Six Steps to Digitizing Your Family Photos


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.

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If 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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