It’s easy to forget about the old ways of doing things. Rotary phones, cassette tapes, and film are all relics that seem alien to youth raised on smartphones, streaming music, and digital cameras. But many families have photo albums gathering dust on a shelf or locked away in storage, and those with less organization may simply stumble upon a shoebox full of old prints and negatives in varying states of condition. Converting those images to digital format will ensure that they’re available for generations to come.
Digitizing old photos can be a time-consuming process, but a worthwhile one, as you’ll be able to easily share images with family members scattered about the globe. You can save time by opting for a scanning service, but if you’ve got the DIY spirit (or you’re looking to save some money), scanning at home is a solid option.
A good flatbed photo scanner is all the hardware you need if you’re scanning prints. You can find a solid model in our list of The Best Photo Scanners. You’ll want to make sure that prints are as clean as possible. If they’re dusty, use a soft cloth that’s free of oil (a freshly washed handkerchief will do the trick) or compressed air to remove it.
We’ve got a guide that covers the nuts and bolts of the scanning process. The best file formats and settings are covered there, as well as ideas as for how to break down a big scanning project into more manageable pieces.
Once prints have been digitized, it’s decision time as to what to do with the physical media. The easy road is to throw them away—after all, you have digital copies now. But it’s one that you may regret. Consider moving them into modern albums with acid-free materials. That way you’ll still be able to sit around the fireplace and page through images if the mood strikes you. Just make sure to remember to store albums in a temperate environment, free of excessive heat or humidity.
Scanning Negatives and Slides
Working with negatives is a bit more tricky than with prints, but with the right care and equipment, quality will be much stronger. Many flatbed scanners will also scan negatives, but if you’re working the most common consumer negative size, 35mm, resolution can be disappointing.
Dedicated 35mm scanners are expensive, but the scanning technology hasn’t improved by leaps and bounds over the past decade, so buying one used shouldn’t be discounted if you’ve got a large number of negatives to digitize. The difference in quality versus a flatbed scanner is palpable. You may have to spend a few hundred dollars to buy a scanner that’s dedicated to slides and negatives, but if you have a large volume of images to scan from film, it’s worth it. And you can always sell the scanner when you’re done with the project.
With larger negatives—medium format (120 roll film) and large format—a flatbed scanner does a better job. There’s significantly more surface area and information, so the scanner has an easier job putting it into a digital format. Pros will still want to invest in a dedicated film scanner that supports medium format; the Plustek OpticFilm 120 is what I use for my negatives and slides, but a $2,000 piece of hardware is more than overkill for most people.
Flatbed scanners ship with negative holders for medium format film, but the plastic frames don’t do a great job keeping negatives outstretched and out of contact with the scanner glass. Investing in a third-party holder ensures that negatives lay completely flat and include ground glass that will eliminate the Newton’s Ring effect that plagues negatives scanned with flatbed equipment.
Regardless of whether you are scanning negatives with a flatbed or a dedicated 35mm scanner, you’ll want to pay attention to settings. If your scanner supports digital ICE (Image Correction and Enhancement) technology, you’ll want to leave it turned on when scanning color negatives and slides. It does a fine job removing dust and minor scratches. But if images are black and white, turn ICE off. Not only does it not work with black-and-white negatives, it can significantly harm image quality if left on.
The software that is bundled with your scanner can vary in quality. It’s going to include all of the basic settings that you’ll need to scan prints and documents, but you may find it lacking when it comes to support for negative scanning. If that’s the case, consider a third-party option, like VueScan (above), that give you a greater level of control.
Increases in SLR resolution have also opened up a new door for photographers digitizing 35mm negatives and slides. You can get a film scanning kit for Nikon SLRs, including the high-resolution D850. You’ll need a macro lens with 1:1 magnificiation support to get the most detail out of your negatives, but if you already own the camera, it’s less expensive than investing in a dedicated film scanner.
As with prints, storing negatives after you’ve scanned them is a personal choice. But once again, my advice is to keep them. A good three-ring binder and sheets of transparent sleeves will do a fine job keeping them safe. As with prints, store them in a temperate, low-humidity environment.
Scanning photos is the first part of your job. Next up, you’ll want to perform some basic image editing and retouching. Photo editing software makes it easy to crop images and remove red eye from snapshots.
More advanced editing tools are also available. For instance, you can use editing software to wipe away dust spots, scratches, and creases. It takes information from a location that’s close to the damaged area of the photo and uses it to fix the damage. This effect works well in areas of an image with repeating patterns—a blue sky or grassy field—but can be tricky to use on faces, so take care when retouching. Your scans may show color shift or faded colors. Thankfully, color balance is also something you can fix.
Once you’ve got your prints and negatives converted to digital format, you’ll need to consider just how to organize and store them. At minimum, you’ll want to keep a local backup copy of photos, as you don’t want a hard drive crash to wipe away all of your hard work.
You can backup to a second hard disk (either manually or via software), or to a burned DVD or Blu-ray—though with optical media going the way of the floppy disk, the latter is not a forward-thinking method in today’s world. For a solid backup solution, check out our picks for The Best External Hard Drives.
Cloud storage should be looked at as an additional layer of backup. Some allows you to store images in folders, share photos with family and friends, and add tags so you can easily view images of the same person, location, or event. And you can find software that offers free storage so you don’t have to shell out a yearly fee.
Bringing your family photos into the digital realm can be a daunting prospect, especially if you have a snap-happy relative who works to document even the most minor daily events. But it’s one that’s worthwhile. Not only are you stopping any deterioration of physical prints and negatives in its tracks, you’re also putting photos in a format that can be viewed on tablets and phones. Your kids can flip through family memories during screen time, and it will prompt them to ask questions about your family history and heritage.
There’s a greater purpose as well. It’s often family photos that provide historians with a close look into bygone eras, more personal and intimate than you get with newspaper coverage. The work of street photographer Vivian Maier is a prime example. Maier shot thousands of images in the 1950s and 60s, and those photos, which were lingering in storage until discovered in 2008, have become the subject of gallery shows and documentary films. Now, not every shoebox of snapshots is going to garner the same amount of attention or acclaim. But small pieces of history, when viewed in the context of the greater tapestry, go a long way to show the styles, customs, and mores of any given era.