Six Steps to Digitizing Your Family Photos

May 4, 2017  - by 

by Logan Metcalfe

If you have boxes full of old photos, you’re not alone—billions of lonely family photos gather dust in closets and attics around the world. Even those of us too young to remember when a “camera roll” meant around 30 shots of film will soon inherit piles of printed photos from our parents.

So what do we do with all these old photos? The answer is to digitize them, and here are six steps to get the job done.

1. Organize before you digitize.

It’s tempting to jump right in and start scanning, but take some time to sort your photos first. You don’t want to create a big disorganized digital mess. Gather all your photos in a place with a large, flat surface that you can leave messy for a while—a dining room you rarely use is perfect.

  • Group the photos by events and people. Sort pictures into events such as vacations, weddings, and birthdays. Pictures not associated with specific events can be grouped by person or family.
  • Separate duplicates. Place duplicates in separate piles so you don’t end up scanning the same image twice.
  • Sort each pile by date. Organize each of your piles chronologically. Don’t worry—you may need to do some guessing, and it’s okay not to be perfect.
  • Pick what to digitize. Go through your piles, and identify the ones you want to scan. Put a small sticky note on the back of those photos. You may find it easier to digitize everything and weed out what you don’t want later, but not only can this approach be expensive if you’re paying someone to do the scanning, it can also bury your best pictures in a pile of digital junk.

2. Equip yourself.

relative race winnersIf you decide to do the scanning yourself rather than using a service, the next step is to choose your equipment.

  • Auto Feed Scanner—If you have hundreds or thousands of photos to scan, an auto feed scanner can be a fast and reliable way to do it. There are several brands out there, but the one I use is the Epson FastFoto FF-640 (and, no, I’m not getting paid to say that).
  • Flatbed Scanner—Dedicated scanners have large flatbeds that accommodate larger prints, and the software they come bundled with typically has great scanning features, such as photo edge detection and image enhancement. Office “all-in-one” printers usually include a flatbed scanner but may be more limited in size and software features. Placing photos on the glass flatbed can be a pain, which is why I use them only for large or fragile photos.
  • Smartphone and Tablet—Mobile device cameras are getting better all the time and can be very effective tools for digitizing small volumes of photos, especially when combined with scanning apps that have features such as automatic edge detection, perspective transformation, and cropping. Mobile devices are best to use when you don’t need super-high resolution and if the pictures would otherwise be damaged when removed from an album or frame.
  • Digital Camera—Traditional digital cameras are not as convenient as other options for digitizing pictures because they require correct lighting and additional software for cropping and other adjustments.

3. Decide on storage.

The main options for storing your digitized images are on your computer, on external drives, or in cloud storage. Thumb drives can also be used for lower volumes of photos. I recommend picking one of these options and backing up your files to a second (and even a third) of the options. Because high-resolution photos can take up a lot of space on a computer, I scan to an external drive first and then copy the photos to my Google Drive cloud storage.

4. Adjust settings.

The software that came with your scanner or computer is the simplest option and will likely handle the job. The most recent scanner software even enables you to scan directly to your cloud storage account. Although the scanning settings may seem daunting, scanning a photo as a JPEG file in sRGB at 300dpi with 24-bit color will give you the results you want for most photos. TIFF is a better format to use if you’re likely to edit the photo later, but file sizes will be larger. I recommend scanning slides and negatives at 2400–3200 dpi.

Few things are worse than scanning a bunch of photos and then realizing you did the scans at the wrong resolution, so check your settings, and do a test to make sure everything looks as it should and is saved in the place where you want it.

5. Scan, scan, scan.

Scan pile by pile, and save each pile to a separate folder on your chosen digital storage. Before each scan, add information (or metadata) where you can in the fields provided, with the date being the most important. This information will be saved with the files and makes for easier sorting in other software later.

6. Share and enjoy!

Now that you have a beautifully organized digital archive of your family’s photos, it is time to share and enjoy it! Many online services are available that enable you to add descriptions and to organize, tag, edit, and privately share your photos. Some also offer printing services that easily turn your digital pictures into photo books, framed prints, and wall art. Why not create some neat products from those old pictures for someone else to digitize in years to come!


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  1. Do you know of a good “negative” scanner? The negatives are “old” negatives. I have a scanner that will scan the newer ones, but not the older, larger size. Thanks in advance for any information shared.

    1. There are attachments for many flatbed scanners (just holders for negative strips or slides basically) and look through settings in software for your preferred machine to see if that’s an option. Epson Perfection is one example.

  2. I digitized my mother’s family pictures and put them on DVDs (also flash drives and portable hard drives) and she loved being able to look at them on the tv screen. When she died at the age of 90 it was easy to share her family pictures with her children and grandchildren. It also makes it real easy to share pictures on social media and genealogy sites.

    I also made a video of her talking about her early life. I first tried videoing her looking at old pictures and talking about them but that didn’t work too good. It worked much better when I just interviewed and videoed her talking about the past and used a computer program (Movie Maker) to add pictures to the finished video. It would of helped if I had made some notes before the interview in regards to particular pictures which I would like to be in the final video.

    I used both a scanner and a digital camera to digitize my pictures. I found that the camera went faster most of the time. Learning to take advantage of available light is important when using a camera and deciding on the best resolution to use is also important. If you think someone might want to print your pictures you will need to use a higher resolution than just watching them on a computer screen or tv.

    This article has some great guidelines, I found it very helpful to use folders on your computer to organize your pictures. Being able to locate the picture you want at the time you want it is priceless.

    1. So great that you were able to digitize your mother’s pictures for her to enjoy and record her stories. For others wanting to interview a relative, the Arkiver web app has a tool called Storyteller that enables you to create a custom list of interview questions from a database of over 200 questions.

      Folders on your computer is one way of organizing your pictures. In Arkiver you can create collections and also organize using tags. The Bulk Tag feature can be used to easily add tags to multiple photos at once or easily create new collections.

  3. Scanning resolution depends on what you want to do with the scanned print. While I agree that a high resolution, as suggested, is good for archiving, but for printing out on a home printer, anything over 200 dpi is just increasing file size without increasing the quality because the printer can’t print any better. For web work, a resolution of 75-100 dpi is sufficient. Ask any graphic artist.

  4. I strongly recommend scanning photos at 600 DPI or even higher. A 300 DPI scan will most of the time look terrible – noisty/blurry on screen. Also, if you don’t have a photo scanner device, you can use a flatbed, but then you will need to struggle with cropping the photos. I suggest using some photo scanning software (f.e. AutoSplitter) that will automatically crop these photos out.

  5. Agree completely that organizing photos before starting the project is one if the key steps. As a scanning expert I recommend only using a flatbed and you typically called get great results with 600 dpi & 24 bit color. A good compromise with quality and speed. What I think is important for people to know before starting a project is that photo scanning software like ScanSpeeder will scan photos 4x faster. auto-detects photos, separates photos into both sharing and archival quality, allows you to tag photos, and even lets you scan directly from the photo album so you won’t damage photos.

  6. These tips were very helpful when trying to digitized pictures. However, I am not sure that I will have enough time to do all of this myself. I think that it may be in my best interest to go to a photo scanning service.

  7. My parents both passed away and I have lots of photo albums from their travels. I don’t have much space where to keep them in good condition therefore I was thinking of digitising them and might print them out in photo books (because they’ll take less space). My dilemma is what to do with the actual photo albums?

    1. Liliana, I think that is up to your discretion 🙂 I personally recommend always having at least 2 copies of the photos in case one is lost or damaged, whether those copies are online, in books, originals, on a flash drive or disk, or some other format depends on what makes the most sense to you.

  8. Gone are the days when people used to take out their old albums and show their relatives or friends how their kids looked during their first birthday or where they went for a family outing. Although we may see this trend coming back after a few years but as of now digital is the trend. And digitizing your old photos is the right thing to do. It not only makes it easier for you to glance through your old memories easily as everything is stored on the cloud and you have an easy access to it, but it also prevents your old and thus precious memories from getting lost. Organizing your photos before you start digitizing them is the ideal first step to perform.

  9. Your six steps are most helpful. Thank you. I have already sorted all of our combined family photos, 22 boxes. Now I’m trying to educate myself on all the different types of scanners. From your descirption, I might just zero in on the flatbed scanners. We have pictures that date back to 1900 and some very large photos taken in the early 1920’s through the 70’s.

  10. I like how you suggested organizing your image before scanning them into digital copies. My mom started to scan all of her vintage family photos into her computer. Thanks for the tips on digitizing photos.

  11. or just bring your piles of stuff including slides, pictures, old pedigree charts, 8mm , negatives, sound tapes and VHS to several family search center. Don’t worry about organizing them you can do that later on your computer. then let our trained staff and missionaries help you use our machines to scan everything. We can even show you how to use perfect touch to make the finished picture better than the original. and yes you can copy the front and the back. you might want to make an reservation for the machine you want on- line before visiting because other people want to do the same thing the best thing is that it is free and fast.

    1. Rae Keck: Where are the family search centers that you’re referencing? Do you have a list of the centers?

  12. question, my husband started to scan our photo collection and the system he chose doubles each image. Once as original and one “digitally enhanced version”. Besides eliminating red eyes I cant really see the benefit in this automatic enhancement , since the sheer number of images seems overwhelming to me. (he already created many folders with 2 versions of each photo).
    How do you apply this automatic “enhancing” option? Do you then immediately choose one version or do you indeed store 2?