How to digitize film photos and more for perfect preservation.
Every year, learning how to digitize photos becomes more important. Magical as physical photos can be, they have significant drawbacks, not least of which are fading color and cosmetic damage as time passes. Digitizing saves these memories from degradation, preserving them for future use and making them easier to store, organize, and share with those most important to us.
Knowing how to digitize old photos properly ensures that your digital copies retain all the vital details of the physical originals without damaging them in the process. Here are the tools and practices you’ll need to digitize your pictures for posterity.
Read our guide, Everything You Need to Know to Digitize Photos, to learn the benefits of digitization, what kind of scanner you need, and how to use it.
There are three predominant options when it comes to scanning your photos for digitization, each with their own advantages and disadvantages:
The first is scanning with your smartphone using an app. The pros here are clear: It requires no special equipment, the apps themselves are generally cheap, and the process is quick for a photo or two. But as photo volume grows, phone scanning becomes much more tedious than other scanning methods. It also frequently lacks color accuracy and may lose detail due to glare or curling edges on the photo itself.
If you’ve got a small scanning job and already use Google’s cloud services, Google PhotoScan is a solid free option. It integrates directly with Google Photos, putting scans straight into the cloud for safe storage. Picture Scan App by Photomyne for Android (also known as Photo Scan App by Photomyne on iOS) charges a small subscription fee, but it can scan multiple photos at once for a slight speed increase and offers better color accuracy.
If you’re not interested in learning how to digitize a photo and have the cash to spare, you may opt to hire a company to digitize your pictures for you. These services offer high-quality scanning results with minimal input from the customer, and they can often digitize film negatives or slides that would otherwise require specialty equipment to process. But the convenience of putting someone else on the task can be undercut by having to mail your precious photos to their facility. Doing so introduces the risk of your photos being lost or damaged in transit. Digitization services can also take a while to process your photos, so they aren’t ideal if you’re in a hurry.
Scanning at home using a scanner of your own provides a middle ground between phone scanning and a digitization service. Modern scanning technology makes it fast and easy to convert large numbers of photographs into high-quality digital images. Doing it yourself means total control over the results and how they’re organized. It can also be cheaper and safer than sending potentially fragile photos away to a service.
Did You Know?:The ScanSnap SV600 uses built-in RESTORE software from Vivid-Pix to enhance faded images, restore color, and increase contrast. Click here to learn more.
The first step in producing great scans lies in perfecting your scanner settings. Regardless of whether you’re scanning color or grayscale photos, you should set your device to scan in color — 24-bit color if possible. That ensures maximum accuracy for your scans whether they’re in color or not, without adversely affecting grayscale images. (Note “black and white” photos are technically gray with many shades; whereas black and white in the digital world is only two shades, making it inappropriate for scanning photos.)
Scanning quality is measured in dots per inch (DPI), with higher DPI resulting in more detailed images. Make sure you scan in at least 300 DPI, with 600 DPI as an even better benchmark. If you push your DPI much higher than that, you may end up with files that take up too much space to store en masse — more on storage in just a bit.
Lastly, you’ll need to choose a file type for your scans. BMP files will produce the highest quality images, but they take up more digital storage space and can’t be uploaded directly to most social media sites. JPEG files can still retain impressive quality, but they require significantly less storage space and are one of the most widely used file types on the internet.
Before you scan your first photo, you’ll want to ensure your scanner’s glass is clean. A microfiber cloth is the best tool for this job, as paper towels and tissues can leave behind debris or scratch the glass, causing imperfections in future scans. If the glass gets smudged, you can lightly dampen your cloth and gently rub it on the smudge to remove it, but be sure to dry the glass completely before you scan again.
As you scan, aim to clean the scanning surface periodically.
If you’re scanning particularly old or worn photos, you may wonder, “How do you digitize photos without damaging them?” Luckily, the scanning itself is harmless for photos. The danger lies in how they’re handled. You can wear cotton gloves to prevent the oils from your fingers damaging the photo over time, and carrier sheets can protect it as it passes through the scanner.
Scanning photos larger than the standard A4 page size is possible at home, but the process can be difficult and tedious. It requires using a flatbed scanner to scan individual pieces of the photo, then stitching them together with editing software. In such cases, it may yield better results to enlist the help of scanning professionals. Similarly, scanning objects much thicker than a piece of paper — a glass photo plate, for example — would likely be better left to professionals.
When you scan your first photo, take the opportunity to lock in your settings. It may be worth a test or two to ensure the digital image is to your liking. You should also establish naming conventions for the files and make sure they’re being stored in your preferred location.
Automatic document feeders (ADF) can intake a stack of photos and scan them in quick succession. If you’re using a flatbed scanner, you can scan multiple images at once, but you’ll need to crop them into individual photos later. This and all other editing — including red-eye reduction, image brightening, and other cropping tasks — should be left until after you’ve finished scanning.
Did You Know?:There is more than one approach to photo digitization. Read our guide to learn more about the process.
The most obvious place to store digital photos would be on a hard drive, either the one already in your computer or an external drive that may offer more storage space. Compared to local storage, cloud storage allows for instant access by any number of pre-approved users from anywhere with an internet connection, making it easy to share photos. Photos in the cloud are almost completely insulated from tampering or damage, as cloud companies must meet strict standards of security and service integrity. Storage space in the cloud is also relatively cheap and storage space scales easily with your needs as you add more photos.
Google Photos is one of the most popular cloud storage solutions, with good reason. It sports a familiar, intuitive interface and a deep feature set, including automatic and manual tags for people’s faces, objects, and locations in uploaded photos. That makes it much easier to find the picture you’re looking for with a simple search. Users can store up to 15GB of digital photos for free or pay for more space starting at $19.99 per year for 100GB.
Microsoft OneDrive lacks some of the photo-specific features of Google’s offering, but it still supports tagging, photo search, and album creation. Storage starts at $1.99 per month for 100GB, but the value really unlocks when OneDrive is purchased as part of the Microsoft 365 Personal package, which includes core Microsoft 365 applications such as Word and Excel, plus 1TB of storage for $69.99 a year.
We know you have no shortage of options when it comes to choosing a photo scanner. We pride ourselves on having spent the last 50+ years designing and developing some of the most beloved electronics in the world, including our line of award-winning, easy-to-use, one-touch ScanSnap scanners.
The ScanSnap iX1600 leads the ScanSnap line for its speed and ease of use. Not only does it include a 50-page ADF and a simple touch-screen interface, but it also integrates with the ScanSnap Cloud app to send your photos directly to Google Cloud, Dropbox, OneDrive, or any of several other leading cloud storage providers. Click here to learn more and shop the full line of ScanSnap scanners.