Hardware

How do I digitise old photos?

The vast majority of us have shoeboxes and albums stuffed with old photographs from the halcyon days before digital cameras. Indeed, there’s nothing quite like passing glossy, old-school prints around at a gathering of family or friends – but what happens if the snaps get lost, wet or, God forbid, destroyed in a fire? Those memories would be gone forever.

Consequently, whether they’re dusty portraits of Edwardians with huge moustaches or questionable fashion choices in the 1980s, preserving your treasured snaps in a digital archive is a must. Yes, it’s a time-consuming and repetitive project, but it’s worth it in the long run and will give you the peace of mind that everything’s safe.

And I can speak from experience, having recently embarked on creating an archive for my family. Although I’ve still got a long way to go, the few hundred images I’ve scanned so far include school sports days, parties, childhood portraits from the 1920s, weddings and a precious photograph of a family member taken shortly before he became a casualty of the First World War.

So, here’s some hard-won advice on scanning and archiving photographs for posterity.

Step 1: Get sorting

Before you begin scanning, take the opportunity to sort through your snapshots. Try to be as discerning as possible: is it really worth preserving that blurred photo of a seagull in Bognor Regis? Or the multiple images where Grandad Joe had his finger over the lens? The more brutal you are, the more time you’ll have to focus on the truly irreplaceable memories.

Step 2: Clean the scanner

There’s no point investing hours in archiving your collection and then realising that an errant hair or speck of dust on your flatbed scanner has ruined every image. Give your equipment a spring-clean by following the steps below:

  • Unplug your scanner (just turning it off isn’t enough).
  • Run a lint-free, microfibre cloth over the scanner glass – and be gentle!
  • If there are stubborn smudges, put a bit of glass cleaner on the cloth. However, don’t use any products containing ammonia, acetone, benzene or carbon tetrachloride, as they can damage the glass.

Step 3: Check the settings

Unless you have a special image scanner, finding the best settings may be a case of trial and error. Make the most of the “preview” or “prescan” tool to see what the scan will look like and, if you’re still stuck, a minimum of 300dpi (dots per inch) is a good rule of thumb. Moreover, it’s always worth scanning in colour, even if the photograph is black and white, as it will be easier to edit afterwards – you can always make it greyscale in your chosen photo-editing software.

Be warned that some glossy photos will reflect the light of the scanner, potentially obscuring parts of the picture – a problem that can be somewhat rectified by adjusting the contrast and brightness. If the issue persists, it’s worth trying out the PhotoScan app (see below), which does a good job of removing glare.

Step 4: Maximise your scans

After you’ve washed your hands (to prevent the dreaded thumbprint), you’re finally ready to begin scanning. However, you’ll quickly realise that scanning photographs one-by-one isn’t sustainable and will, if you have a backlog of snaps as large as mine, take years. Instead, lay out multiple photos next to each other on the glass, making sure that they don’t overlap. You can separate them out once they’ve been scanned.

To keep things simple, save all of the scans into a folder on your desktop. Try to keep the batches down to a manageable size so you’re not editing thousands of images in one go. I tend to do 20 per evening, which may not sound a lot but quickly adds up.

Step 5: Crop and tweak

Now comes the “fun” bit: editing. Open your photo editor of choice, crop out the separate photos and resave them with meaningful titles (a filename such as “Tenerife holiday 2014, beach restaurant.jpg” will be far more useful than, for example, “16579.jpg”).

Once that’s done, you can start tweaking the contrast, brightness and sharpness. It’s important not to go overboard here – remember that you’re simply trying to archive the photo for the time being, not turn it into something else. Indeed, most editors now have an automatic “retouch” or “magic wand” tool that can remove a lot of the legwork for you.

Step 6: Choose your free storage

Once you’ve scanned a decent number of photos and placed them in a folder on your desktop, it’s time to start archiving. Luckily, there’s a wide range of free platforms that you can use for storage. I’ve outlined a few below, along with their allocations and specific benefits.

Platform
Amount of free storage
Benefits
Dropbox 2GB With a bit of hoop-jumping you can boost your free allocation to 16GB
Google Drive/Photos 15GB Powerful editing tools and photos are automatically sorted into galleries
iCloud 5GB Straightforward sharing and good editing tools
Mega 50GB Huge free storage and decent security
OneDrive 5GB “Smart” tagging based on the content of the photograph

Once you’ve plumped for a platform, start uploading and creating albums. As with the image’s filenames, try to make the album titles as in-depth as possible. One archive system would be to put the following in the name: place (“Paris”), date (“May 1987”) and then any other specific details (“Charlotte’s birthday”). Of course, it might not work all of the time – after all, we all have photos that elicit a “who are they?” or “where on earth is that?”.

Other options

We’ll admit that scanning isn’t for everyone: it can be laborious and some people simply don’t have the time. However, never fear: there are a couple of options that simplify the process.

PhotoScan

If you don’t own a scanner, or if time is of the essence, a quicker alternative is the excellent PhotoScan app by Google, which is available on both Android and iOS. After bringing up the app, point your smartphone camera at the photo you want to digitise and four circles will appear onscreen. Hover over the circles one by one and the app will automatically reduce the glare that plagues glossy photos. The image will be saved in the app and can then be easily shared or uploaded. Although PhotoScan won’t achieve the results you can with a high-end scanner, it’s still an efficient and rapid tool.

Scanning services

There are companies in UK that offer a paid scanning service. Pixave, for example, charges 9p for every photo up to A4, with discounts for large orders. But, unless you need to have all of your photographs scanned immediately and are willing to shell out, professional scanning should only be seen as a last resort. Plus, scanning and constructing an archive for free by yourself is fun. Honest.

About the author

Max Figgett

Max has written for numerous websites and magazines over the years. Whether it’s about ancient hardware or software secrets, no Big Tech Question is too obscure for him to tackle.

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  • We bought a dedicated photo-scanner device, not too expensive and far easier than any of your suggested methods.
    Only one photo at a time but it’s very quick and accurate. Has its own memory which holds about 20 photos which then upload to your PC with the supplied USB cable.
    I forget the name of it now, we’ve lent it to a friend, but there’s probably plenty on Amazon or Ebay.

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