If your family is anything like mine, you have hundreds or thousands of photos that will never be seen again. We have boxes filled with old photos (typically hidden in the attic); everything from black-and-white pictures from the early 1900s through to colour photos of me and my brother growing up.
Even if we open up those boxes and look through them occasionally, that doesn’t help the family who live elsewhere. I have cousins living around the world who, of course, share the same grandparents – of whom we have a lot of photos. The only solution is to scan the pictures and put them somewhere we can all access.
Scanning in old photos is a BIG job – especially if you have as many as we do – so I wanted to share some of the lessons I’ve learned while working through our old photo collection. Here are five tips for scanning in old photos…
1. Choose your device
The first decision is whether to use a flatbed scanner or your camera (or smartphone) to digitise your old photos. Using a camera is certainly the simplest option – it is far easier and quicker to snap, snap, snap your photos than it is to load them one-by-one into a scanner and wait while it scans. It probably takes an average of 60 seconds per photo using a flatbed scanner, versus maybe 10 seconds using a camera.
But the quality of the scan from a scanner is far superior to what you’ll achieve using a camera. Scanners are designed for scanning flat documents, while cameras are designed for taking photos of 3D things in the real world – and the difference shows.
With a camera, curled paper edges, lighting glare and lens angles can all diminish the quality of the final output. With a scanner, these problems are all removed.
Whether you invest in a scanner and spend the extra time it takes to use one depends on the quality you want in the digital versions of your photos. I’d suggest you try a camera first and see if the output is good enough for what you need.
2. Don’t aim for perfection
With the choice between scanner and camera in mind, it’s worth noting that any digital version of your photos is better than nothing at all. Your family and your future self will be delighted just to see the photos, even if they’re a little skew or there’s a little glare in the top-right corner.
It’s tempting to spend a lot of time perfecting the scanning process, but your main aim should be getting your paper photos onto a computer. The longer it takes to arrange photos, align them, adjust lighting and everything else, the less likely you are to finish the job.
It takes a little experimentation to see what you get from different methods, so have a play and find a compromise that you’re happy with between speed and quality.
3. Sort the photos first
It’s a lot easier to organise the paper copies of your photos than it is to do it on a computer. It’s also a lot more enjoyable – you’ll find yourself spending a few moments on each photo, either enjoying your own memories or trying to solve the mysteries therein.
I suggest grouping photos by date primarily. In some cases you’ll have an exact date written on the back of the photo (or imprinted in the photo itself in some more recent pics). Otherwise, you might need to make a best guess on the month or year or maybe just decade.
Organising your photos before scanning makes it much easier to store them in appropriate date-based folders on your computer later. For example, you could scan photos in date batches, so that all photos from 1973 go into one folder.
It’s also an opportunity to remove any that aren’t worth scanning in. Underdeveloped shots or the seventeenth photo of the same anonymous landscape might not be something you want to spend time scanning in.
4. Check your scanner settings
Most scanners, cameras and smartphones will offer some level of customisation for the resulting image. You’ll want to get this setup correctly before you start.
There are three considerations: image settings, resolution and file type.
The image settings include options like brightness, colour levels and contrast. You may find that the default settings are perfect, otherwise you may want to adjust them until you get the image output you’re looking for. I found that my colour photos looked a little too blue by the time they reached the screen, so I adjusted the colour balance to fix that.
The larger the resolution of your scanned-in photo, the higher its quality (and file size). Bigger is always better, but there is a maximum to the quality you’ll actually be able to use. It may be tempting to reduce the resolution to save disk space, but if you go too low you’ll end up with photos that aren’t good enough to print – and you may regret that one day. I’d recommend a resolution of 300dpi (dots per inch), which will give you more than enough for viewing on a screen and emailing and plenty to produce quality prints if you ever need to.
You can often select the file type that you want to create during scanning, such as JPEG, TIFF, PNG or PDF. For most purposes you’ll want to choose JPEG, which is a good compromise between quality and file size. It’s the most familiar type of image file and can easily be used for viewing, emailing or printing.
5. Scan multiple photos together
Whether you’re using a scanner or a camera, you can save time by scanning more than one photo at a time. A typical flatbed scanner can accommodate at least 3 typical photos and you’ll probably fit 3 or 4 into the viewfinder of a camera at a reasonable distance.
The downside of scanning multiple photos together is that you need to crop the resulting image into 3 or 4 photos. Fortunately, there are a number of software solutions and apps that will do this automatically – and many modern flatbed scanners come with appropriate software as part of the package.
We’ll be reviewing apps and photo software in the future, so watch this space!
Add your photos to Twile
Once you’ve digitised your photos, don’t just leave them hidden away on your computer – upload them to your Twile timeline so that the rest of your family can explore and enjoy them. Twile is totally private, which means only the family members you invite will be able to see the photos you share.