Scan Your Photos, Protect Your Photos

If your stacks of family photos are toppling over, it's time to go digital

By Micah Rubin. Reporting by Phoebe Assenza

The photographs had once been splashy. But as time — and moths — took their toll, the snapshots had grown faded and torn in spots, their edges tattered. On thumbing through them, Roger Halstead, a 67-year-old grandfather of four from Midland, M.I., knew he had to save the family prints before it was too late.

Thirty-five thousand scans, countless hours, and multiple external hard drives later, generations of Roger's family photos are now preserved in digital archives that he can dive into whenever the grandchildren stop by. Photo scanning brought the family stories back to life, in vivid color.

No Time Spent, No Gain

Lucy, a Chicago grandmother affectionately dubbed Techno Granny by her eight grandchildren openly admits that her scanning project took “forever”, but says the payoff was well worth the time investment. As a present to her brothers and sisters, she scanned and organized the slides that chronicled their childhood, and put them on DVDs. After she got the hang of scanning through her initial project, she combed through slides taken of her children as they were growing up (some dating back to 1965). “That was a big project!" says Lucy. "I had original slides on these big carousels, and that's just old technology. It's a lot easier to look at this stuff on DVD."

Dusty Slide Projector to Slick Slideshow

Kansas grandmother of one, Julie Mead, has been scanning for five years. She's now up to her eyeballs in photos to scan for the digital slide show she'll present at her son’s upcoming wedding. “I love it that my kids can sit down and look at their pictures from when they were little,” says 49-year old Julie.

But ,learn from her scanning mistakes, she says. “I lost my grandson’s baptism pictures because I [only] put them on CD," she says. "When the disk was corrupted, I lost all the pictures!” As the excitement of sharing your scanned images online takes hold, be sure to securely store the image files. Backup and store your images on CD, an external hard drive, or both to keep from losing the files.

Scanning technology has revolutionized the ease and cost of digitally preserving photographs. Yes, mastering the art of scanning and retouching images will require a dollop of patience and a bit of time as you familiarize yourself with new tools. Put in a few hours of exploratory clicking, though, and you’ll be ready to tackle the family photos — and save them from ruin. On seeing your grandchild's face light up like a lantern as he's viewing your photo scans, we think you'll be glad you did.

Scanning Checklist:
Here's what you'll need to start scanning your photos.

Computer: Any computer with USB inputs (the standard connection interface for computer peripherals) with 512 megabytes of RAM (memory). Note: while this is the suggested memory capacity, a computer with at least 128 megabytes of RAM can operate a scanner. But, the more memory the better! Scanning and image editing software require a lot of computer juice.

Scanner: With countless options available, it's best to identify what you’ll be scanning before shopping. For slides, a dedicated film scanner (pricier than a flatbed scanner) is better because you place slides directly into the unit. For scanning photos or both photos and slides, a flatbed scanner works best. The following scanners also include Digital Ice – dust and scratch removal capabilities that make polishing scanned images easy and quick.

Nikon Coolscan V-ED ($549.95): Nikon’s entry-level dedicated film scanner.

Epson Perfection 4490 ($179.95): A dependable flatbed scanner that creates professional scans without breaking the bank. Slide and negative holders secure them for scanning.

Scanning Steps & Tips

1. Before scanning, make sure the scanner glass is clean and the slides/negatives/photographs are dust-free.

2. When you first set up your software, you will usually be asked where you would like to save the files. Make a mental note of this location.

3. When handling slides or negatives, touch only the negative’s edges. Finger oils leave unwanted fingerprints, but can be avoided by using inexpensive, lint-free darkroom gloves found at any photo store.

4. Place the negative, negative/slide holder, or picture on the glass and confirm the scanner is set to scan the correct medium (negative/positive/photograph).

5. Set the image resolution. This defines the quality of your final image. Choose 72 dpi (dots per inch) if the scan will only be used on a computer. It's the highest resolution visible on a computer screen. Choose 300 dpi If you may make prints later or plan on enlarging the image (this is a good base for making prints whose final size will be the same as the original photo). And if you plan on printing enlargements, 600 dpi or higher is necessary to ensure the final picture is not grainy or pixelated. The high-resolution drawback: Giant file sizes ranging from 18 to hundreds of megabytes will eat up hard-drive storage space.

6. Click “Preview” to see a preliminary copy of the scan on the screen. If the image looks good, click “Accept” or “Scan” (each software package uses different terminology) which will then digitize the image and save the picture to the destination directory.

7. After you’ve completed your scans, create a system to organize and sort the files. There’s no perfect system! But, try saving the files in folders related to subject or date. Then, create subfolders labeled to explain what each contains. You’re going to have a lot of pictures, so the better organization and labeling, the easier the retrieval! Attaching captions to images is another useful way to keep them organized.

8. Backup all picture scans in multiple locations. Burn images onto a CD. Create duplicates. And, save files onto an external hard drive. Also consider keeping copies of backups in different locations.

Retouch & Refine

1. Post-scanning, open the photo file in the image editing software (see software options below) to make corrections.

2. Key adjustments for improving picture quality include: levels (the vibrancy of the image), image contrast, brightness, and color correction (especially important when printing). Sharpening is another useful tool that improves blurry or fuzzy images.

3. Adobe Photoshop and Elements offer a great tool called layers. It displays duplicate layers on an image which allow you to switch between the original scan and touched-up layer to see the image’s progress. If you dislike your work, it’s easy to trash the layer and start over without opening and closing the file.

4. As you’re working with an image, create duplicate files to ensure you have a backup of the original scan. As you’re working, save your work frequently. If you accidentally save the original scanned file, you’ll have to rescan the image to start over.

Scanning Software

Most scanners include basic scanning software that produces satisfactory scans. For advanced scanning, this software can markedly improve your final scans.

VueScan ($39): Runs on a PC or Mac operating system and offers control of every aspect of the scan.

Silverfast Ai ($119): Lavasoft’s higher-end scanning software offers similar options to VueScan and increased user controls.

Image Correction Software

Post-scanning, imaging software gives the freedom to crop, remove dust specs and torn edges, change or brighten colors, and more.

Adobe Elements ($99.99): An introductory program that simplifies image correction and offers a simple way to sharpen your retouching-chops.

Adobe Photoshop CS3 ($649): Adobe’s higher-end image editing software offers unrivaled editing options ranging from color correction to image manipulation -- suitable for more advanced image correctors.

Cyber School

Taking a tutorial can allow you to get acquainted with the myriad scanning and retouching options available to you — and keep the world of scanning exciting and accessible, as opposed to overwhelming.

Lynda (starting at $79.95): Easy-to-follow video training courses in scanning and software packages.

Video-Tutes (free): A website offering photo manipulation tutorials for every skill level.

Whether just getting started with the basics or taking your photo scanning know-how to the next level, digitally preserving family photos offers a surefire way to protect the images — and stories they inspire — for future generations.


If spending countless hours grappling with a scanner and photo editing software (and an outlay of at least $400) is not your thing, think of using a digital camera, iPhone or iPad for quick scanning. There are also good apps - such as Pic Scanner, that lets you scan 2-3 photos at a time, then automatically crops and saves them. It's fast, photo quality is very good, and costs a princely sum of $2.99. Demo at It even handles photos pasted in albums or mounted in frames. There may also be other apps like it.

DIY-Yoda on 2013-06-26 21:34:49

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