C?

C stands for trash can.

And boy, I haven’t seen an unorganized photo collection that couldn’t use a trash can. Fully 50% of any unedited collection can be thrown away without substantive injury to the meaning of what’s left.

A lot of people lament how kids nowadays have no regard for printed images. They take a thousand photos with their phones, post pictures on the fleeting News Feed of Facebook and send images to friends that last 10-seconds (or less) on Snapchat. (Haven’t heard of Snapchat? Get thee a friend who’s 20-something to show you, and then you’ll understand why most of the pictures you share that way last only 10 seconds. Let’s just say, Snapchat is not exactly about quality.) In any case, the popular meme going around is that the Most Photographed Generation will have no photos in 10 years.

Well, baloney.

Sure, the Most Photographed Generation probably won’t have as many photos as those of us who grew up in the film age (when we printed every photo because we couldn’t see it until it was developed, and then we got double prints because they were FREE!), but kids today will certainly have as many photos as my grandparents did back in the time before Polaroid cameras and ubiquitous corner drugstores. Really — how many photos does one person need in one lifetime?

To be fair, I don’t play favorites with the ABCs, because I love S, too — S is for stories, remember. And the photos that should be printed and later saved from the trash can are the ones that tell a story — stories of new babies and baptisms and birthdays. Stories of love and life and loss. But most of the photos we take nowadays are junk to begin with — “great day for golf,” “look at what I’m eating!” and “ooh, look at how scary the sky looks right now.” And even worse are those duplicates we take ourselves — “one more just in case” and “let me turn off the flash” and “let’s get a horizontal one” and “wait, I want to show off my good side.” These photos don’t tell any stories. They’re just more data, dragging us down and making us feel guilty.

Is it the end of the world if we lose our digital camera or Facebook goes bankrupt or a thumb drive becomes corrupt and we lose every single picture we ever took of Junior shoving birthday cake in his face when he turned 1?

No. It’s not the end of the world. In fact, I might argue the world is a better place (I hate those messy cake shots).

To be clear, every kid deserves to have one album all about them. And by “album” I mean “printed album” (or at least a scrapbook of printed photos). But a quickie album printed with Walgreen’s or Shutterfly (or any one of a hundred other photo book companies) is still a print. And honestly, no kid going off to college takes 18 years worth of photo albums with them, no matter how good the quality and no matter how much love with which they were created.

So back to the question: How many photos does one person need in one lifetime? I maintain the answer is somewhere between 17 and 1,000. Someone might want 10,000 or 100,000 photos (though I don’t know why), but they certainly don’t need 10,000 photos to tell a great story of a well-lived life.

Why 17? Remember when Facebook turned 10 years old back in early 2014 and everyone circulated those one-minute look-back montages of their most-liked posts? Well, those very succinct (but effective) videos had about 17 images.

If you’re someone who doesn’t have even 17 printed photos stashed somewhere (or the parent of someone like that), there’s your goal: Print at least 17. Get them into an album that tells a story. It may not be everything (who are we kidding — it won’t be everything), but it would be the most important bits and pieces of one person’s life, and that’s a lot better than nothing. And certainly better than 10,000 or 100,000 unprinted images plugging up a hard drive, drifting out there in cyberspace without any story or structure.

Just 17. You can do it.

Find a theme for wall art

For someone who works with photos all day, I’m not much for family photos on my walls.

Sure, we have a few family photos, but in general, I don’t like posed, smiling mugshots decorating my personal spaces. Still, I think wall decor should be personal in some way, and family photographs fit the bill. So I like unique images — the artsy, fartsy kind — in my interior design.

This, of course, requires that I take artsy, fartsy photos.

I’m not so good at this.

In general, I’d say I am a rather poor photographer. I’m going to blame my equipment. Most of the time, all I use is my iPhone.

My trick, then, is to use interesting composition to achieve the artsy, fartsy look for which I’m looking.

I’m creating a grouping of wall photos where all the images are cropped square. Here are a few that I chose with that interesting composition I’m talking about.

Photograph shadow (bonus: sand art!):

blog sand

Shoot through:

blog chloe

Or shoot from behind:

blog swamp

How do you take interesting family photos?

Introducing a new photo kit that allows you to store, preserve your 50 best shots

No matter how large your collection of photos, a few of them rise to the top in terms of meaning and value.

I’m super excited to announce I’ve teamed up with a professional organizer to introduce a product to store and preserve those important images compactly and safely. It’s the Simplesizing® Photo Kit …


… and it offers a home for 30 to 50 traditional or digital photographs as close as your nearest file drawer.

The kit includes photo-safe materials and file folders, plus instructions for choosing the best photos from a collection and assembling them in the kit.

The idea for the Simplesizing Photo Kit originally came from Jane Carroo, owner of Clutter Coach Company, a professional organizing service in Inverness, Ill.

“I’ve worked with so many clients overwhelmed with their stuff and in many cases, looking for ways to downsize,” said Jane, a Certified Professional Organizer® and Certified Relocation Transition Specialist®. “While I love the concept of photo albums and scrapbooks, they’re not for everyone. I thought it was a shame to leave those most important photos in a box where they couldn’t be enjoyed. The Simplesizing Photo Kit stores those best photos in a way that requires less than a half-inch in a file drawer.”

Carroo enlisted my help. My background in memory preservation over the years led to the Simplesizing Photo Kit which preserves traditional photographic images in a safe way for the long-term.


Acid-containing materials, light and dust spell doom for photos, so choosing a method of storage that avoids those things will contribute to longevity of your images. The Simplesizing Photo Kit is dynamic enough to preserve both traditional photos and digital images.

Jane and I are planning to offer webinars with creative ideas for using the Simplesizing Photo Kit. I’ll keep you posted.

To learn more or purchase the Simplesizing Photo Kit, visit The Simplesizing Photo Kit is $19.97, including shipping. Cool, huh? The concept is simple enough that you can do this yourself, but if you need help sorting through your collection of photos? I can help with that, too.

Capture fall with your cell phone


Autumn is full of colorful photo-taking opportunities — red leaves, orange pumpkins, yellow fields of wheat. Opportunities abound to capture a moment. The easiest way? With your cell phone.

The most popular post ever to appear on Clickago Storywerks blog shares tips for capturing those moments in selfies (selfie (noun): a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website). When I wrote it a couple of years ago, I offered tips for appreciating summer’s beauty, but they work just as well for autumn. Enjoy!

Tips for taking better arm’s length photos with your cell phone

Spontaneity is a hallmark of summer. Especially in Chicagoland. We are out, about, moving fast and soaking up the sun while we can. The season has only 91 days or, if you’re counting from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day, you get 101 days this year. In any case, time is short, and a lot is happening.

Spontaneous photo opportunities abound, and wouldn’t you know it? I don’t have my camera.

But I have my cell phone, and the iPhone 4’s 5 megapixel camera takes fab pictures (the iPhone 4S is even better at 8 megapixel).

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