How to Scan and Digitize Photographs

Family portrait from my mother's side of the family, circa 1910-1920
Family portrait from my mother’s side of the family, circa 1910-1920.

Whether you are striving for minimalism or cleaning out your parent’s attic, you likely have an album or box (or boxes) of family photographs. I inherited my father’s small collection of photographs when he passed, and a few years later my mom gave me most of her old photo albums, including the ones of me growing up. Luckily, my background in museums and archives came in handy as I set out to digitize all of it. Over the last couple of years, just working on it an hour here and there, I’ve finally completed most of the work.

The best way to preserve your old photos is to digitize them, so I’m going to tell you how! All of the photographic images I’ve used in this article are those I’ve scanned myself from old photographs and slides so that you can see the quality of the images.

Scanned photo of my Dad (at center) with friends, circa the late 1940s. Houses and a car in the background.
Scanned photo of my Dad (at center) with friends, circa the late 1940s.

You will need:

Scanner: You will find many scanners available for purchase and a range of recommendations. The higher quality the scanner, the better scans you’ll get. But this does not mean you have to spend a ton of money. I do not recommend using a scanner that is built into a multi-function printer, because those are meant for documents and copying. I also recommend using a scanner with a bed (flat, glass surface) instead of an automatic document feeder (ADF) because those can damage photographs. If you only have flat photographs that are regular sizes (4×6, 5×7, etc.), then you can buy photo scanners with an automatic feeder for quicker scanning. However, I have found that these can sometimes be more expensive than a flatbed.

One other consideration is assessing what types of materials you’ll be scanning. If you’ve got hundreds of slides or negatives in your family collection, you’ll want to find a scanner that offers those scanning capabilities. Those scanners will advertise that they can scan film and slides (sometimes also called transparent images).

Before you buy a scanner, check to see if your local public or college library offers scanners for their patrons to use. If they do, librarians can often provide instruction on how to use the equipment. If you do decide to purchase a scanner, do a little research first and look at the most recent reviews and videos available. I’ve always used Epson brand scanners both in the archives field and at home. I’m not paid to write that and I have no affiliation with that company; it’s simply what’s worked for me professionally and personally.

Last, there are photo scanning apps you can download to your phone or tablet, even some that will work for negatives. These are great for quick sharing with friends and family, but they do not create high-quality images. For long-term preservation, a dedicated photo scanner is what I recommend.

Epson Perfection V330 scanner
This is an Epson Perfection V370 scanner, similar to the scanner I use, a V330. I chose this one because I have prints, slides, and negatives.

Soft cloth: You’ll need a very soft cloth for lightly cleaning photographs and the scanner flatbed glass. You can use an eyeglass or lens cloth, or use pieces of cloth cut from an old, cotton garment that you no longer wear. There are also disposable photo wipes available at archival suppliers. Very gently wipe the photograph, slide, or negative. Change the cloth out often to prevent transferring dust from one image to another. Another method is to use a hand air blower (also called a dust or air blaster). Use a similar cloth to gently wipe the scanner flatbed glass regularly.

Gloves: A pair of fitted white cotton gloves can protect your images from naturally occurring oils on your fingers and hands. I recommend using these, especially with negatives.

Photo Editing Software: There are many options for this, but you don’t need expensive software. You just need something you can use to make small color corrections, remove scratches, and adjust light and contrast settings. At home, I use Corel PaintShop Pro, which is inexpensive. But I know there are some free programs out there – again, just do a little research to find what works for you.

Physical Storage: Once you’ve scanned your images, you will most likely want to store the physical images differently than how you found them (unless you are disposing of them). Old photo albums are full of glues and acidic paper that deteriorate over time and can affect your original images. The same is true of old envelopes, folders, and photo boxes. There are many options to store your old images.

In the museum and archives fields, professionals use quality archival storage materials from companies such as Gaylord Archival, Hollinger, and Light Impressions. Since I left the field and have moved toward plastic-free living, I only recommend archival materials that are not plastic. Archival photo boxes from those companies can be pricy once shipping is calculated. If you cannot afford to upgrade to those right now, a simple acid-free photo box from a craft store should not damage your images in the short term. Those same companies also offer options for storing slides, negatives, and old documents.

You’ll want to store these in your home or another climate-controlled area. The basement or attic is no place for photographs and negatives, which are made of chemicals that break down in extreme temperatures and humidity.

Digital Storage: If you have a lot of digital images to store, use an external hard drive. The most important thing is that wherever you store them, be sure to back up your files! You can copy your files onto another hard drive, use a cloud-based backup, or use a file backup service.

Family gathering from my mother's side. The baby is my mom, held by my grandfather at center.
Family gathering from my mother’s side. The baby is my mom, held by my grandfather at center, circa 1949.

Step 1

Sort. If your photos are not chronologically organized in albums, you’ll need to at least group them together by event, people, or year. This step can take the longest, but it’s best practice and your digital collection will also be organized once you’re done.

In Process Step

Cull and weed. I call this an “In Process Step” because some of this you will do during and after sorting, and some will happen after scanning. Whether or not you plan to keep the physical photographs, there are some that you will simply want to dispose of. Photos that hold no meaning for you, are heavily damaged, or bring out negative feelings for you can be thrown away immediately. Next, photos that are damaged (water, mildew, smoke, etc.) but that still have a salvageable image can be scanned and then thrown away.

If you plan to toss all of your photos away after digitizing, please wait to do so until you’ve completed the process and backed up your files (more on this shortly).

My Mom and Dad in the early 1970s, sitting on a bench in a Florida park with palm trees.
Scanned photo of my Mom and Dad in the early 1970s.

Step 2

Scan. Now that you’re ready to scan, I have some simple standards for you to follow. But do read the scanner’s manual or watch their online tutorials. This will help you get to know the features and terminology of your actual scanner.

Settings: Different scanners offer many options for settings. You’ll want to make sure that the scanner software is set for scanning photos versus documents. If you’re scanning color images, use the 24-bit (or higher) color setting. I always leave the target size at original. I usually leave unsharp mask checked, as well as dust removal at a medium or low level. You can play with all of the settings to find what works best for your photographs.

Resolution/DPI: Resolution refers to the amount of information captured during scanning and is one of the most important settings. DPI, or dots per inch, is a measure of the resolution of a digital scan; the higher the dot density, the higher the resolution. In general, 400 dpi is a good setting for scanning most home photographs. The smaller the image, the higher resolution you’ll want. For typical 4×6 photographs, I use 400-600 dpi. For slides or 35mm negatives, I scan at a minimum of 1200 dpi, and sometimes up to 2400 dpi. This will make the images large enough to zoom in on and reproduce if desired.

Epson Scanner software screenshot
Screenshot of Epson Scanner software.

Once you have your settings selected, you will need to select the type of image format. I recommend scanning in TIFF file format because the files are larger and lossless. This means even if you edit and save the image multiple times, you do not lose quality, as is the case with JPEG files. But, you’ll generally need JPEGs to use online or to email to family. I scan my images as TIFF files, edit them in photo editing software, and then “Save Copy As” a JPEG. This leaves me with two copies – my master TIFF file, and a JPEG copy I can share! I store the TIFFs and JPEGs in separate folders to make it easy to know which files are which.

You will also need to select where your files will be stored, whether it’s on your computer or an external hard drive.

Epson Scanner File Save Settings screenshot
Screenshot of Epson Scanner File Save Settings

Step 3

Edit. Simple editing in any photo editing software will make your images cleaner and sharper. You can even use open source (free) software. Whichever you choose, you can find online tutorials for using that software.

Step 4

Organize. Once you’ve scanned, edited, and saved (whether it’s just one or two copies), you need to organize and/or label your images. I organize mine in file folders by year or era. I actually do this step as I go because that is what works best for me. Find what works best for you.

Screenshot of computer file folders, organized by year
Computer file folders, organized by year

Step 5

Label. If a photo has information written on the back (or someone told you), such as a date or a name, you may want to rename the file with that information. If you have more info than just one line’s worth, you can create a simple Word document or Excel spreadsheet to record information.

Screenshot showing individual photo files labeled with information from the back of the photos.
Screenshot showing individual photo files labeled with information provided by my Dad.

Step 6

Back Up. This is the most important step, especially if you plan to discard your photos after digitizing them. I use Carbonite but there are many options available, including cloud-based backups or file backup services. Do a little research to find the best option for you.

Scanned photo of me at age 2 holding an Easter basket.
Scanned photo of me at age 2 holding an Easter basket.

Final Thoughts

I hope this article inspires you to digitize your photos. Whether your motivation is minimalism, preserving your memories, exploring your genealogy, or just a fun project, this process is both gratifying and rewarding. Photos, once digitized, can be displayed on digital photo frames or your computer. You’ll actually see and enjoy them much more often than if they were tucked away in a photo album or box. Also, while this article concerns photos, there are certainly other things you might want to digitize. I wrote an article about how I digitized my son’s artwork and created photo books.

Thanks for reading, and please contact me if you have questions or other ideas!

Photo of my husband as a child sitting on his grandfather's shoulders, outdoors.
My husband as a child sitting on his grandfather’s shoulders, circa 1975. Scanned from a 35mm slide.