What Are Digital Photos?

From digitizing definitions to best practices.

If you’ve amassed a horde of physical photographs, you may be wondering how best to store, share, and protect your treasure trove of memories. Digitizing your photos is the simple answer, but the process behind it is a bit more complicated. Thankfully, with modern technology, you can preserve those irreplaceable moments in time by turning them into digital files. But what are digital photos, exactly? Here’s everything you need to know about the process.

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.

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What are digital photos?

Digital photos are computer files made up of picture elements (better known as pixels). You can see these pixels on digital photos if you zoom in close enough; they look like little squares. Computers use a standard system called 24-bit RGB to tell each pixel in an image what color it should be. The pixel is assigned a value from one to 256 for red, green, and blue, producing one of around 16 million possible colors — virtually the limit of what the human eye can perceive. Those pixels are then arranged in such a way as to form the complete image. Think of it like ultra-exact pointillism.

Dimensions for digital photos are measured in pixels rather than traditional metrics such as inches or meters. For example, a digital photo might be 1920x1080, meaning it is 1,920 pixels wide and 1,080 pixels tall. Those dimensions are closely tied to resolution, which measures the total number of pixels. It’s usually expressed in megapixels, each of which is worth 1 million pixels. The more megapixels an image has, the higher its resolution, and the more you can increase its dimensions or zoom in before noticing individual pixels and blurring details.

As with pointillism, getting too close to a low-resolution image causes the illusion to collapse. But at their original sizes, high-quality digital photos retain as much detail as their physical counterparts.

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What are the benefits of digitizing your photos?

So, what are digital photos good for? From convenience to security, there are plenty of practical reasons to digitize your photos. For film photography hobbyists or those who have accumulated a lifetime of photographed memories, storage can become a serious space concern. Keeping all those physical photos organized and accessible is a chore, and unless you invest in a climate-controlled vault, they’re vulnerable to fading, folding, fire, flooding, and plenty of other potential mishaps.

Taking the time to digitize your photos obviates all of these concerns. Thousands of digital photos can be kept on a single storage drive, and an all-but-limitless number can live in the cloud, making their physical space demands effectively nil. Once stored digitally, photos can be organized by any scheme you can think of — by photographer, by event, by date, you name it — and tagging systems let you attach specific data points to each one. That means you can tag all the photos in which one person appears, and then when you search for that person’s name, all those photos will appear in the results.

Easy access makes sharing fast, too. Digital photos can be shared instantly over the internet, either with far-away loved ones or with everyone in the living room, so no one’s jockeying for a closer look at the same photo album. Finally, digital photos never degrade in quality, can be backed up easily in case of drive failures, and are insulated from disaster through cloud storage.

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How to properly scan digital photos

The first step in digitizing your photos is to gather the necessary equipment. A flatbed scanner will do for small jobs, but for larger volumes of photographs, you’ll likely want one with an automatic feeder to speed up the process. Also of use: a microfiber cloth or clean, dry handkerchief and a can of compressed air. Next, organize your photos into groups however you like. This will make it easier to catalog them as they’re scanned. Remove any duplicates you encounter.

Once you’re organized and outfitted, you can begin the scanning process. Make sure the glass of your scanning bed is clean and free of debris using the microfiber cloth, and use the compressed air to dust each photo before you place it on the scanner. When you scan your first photo, take the opportunity to nail down any scanner settings or file path preferences you plan to use throughout the process. Make sure your scanned images are going to the correct folder on your computer or cloud storage location, establish whatever naming structure you intend to use for your photos, and ensure you’re using the right file format for your work. Your two main options are BMP, which produces higher-quality images that take up more digital space, and JPEG, which makes a small sacrifice in visual fidelity for big gains in space efficiency. JPEG should serve just fine outside of serious photo editing, but BMP files are useful as a maximum-accuracy archival reference.

In general, it’s better to scan in color rather than grayscale because color and sepia photos need that color spectrum to save all their details. Meanwhile, black and white photos won’t be adversely affected by scanning in color.

As you scan, periodically clean off the scanning glass with your microfiber cloth. Avoid using paper towels or tissues as they can leave behind debris or, worse, scratch the glass, causing imperfections in the scans. If the glass ever gets smudged, you can lightly wet a portion of your cloth and gently rub the smudge away. Don’t scan unless the glass is completely dry.

Don’t attempt to flatten out creased photos, as you’ll likely cause more harm than good in the process. Once you’ve scanned all your photos, you can use photo editing software to remove those and other imperfections such as red eye, crop out unwanted details, brighten up dark shots, or restore faded colors. Photoshop Elements is a consumer-friendly photo editing program that can make these edits simple and quick. If you'd rather not pay for software, you can use free options such as Fotor for simple adjustments or GIMP for more fine-tuned controls.

Finally, be sure to record your process — including any settings you customized along the way — so you can recreate it in the future.

Our recommendation: ScanSnap iX1600

Having the right scanner will make any scanning job faster and easier. There’s a wide world of photo-specific scanners, but some hybrid photo and document scanners provide all the functionality you could need for either task.

We know you have no shortage of options when it comes to choosing a home 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 is the newest flagship in the ScanSnap family. This generation aims for speed and ease of use, with a 50-page automatic document feeder, a simple touch-screen interface, and direct scan-to-cloud functionality. ScanSnap software even offers intelligent photo scanning features such as automatic facial orientation and red-eye reduction. Find it here, or click here to learn more and shop the full line of ScanSnap scanners.