Hit the Books with Dan Milnor: Preserving & Documenting Through Photography

What’s the secret to capturing a photograph that takes you back to a moment in time? How can a single image capture not only sights, but also the sounds, smells, and feelings of a place? We asked photographer Daniel Milnor for his tips on preserving and documenting moments through photography.

1. What’s the best way to capture memorable moments?

Truly capturing moments requires a certain skill level with photography that may take you a while to achieve. This is normal, natural, and to be expected. Documenting real life takes practice. Great photography is rare, regardless of advances in technology, so developing your technique is important. Learning to anticipate, learning to see the light, and getting comfortable with your equipment.

2. Talking of equipment, what camera should I buy?

I always give the same answer. Buy the camera that’s small enough for you to carry all day, every day, regardless of where you are or what you’re doing. I have a camera with me at all times. It’s a real camera too, not a mobile phone.

3. What do you think about only using mobile to capture memorable moments?

Most people seem to be totally happy doing just this, but for me I need and want much more than what I can do with a phone. Mobile images tend to work well for posted, static, somewhat generic imagery. The beauty of the phone? The size and the fact that it’s in-hand for most of humanity at this point. But, if you really want be a visual historian of memorable moments, my advice is to get something you can put to your eye. Something you bond with. Something that allows for a far wider range of image, and the development of your style. Mobile phone photography is ubiquitous and it’s nearly impossible to tell who did what when looking at it.

4. Are there certain ingredients you watch for when looking for moments?

In essence, we’re talking about the building blocks of successful photography. Light, timing, and composition. In that order, and that order of importance. Great light is essential, especially if you’re able to control timing, locations, etc. Timing is what REAL moments are about. Here one second, then gone forever. Composition, well, that’s where your practice comes in. Your composition, how you see and dissect the world is native to you, and you must practice to find it. There are many “rules” to composition, but in my mind, they’re guidelines and are all subject to being broken.

5. Which photographers are known for capturing real-life moments?

Well, there have been many, but most notably we can talk about Henri Cartier Bresson, who coined the phrase “the decisive moment.” This idea applies to moments both large and small. If you’re a war photographer, like the folks at Magnum or VII, it could be something historical and world-changing. But it also applies to you and me photographing kids, grandchildren, family events, etc. Looking for real moments, and attempting to capture them, is addictive and highly rewarding.

6. Let’s talk about preservation. Why is it so important?

I know we live in a world that’s obsessed with the now, but preserving your moments is about legacy, history, family, and memory. Photographs are evidence of life, of truth and of details, things the brain isn’t necessarily designed to record in quite the same way.

7. Are there steps I can take to help with preserving my photographs?

Yes. First and foremost, develop a system and stick with it, so that each and every time you return with new images you’re not wondering what to do with them, how you’re going to label them, and where to store them. Develop your plan and follow it as precisely as you can.

8. Film was so easy to preserve, but what about the digital files of today?

Good point. With film you could throw your negatives in a shoe-box and 75 years later they were still there. Digital photography is entirely different. For those of you already uttering “Just back it up to the cloud,” this still isn’t a practical solution for lots of people.

Just think about this. Every time your finger hits the shutter, and you create a digital photograph, you’re now on the hook to preserve that image for the entirety of your life. That’s what we’re talking about here, right? So, if that image ends up on your hard drive, at some point that drive will need to be replaced, which means you must migrate that data to another location. No big deal, right? Hard drives are cheap. Okay, now let’s say you have 20TB of data, or 30TB, or 40TB, or more? Yours truly has somewhere between 40-50TB, and that’s just my digital work. Even getting this amount of data on the cloud is difficult, time consuming, and far too costly. And what happens when the cloud service you’re using goes away? This happened to me and I lost my online access to 30,000 images. (I still have them all in my archive…PHEW.)

What I’m getting at is that preserving digital photographs is a real commitment.

9. What do you recommend as a good place to start?

Not to get too technical, but I’m a fan of buying removable hard drive systems, with at least four bays. I have one main drive then back up each shoot to the three remaining drives. Two of these remaining three drives stay on property, while the fourth drive is kept in a secure, offsite location. I also think using a cloud service to archive ONLY your selects, or edits, is a smart idea if you can afford it and have the bandwidth for uploading RAW files.

10. Are there any other ways to preserve?

Prints and photo books are a great way to preserve your images. Many printers today use archival ink, and plenty of papers offer archival qualities. I have an inkjet print in my office that gets hit with direct sun every day, and after 20 years it looks brand new. I’m a huge fan of print, and the benefits that come with printing your work. Plus, having yet another copy of your best image is great, added protection.

Memorable moments caught on camera make beautiful photo books. Start yours today.


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