Job #1 for Your New Camera: Set the Date

The high school graduation I’m about to show you took place on May 26, 2001:

High school graduation, May 2001

High school graduation, May 2001

But you wouldn’t know it from the date on this photograph taken by my grandfather. That printed date is “12-26-1997”:

Date printed on back of photo: Dec. 26, 1997

Date printed on back of the above photo: Dec. 26, 1997

And yes, I’m absolutely positive that event took place  2001. I was there. That’s me, giving the speech. I have a diploma, yearbook, diary entries, and news clippings—not to mention dozens of other photographs—that prove the date was in fact May 26, 2001.

So what gives?  It can’t be the date that the film was processed, because then wouldn’t that date be May 26, 2001, or later? Not 4 years earlier. Unless my grandpa had a time machine nobody knew about. (Wouldn’t that be a fun thing to see in a will? And to my granddaughter, I leave my time machine… But I digress…)

So the date printed on the back of the photograph must be the internal date that was set on the camera. This was a film camera, but it was one of those Kodak Advantix models, with the weird film canisters—

Kodak Advantix film canister

Kodak Advantix film canister — yes, after processing it’s still in its little canister. As an archivist, I’m like, “Oh great, how the crap am I supposed to store this?” Let alone use the negatives. But that’s a different issue from today’s post.)

—and the weird-sized prints and, apparently, the ability to print the “actual” date that the photo was taken on the back of the prints (and on the index print), not just the date of processing.

That is completely commonplace now, to have the actual photo date printed on the backs of your pictures, because today we all mostly use digital photography, and the date is embedded in the image file’s metadata already, so it’s easy for the computers processing your digital photos to print that info on the back. I’m not sure how the Advantix process worked, but it seems like printing the actual date-taken would have been a relatively sophisticated thing for a film-based system to actually accomplish.

Anyhow… Back to the point, though:   Printing the actual photo date-taken on the back of the prints is all well and good, FANTASTIC EVEN…but only if that date is actually CORRECT.

As an archivist, I almost think I would rather have NO DATE AT ALL on the backs of photographs, than to have a date that is completely wrong. Granted, I suppose having that date there lets me know that this photo was taken no earlier than the date printed on the back, because that’s got to be either the processing date, the date taken, or (in this case) a date that is sometime after the manufacturing date of the camera.

But which is it?

If I didn’t know that photograph was taken in 2001 (because I was there)… If I didn’t recognize the family members (and their approximate ages—especially my younger cousins) in the other photographs shown on the index print (or if you’re lucky, contained in the envelope – but these were all just loose)… If I was completely oblivious to who any of these people were…so, if I were just looking at this pile of photographs like most archivists would do with the masses of piles of photo prints that people seem to have from the 1980s to present…

I might have just slapped them into a folder for 1997 and called it a day, thinking that must be either the processing date or date-taken. But that would have been inaccurate. I know these things happen, but it’s hard to ignore dates printed on photos, even when you KNOW from experience that they can be inaccurate for a variety of reasons (wrong camera date, later reprints from an earlier negative, etc.)

So, here’s my charge to you, and by you, I mean everyone in the world who owns any kind of a camera or anything with a camera in it (cell phone?):

Job #1 when you get that equipment out of the box is to figure out where the thing keeps its time and date settings, and make sure they are set correctly. (If you can’t power the thing up until you insert a charged battery, then charging the battery up may be Job #1….But then this date thing is Job #2!)  Not taking a picture of your dog, your cat, your baby (unless your baby is being born like RIGHT THEN, in that case I give you a pass- but that just means you’ll need to diligently correct all the dates later!), your spouse, your plants, or whatever else is around that you are itching to snap that first photo of. Take the extra 2 minutes and figure out how to set the correct date and time on the camera, and actually do it.

And while you’re looking at the manual (if you’re looking at the manual), see if it mentions whether you will need to re-set the date when you replace the batteries. Digital cameras today don’t seem to have that problem; they must have a little ROM chip or something; but I think this may have been the case with some film cameras (like this one my Grandpa had). So just take a few seconds and double-check that.

And while we’re on the subject of dates: I don’t recommend letting the camera print the date on the corner (especially if it’s not correct, oh god! but you’re going to be good and set the date so you won’t have that problem, right?). As someone who loves photos, I think it ruins the picture a bit. I used to love this back when I had a regular film camera, because the date didn’t print on the back; printing it on the front was the only way to have it printed on your picture. But there’s no excuse for that now, since like I said the date-taken is in the digital photo metadata and usually is printed on the back automatically by various photo printing companies (e.g., Shutterfly does this, I know).

Okay, enough scolding. But please, please, set the date on your camera as soon as you get it out of the box. I know it’s an exciting time, and your first thought is probably not the boring task of setting the date but instead to start snapping pictures. But trust me, if you take that extra 2 minutes immediately to set the date and time, you will thank me later. And so will your children, your grandchildren, and your friendly neighborhood archivist.

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