Scanning for the Ages: How to Capture and Organize Your Family’s Photo History

One of the best gifts you can give is a book or album of family photos. First, you have to organize and select your best images. Most of your family’s history is going to be slides, prints, and negatives going back as much as 150 years – all photos you have to scan, once you organize and identify the people, places, and dates.

You can do some or even much of the scanning yourself. You’ll need the right equipment, lots of time, and the gumption to stick with a project that could take several months and quite possibly several years. Sorry, that’s reality. If you’re reading this for tips on how to put together a photobook in time for Christmas 2020, or the parents’ anniversary early 2021, you can do that. Then when you’ve got those initial photos processed, catch your breath, get back to more scanning, and do a follow-on book or online album on a different topic. Wash, rinse, repeat.

10 Rules for Organizing, Prepping, Scanning

Here are the basics. This list is based on work with almost a dozen flatbed, sheet-fed, and film scanners, and more than a thousand hours of prep work and scanning over a decade.

1. Sort and organize your old photos. Make a stab at identifying who, where, when, and what event. Your memory won’t get better 10 years from now. Vigorously prune back 20 similar photos from a generation ago. And do you really need photos of flowers from the 1980s?

2. Prints are easiest to scan, then color slides, then color negatives, and lastly black-and-white negatives.

3. The best scans are from film — slides and negatives — not prints.

4. Scan prints at 300 dpi, important prints at 600 dpi, and slides or film at 3000 dpi.

5. Scan at highest quality JPG (most images). In some cases use TIFF, despite larger file sizes. Hard disk storage is cheap.

6. Scan all prints in color, even black-and-white prints (to capture the yellowing of old prints). You can always turn them back to black & white.

7. Get a sheet-fed scanner that scans batches of prints, front and back, 1-10 seconds per print. Scan most every print you have except obviously horrible images.

8. Almost any flatbed scanner is good enough, $100 to $1,000 (see our sister site PCMag’s Best Scanners for top picks). A tabloid-size (11 x 17 inches) is fabulous for scanning kids’ artwork, diplomas, and photo albums with ticket stubs page-by-page before pulling individual photos out for scanning. Not cheap, but you can buy one used and then sell it later.

9. A dedicated film scanner for slides and negatives does a better job than the flatbed scanners with negative/slide capabilities. More realistically: Send negatives and slides out for professional scanning. Just the good ones. Figure 25-35 cents per image.

10. When you’re done, once your digital images are stored in two places, toss the photo-processor prints, but keep the negatives and slides. Put them in long-life negative sleeves or archival boxes to save space. Save at least one copy of your family’s photo history offsite (safe deposit box) or online.

Work with lintless cotton or here nylon gloves from Archival Methods.

Preparation Is the Underwater Part of the Iceberg

Getting scans that are both high quality — particularly no dust showing up on the scans — and usefully organized are the bulk of the work. Kodak has estimated that prep work is 8x more time-consuming than the actual scanning.

You’ve probably got shoeboxes of photos in several places. You may have negatives separated from the prints. Siblings may have some of your parents’ photos and you have some.

To keep from getting depressed on day one, have a small-in-scope project in mind that you can do this week or this month – say a photobook of your parents from their first years married, or you and siblings at home as kids – and find photos that support that photobook. Book No. 1 doesn’t have to exhaustively inclusive. It just has to be under the Christmas tree or nicely wrapped for an anniversary.

Hunt down all the photos you can easily lay your hands on. If they’re in photo-processor envelopes, keep each envelope’s prints and negatives together (because later you may want to scan the negatives). Copy down, photograph, or scan information from each photo envelope or slide box. With prints, write that info on the back of the first photo, or use a 4×6 index card with the info that scans before the first print from each roll of film. Use a permanent marker on prints (back side) and wait a couple of seconds for the print to dry, to avoid smudges. Remember that good sheet-fed photo scanners do both sides at once, with no extra work on your part.

You may want to create a spreadsheet of each roll of film: date, subject, location, prints or slides, do the prints have negatives. There will be a lot of question marks about the year, sometimes the decade, and where the photos were shot. That’s normal.

Clean off dust and dirt from the prints. (See below.)

Decide which prints to a) scan, b) don’t scan now but save for later just in case, and b) discard. Try to be brutally honest.

Scan 50 to 100 photos to give you enough for a photobook. Put a light letter S on the back to indicated a print was scanned. Allow about two weeks’ turnaround to get the book back in your hands. The appreciation you get from the recipient will spur you on to spend another hundred, possibly thousand hours sorting and scanning on the rest of your family photos.

 What Scanning Resolution: 300 dpi, 600, More?

You can scan at a resolution that allows you later to make prints and enlargements that are at least 300 dots per inch, so if you have a 4 x 6 print and you want to make a decent 8 x 12 enlargement, you’d want to scan at 600 dpi. Photo buffs can argue all day about scan resolutions and the best digital image format.

Here’s what you should consider, says Frank Cost, professor at Rochester Institute of Technology’s School of Photographic Arts & Sciences. “The recommendation to scan a print at 300 dpi by default and double to 600 for prints that may be enlarged when reproduced is a good rule of thumb,” Cost says. “Any print made in an enlarger is unlikely to contain any more information than can be scanned at 600 dpi. I have never scanned a print higher than 600, except in the case of scanning contact sheets,” which Cost captures at the scanner’s highest optical resolution, around 2400 dpi.

As for JPG versus TIFF, Cost says, “I routinely scan and photograph using JPEG at the highest quality setting. This compresses the image size considerably, and will result in no visible loss of detail to the human eye in the reproduction. This is assuming the same scan resolution. So, if I scan a print at 300 dpi and save it as an uncompressed TIFF, and also as a highest-quality JPEG, I will see no difference in the resulting reproduction.” Cost also had others look at JPG (no compression) versus TIFF images and test subjects typically saw no difference.

If you scan slides or negatives, you want to scan at 3000 dpi, possibly 4000 dpi for your most important images. A 35mm image (24 x 36 mm or 1 x 1.5 inches) at 3000 dpi produces a file about 3000 x 4500 dpi.

Archival quality 2400-slide storage box from Archival Methods. High quality, not cheap.

The Supporting Accessories You Need

To scan photos, you need stuff to sort, identify, clean, and then store.

To clean film and prints, buy cans of compressed gas (also called compressed air dusters), at $3-$5 a can. You can also use an anti-static film brush, about $20, up to about $100 for a Staticmaster brush using polonium, a radioactive metal (so read the directions carefully).

For prints, start with a microfiber cloth, and if needed, a dash of water to remove dirt. If it’s still there, the next pass is using a film/print cleaner such as Photographic Solutions‘s PEC-12 or Edwal Anti-Stat Film Cleaner, applied with lint-free photo wipes while wearing lint-free cotton or nylon gloves. With film and slides, rub several times gently, not one time hard.

To view slides and negatives and pick favorites, you need a light table or light box, a frame around translucent white plastic or glass with LED bulbs underneath, $25-$100 for a 9×12 viewing surface.

You’ll want a magnifying loupe, $10-$250, to view a slide or negative, which is typically 1 x 1.5 inches (24 x 36 mm), and tell apart a series of images that look almost the same.

When you’re done, you’ll want to store negatives and slides in compact form. Either store the negatives in their original envelopes, without the prints (which were digitized and then tossed), or get archival negative page sleeves or storage sheets from a vendor such as Print File, and put them in an archival box. ID each sheet (date, subject, place) before storing them away.

For slides, I use the Archival Methods 35mm Slide Storage Kit 2400, 96 tray bins inside 12 slides boxes inside one acid-free outer box, $160. I also use a metal Smith Victor / Logan Electric Slide File #200, $60, that holds 750 slides.

You can get away using any box that fits the slides knowing that it’s not acid-free. This might be a solution if you want to keep the slides for another 10-15 years after you’ve scanned the keepers and at that point, you decide you’re never going to rescan them. Acid-free boxes are what you want for the original of your grandparents’ wedding portrait.

Epson FF-680W duplex photo scanner scans as fast as one photo per second at 300 dpi. It can scan the back side in the same pass if there’s writing or a datestamp.

What Kind of Scanner?

To scan prints, most flatbed scanners work fine; the Canon CanoScan LLiDE 400 is less than $100, but you can also pay $1,000-plus for a letter-size scanner such as the Epson V850 Pro. (Some will scan slides and film but not as well as scanning service.) You’ll get fine results, too, from the scanner/copier component of an all-in-one (multifunction) printer.

Three scanners stand out to me. The Epson FastFoto FF-680W, $600, can scan one snapshot-size photo per second, front and back. The software lets you date the photo batch (exact date or estimated by year or decade), scan the back (but only if there’s medium-to-dark printing), crop-straighten-color correct-redeye remove, and save both a regular and corrected version (never save just the corrected version). If you have several thousand photos to scan, the time savings pays for itself. It’s also a very good document scanner. An earlier version, the Epson FF-640, works almost as well and also scans thick plastic such as credit cards or souvenir convention badges, but it’s not as good with text; it makes sense if you can find it for $400.

The Epson Expression 12000XL-GA, $3,300, scans up to 17.2 x 12.2 inches at 2400 dpi. This is the scanner graphics professionals use, once they find desk space for a 26 x 18-inch, 32-pound beast. Multiple small photos can be batched and then automatically cropped and saved as separate files. Too rich for your blood? Previous versions 10000XL and 11000XL sell used for $1,000-$1,500. Still too rich? Epson makes all-in-one tabloid / A3 printer-scanners for less than $500. The $1,500 Epson DS-50000 is cheaper (not cheap) but better suited to tabloid-size documents than photos. For occasional oversize scans, scan in segments on a letter-size scanner, then stitch with photo editing software.

The third scanner I like is the Nikon Coolscan 5000, a dedicated film and slide scanner. I bought mine used nearly a decade ago along with an automatic slide feeder and a negative film-strip holder, which makes the work go much faster. It has Digital ICE, a groundbreaking (in the 1990s) method of using infrared light to identify and remove (from the final scan) dust on the film. With the optional slide feeder, I can take a box of 36 slides, put them in the stacker, go away, and a half-hour later the slides are all scanned. It’s off the market but you can find the Coolscan 5000 online, and you’ll be able to resell it for about what you paid.

Plustek makes a large format flatbed scanner, the OS 1180 (not tested) for less than $400, and a film/slide scanner, the Plustek OpticFilm 8200i Ai Film Scanner, for $500. The only film scanners worth your time use infrared light to spot and digitally remove dust specks from the image. The dust removal process doesn’t work with most black & white film. Don’t bother with any $149 film or slide scanners.

If you have lots of slides or negatives to scan, look for a Nikon CoolScan 5000 ED, off the market but available on eBay and other auction sites. Get the auto slide feeder, too, to save time.

Using a Scanning Lab

The pain – all that time spent – of scanning slides or negatives one-by-one is very real. You may quickly decide a scanning lab is worthwhile. Most work well. Some are US operations with scanning done in Asia. Basically, you’re paying someone who makes less money than you to do work you find repetitive and boring. Some people want their photos processed onshore out of the fear (unfounded) all their memories will be lost by sloppy handling. They won’t.

To scan a 36-exposure roll of film, it might cost $9-$15, and that adds up quickly: 100 rolls of film could set you back as much as $1,500. So do this:

  • Only send the filmstrips (usually 4-5 images) where at least one of the photos is worth scanning.
  • With slides, only send the slides you want scanned.
  • Look for specials. Just about everybody discounts.
  • Verify that the lab cleans the film/slides before scanning. They should.
  • Some labs let you reject (and not pay for), say, one of every five images. You won’t get those scans back.

Some scanning labs will do simple retouching as part of the per-image fee. They can also (for fees) remove telephone wires or a long-gone boyfriend from the beach photo. Most of all, they can restore a cracked photo, even photos with chunks missing. My go-to lab is ScanCafe, but there are plenty of choices.

In addition to per image scanning, labs offer one-price boxes: everything you stuff in will be scanned for a fixed price.

Digitizing Home Movies

If you have home movies using 8mm or Super8 film stock, there’s no easy home solution other than – lots of people try this – finding a movie projector to borrow, projecting on a movie screen or ironed white bedsheet, and filming it with a video camera. It works, well, just okay.

A lab might charge 30 cents a foot to process movie film. Translation: Your grandfather’s reel of film that ran 3-4 minutes will cost you $15.

Digitizing videotape movies is easier. You can send it out to a lab, or digitize it on a PC with an analog video-in jack.

What to Do When You’re Done

When you’ve finished all your scanning, or at least reached a plateau where you pause, you’ll want to add metadata information to the photos: location, dates, subject, people. If you have thousands of photos, the go-to software is Adobe Photoshop Elements ($150), which includes pretty good facial recognition. I add lots of keywords, including the names of people in the photos and the occasions (vacations, Hawaii, Christmas, youth soccer, church, kayaking). Because I may not be sure of dates, I use the date feature to set a guesstimated date but also have keywords 1970s, 1980s, etcetera, which at least gives me a ballpark age of the image. (If you can ID the youngest person in the photo, you can set the date within a year or two.) Type in a town or stadium name and Lightroom adds the GPS location.

You also want to share the photos with family and friends, online and through photo books. Relatives seeing photos online may help ID people and places you didn’t. Make some prints and frame them; one hallway wall of our bedroom wing is our family history in photos. Fewer prints big is better than many 3×5 prints.

Your final steps: Be merciless in tossing prints you don’t need now that you’ve got them digitized. Store one copy of all the digital images online and another on a removable hard drive at home. A portable 5TB USB hard drive fits in a safe deposit box and holds a million 4×6 photo scans. Amazon Prime membership currently includes unlimited free storage of digital images. Backblaze sells unlimited cloud storage for $60 a year.

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