The Photo Restoration Center has a friendly tip to share with the Instagram generation:

Playing with filters on your camera phone is a fun game, but occasionally you should turn off your filters. In the future, you’ll want something real to look back on. 

Now more than ever, taking photos is an inexpensive and amusing pastime. In a few seconds on the bus, you can take a hundred selfies. You can click on a filter and pump up your lips, make your skin glitter, your lashes flutter, or enlarge your eyes to cartoon size. Why not stick on a pair of shades, or make lightning bolts fly from your hair? Shower love hearts over your head! It’s endless fun, but is it actually ‘photography’?

In fact, manipulating images is nothing new. Since the early days of photography, it has been a creatively playful medium. The difference is that our ancestors had to put a lot more effort into their photographic pranks, so for them, this was not a casual boredom-buster. They used it for a variety of reasons, including political and humorous expression, or to create memento mori. Examples can be seen here.

Fakes in your Family Albums

Unless you are very lucky, you won’t have any novelty images of your ancestors. Tinkering with photographs was not always something you could do at the  touch of a button. Editing negatives and prints in a dark room was expensive and time-consuming. But that’s not to say you won’t find any trickery at all. You might find a family portrait with a crudely positioned cut and paste ‘ghost’ of a relative, someone who passed away before the group made it to the photographic studio.

Don’t make too many assumptions about your ancestors based on the clothes they are wearing either, or the props they pose with. Families would go for photographs dressed in best, and frequently borrowed fancy outfits from the studio, stood with elegant furniture they didn’t own, or held books they’d never read. It’s worth looking closely at old images. Does that smart coat seem too wide in the shoulders, or too long in the sleeves?

Despite these tricks of the trade, on the whole, old family photographs do have true stories to tell. If Great Aunt Emily has a beauty spot on her cheek, it’s highly likely she really did have a beauty spot on her cheek. If Great Grandad has a moustache, it’s also pretty likely that he grew it himself.

Preserving Personal Histories

If you are someone who always uses filters on your phone, you might argue that photography has always used elements of cover-up, and this is no different. In a way, you are right, but ask yourself how you would feel if your family album was full of disguises. What sentimental value would it have if your ancestors actually hid their features, their real eyes, their lips, their skin, and their hair? You’d probably lose some of the connection you feel with your family’s history. Did your grandmother look like you as a young woman? How would you know that if she had used a filter?

Photos with filters are much less personal. They may interest a social historian one day, but they will be less meaningful to the future you, and to your children, grandchildren and other family members, anyone who takes an interest in your life. 

Selecting Photographs to Preserve

Have a look at your own photographs. You probably have thousands of them from the past twelve months alone, so just select a few favorites. Consider what meaning these photos will have for your descendants, or for you when you are much older. 

Are the photos that matter to you the ones with filters, or are they the ones that truthfully capture loved ones and special moments?  

But Filters Make Me Look Good!

You may like the way you look with filters, and having fun with them is not a problem. But your real past is worth preserving too. If you only take photos with filters, you can’t remove them later. So however much you like using glamorous filters, on a special occasion, when you are with someone you want to remember or doing something special, grit your teeth and turn the filters off.

How to Look Good in Photos Without Filters

There are lots of photography techniques you can learn that will be flattering for your features and don’t involve masking your face. 

You’ll feel better about your own unfiltered image if you learn to appreciate how much beauty there is in diversity. Try putting away the fashion blogs and step away from your peers’ posts on social media. Instead, look at how professional portrait photographers create stunning images of people of all ages and races, with different body types, and with all kinds of so-called ‘imperfections’. Light and shadow are two of the tools that a good photographer can use to enhance a subject’s appearance, tell a personal story, and reflect a mood. 

You can learn how to use light and shadow to take better snapshots, or you can ask a professional to photograph you and your family. However great your selfie-skills, photographs taken from a distance further than an arm’s reach are also nice to have.

Your future self will thank you for capturing real memories to look back on. If you want to get dressed up like your ancestors did, that’s fine!

Forever Files

Whether you use filters or not, our relationship to photography has changed completely in just one or two generations. We take so many digital photographs now that our vast galleries have become problematic. When did you last find time to go through three hundred pictures you took of the same thing, deleting all but the best shot?

‘Why the Rush?’ you might wonder. If images are digital, you don’t expect them to fade or deteriorate as prints or negatives would. You’ll have years to sort them all out, and later you can weed out the thousands of silly filters, right?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. If you have a lot of images stored on hard drives, cameras, phones, or old computers, you need to be aware of bit rot. Hardware actually does deteriorate, losing data over time. Moreover, your equipment can very quickly become defunct, and certain file types can become unreadable.

Uploading photographs to The Cloud is a more secure way to store digital images, because several copies of your data will be created. But don’t rely on forever keeping hold of photographs you’ve posted to a file storage site or social media. Even the most famous websites could easily come and go within a generation. 

Make Prints of your Best Photographs

In the end, you may not want to entrust the safe keeping of your most precious photographs to a computer. Stored properly, good old-fashioned prints held safely in an album, is actually one of the safest ways to look after your best images. Keeping your favorite photographs protected like this will ensure you have something meaningful to look back on in the future, and you’ll have memories to share with your children and grandchildren. 

The other special thing about prints is that years from now, regardless of how technology develops, your grandchildren (insert your granny/gramps selfie filters here), will be able to share your photographs with their grandchildren, and they’ll be able to do that without sitting round a screen. 

Wouldn’t it be a shame to deny our future families the chance to come together and look back on their ancestral stories, the way we do with our black and white family albums? So remember, #nofilter for the future. Give your descendants the chance to hold up a print and laugh, “I recognize that smile,” or, “Now I know where I got my nose!”