Shoeboxes of old photos may hold your family’s history and memories, but they’re difficult to preserve, share, organize, and back up. One way to solve all these problems is to scan your old photos. When you turn print photos into digital files, you have them right at hand when you need them. The next time you need make a collage of images for a milestone birthday or a funeral, you’ll be able to find and print your best photos in minutes.
If you’re ready to scan your photos, you have two options: You can do it yourself or hire a company to do it for you. Paying a photo scanning service will give you professional results and save you a lot of time. It can get expensive, however, and there’s some risk in dropping a box of original photos in the mail and crossing your fingers. Scanning your photos at home by yourself takes time, effort, and patience. The best way to approach the task is to break it down into component steps. Below, I’ll share several photo-scanning tricks that should make the process easier if you decide to do it yourself.
Photo Scanning Services
Photo scanning services take all the work out of digitizing your photos. These services usually send you shipping materials for packing up your photos and negatives. You drop the full package in the mail and wait for the company to turn your pictures into digital images. When the process is finished, you get a batch of digital files on a DVD or in online galleries, as well as the physical photos returned to you.
Depending on how many photos you have, these services can take months. You can expect to pay around 40 to 60 cents per image. Some scanning services, such as GoPhoto and ScanCafe, specialize in digitally repairing images that have been damaged, making them a great option for some of your oldest photos. Even if you plan to scan your photos yourself, you can always send the toughest jobs along to a professional to see if they can give you better results. If you just want the cheapest option, check out ScanMyPhotos, which starts at just 1 cent per image.
How to Scan Your Photos at Home
Digitizing photos isn’t a terribly complicated process, but it is time-consuming. The more you do it, however, the better and faster you’ll get. It can also save you money, provided you own a flatbed scanner.
Equipment for Scanning Photos at Home
Do you have a scanner? Multifunction printers typically have one on top. If you’re not highly familiar with all the electronics in your home, you may already have one without realizing it.
If you don’t already own a scanner, you can buy a scanner specifically for photos for less than $100. The Canon CanoScan LiDE 120 Color Image Scanner and Epson Perfection V39 are two great options in that price range.
All the equipment you need comes down to three items, plus two optional ones:
- Flatbed scanner.
- A clean microfiber cloth, like the kind that comes with eyeglasses, or a handkerchief.
- The software that came with your scanner.
- Optional: Compressed air.
- Optional: Photo editing software.
Now let’s get into the steps and tips for how to scan photos.
Break Down the Project
Take inventory of the photos you want to scan. If you have more than a few dozen, divide your project into sessions. Decide which photos you want scanned first and then separate the photos into piles or boxes that you’ll work through.
Use a Scanner, Not Your Smartphone
Using a smartphone to scan photos is fine if you’re looking to do little more than share a few pictures via a messaging app or on social media. For the best results, however, you really need a scanner. A scanner will help you get the best quality photos that you can save for life and use for a variety of projects.
M. David Stone, author of The Underground Guide to Color Printers, recommends investing in a scanner that comes with Digital image correction and enhancement (Digital ICE) in its software. Digital ICE removes dust, scratches, and creases from scanned images. It’s particularly beneficial for color images, according to Stone.
He adds, “Even many scanners that don’t have Digital ICE have color restore and other features in the driver for improving scan quality. Look for these features in the driver.”
Clean the Scanner Bed
The key to getting high-quality photo scans is to get the best scan the first time around. Sure, you can touch up your images in an editing program afterward, but that requires additional time and effort. To get the best scan, your scanner glass must be clean and dry.
Wipe off your scanner bed with a clean, dry cloth. A microfiber cloth works best, but a clean, dry handkerchief will do. Do not use paper towel or tissue; those leave debris behind and may even scratch the surface.
If the glass on your scanner has smudges, try rubbing it off with the dry cloth. If that doesn’t work, dampen a small piece of the cloth and try cleaning only the glass again. Let it dry completely before putting anything on it.
Once you start scanning images, wipe the scanner every so often with a dry cloth to keep it free of dust and other particles.
Dust Off Your Photos
Just as your scanner bed must be clean and free of dust to get the best scan possible, your photos must be clean, too. Use compressed air to blow any dust off your photos. Do not use paper towels or tissues, and never use water or cleaning fluids on your photos.
Don’t Flatten Creases
If your photos have physical creases, do not try to iron them out, as it only causes more damage. Gently lay the image flat and scan it as best as you can. You can edit out creases later, or send the photos to a service that can do it for you.
Ready to scan? You can scan one image at a time, but a time-saving tip is to lay down multiple images with about a quarter inch of space separating them on all sides. You’ll crop them later into individual files.
In my experience, the first time you scan a batch of photos takes the longest, because you’re figuring out the best settings and software tools at your disposal. It took me almost an hour to scan a batch of eight pictures and get them all right. Don’t worry; once you get into a rhythm, it should go much more quickly.
Keep Technical Notes
The hardest part of scanning photos at home is mastering the software that came with your scanner. That software varies depending on the kind of equipment you have as well as which operating system your computer is running. Remember the first time you scan in photos will be the worst, slowest experience, and that it will get better.
As you figure out what works best for you and your equipment, take notes. That way, if you wait months before scanning another batch of photos, you have notes to help you get good results again without as much trial and error.
Scan in Color
With very few exceptions, scan your photos in color. Sepia photos need the full color setting enabled on your scanning program. Black and white images are fine with the color setting, too, unless they have been damaged by ink or tape marks or something else topical. In those instances, using grayscale may actually make it easier to edit the images and remove the marks later.
Tips for Resolution and File Format
The resolution and file format you choose will depend on what you plan to do with the photos. If you’re not sure, go higher rather than lower. My advice is fairly rudimentary, but I also asked Stone for more technical advice.
Scanning at 600dpi to TIFF is ideal for creating archives. You can save disk space by scaling down to 300dpi, and your images will still look sharp, but it might not be sufficient if you intend to enlarge them later, say to make a photo wall calendar or print them on a large canvas.
If all you’re doing with the photos is sharing them online, scan them as you would any other image at high quality and then export them to 200dpi JPGs. That way, you have an optimal version in case you later decide to do something else with the pictures.
Here’s the more technical answer that Stone had to share:
“The resolution you need depends on what you plan to do with the images once they’re digitized. The controlling factor is pixels per inch (ppi) in the image at the size you plan to display it or print it. For an electronic display, such as a computer screen or projector, you get the best quality with a one-to-one correspondence between the pixels in the image and pixels in the display. If you’re going to show it full-screen on an SVGA (800 by 600) display, the best resolution for the image is 800 by 600 pixels.”
Stone says the best approach is to work backward. “Start with the image size you need, in pixels, consider how you’ll have to crop the original to fit in the right aspect ratio, measure the size of the cropped image, and then compute the resolution you need.”
What about pictures that you plan to send to a photo printing service? “For printing, you have to go through a similar process, but in this case the resolution you want is 300ppi, regardless of the printer’s dpi. Anything higher than 300ppi is simply wasted disk space. Again, think in terms of the final size of the image. If you’re going to scan 4-by-6-inch pictures to print at 4 by 6 without cropping, 300ppi scans are all you need. If you’re going to print them at 8 by 10, or crop out part of the picture, you need higher resolution. You have to do the math to figure out what that is.”
For simply digitizing to keep an archive, scan at the highest optical resolution the scanner offers, Stone says. “That’s optical resolution, not mechanical and not interpolated. Stay away from interpolated resolutions for photos. When you’re ready to use them, you can use an image editor to resample the image to a lower resolution. Don’t use the original high-resolution image, and let the printer or display decide which pixels to throw out.”
Crop and Straighten
If you do no other editing with your photos, crop and straighten them. Cropping and straightening fixes a majority of problems with photos you’ve manually scanned.
Edit for Color, Red Eye, Creases
Other typical editing includes adjusting the color, removing red eye, and digitally removing creases. To make those corrections, you need photo editing software, such as Photoshop.
PCs, Macs, and even Ubuntu computers include free image editing apps, and those are fine if you’re not planning to learn Photoshop or don’t want to pay for Elements or PaintShop. They have quick-edit buttons for correcting red eye or blurring minor flaws in the images.
Editing out creases on photos takes some skill. If you know your way around Photoshop, try the content-aware Fill, Patch, Clone, and the Spot Healing Brush tools. Adobe’s Bryan Hughes has posted a helpful photo restoration video on the process. Otherwise, get help from a friend or a photo scanning service.
Keep Your Memories Safe
Digitized photos have several advantages over physical photos: You can reorganize them, back them up, create multiple copies, and share them ease. You can also print new copies of them at different sizes. If you plan on printing a lot, consider buying your own photo printer, which can cost less than $100.
For more tips, PCMag camera analyst Jim Fisher has advice on how to preserve your photos, including how to create an archive of your files.