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What I Learned From Digitizing 1,000 Old Photos

Read this if you're thinking about scanning your photo collection. Or look at the pictures if you're in a vintage kind of mood.

My mother recently stumbled upon thousands of old photos from 1994 to 2005 including four entire albums of pictures of me from 0-8 years old.

I don't want to carry my baby pictures around forever. In accordance with my minimalist lifestyle, I decided to make digital copies to reduce my physical load, so I ordered a scanner and went to town.

Somewhere out there, someone's reading this because they're going to do the same thing. Here's what to expect from the process.

Photo Scanning + Caveats

To digitize your photos, you'll need an auto-feeding scanner or flatbed scanner. Each has its benefits, but I recommend that you get an auto-feeding one since it will make the (grueling) process much faster.

You can also use your phone's camera and a scanner application if you only have a few photos, but I don't recommend this method since you'll experience distortion on your images and will end up with relatively large (> 2MB) files.

I opted for a side-loading, auto-feeding scanner since it offered 600 dpi scanning at a fair price. A top-loading one would have been nicer for speed, but paying $400-800 for a scanner isn't realistic, even if you plan to resell it.

If you're a quality snob like I am, listen up:

No matter what you do, you're going to experience some form of quality loss in your scanned photos. Even the nicest scanner is limited in what it can reproduce from the source material.

You can prevent a few problems that affect image quality, but others you just have to deal with. The severity of some problems depends on the scanner that you're using.

Dust Spots

If you've never scanned photos before, it's important to know that any dust on a photo will be extremely apparent on the digital image. Wipe the dust off of your photos with a non-treated dust cloth, especially if you have photos with dark backgrounds.

That dust isn't on your screen.

If you've made this realization after you've scanned your photos, you can remove small specks of dust in post-processing using either the heal brush or clone stamp tool in Photoshop.

The same photo after the heal brush. Much better.

Safe Area

With a side-loading, auto-feeding scanner, if a photo isn't inserted perfectly straight, some edges of the photo will appear empty and the perspective may be warped slightly.

Unless important elements of your photo are on the edges, you can solve this problem by cropping the offending areas out of the photo, constraining the new crop area to the original proportions of the photo.

Alternatively, you can perfect your "photo-inserting technique" to get it exactly right everytime. I wasn't able to get a great feel for it in my handful of scanning sessions.

If you have a photo with important details on the edges, or if there's a photo that you really care about, scan it a few times and select the copy with the least/no perspective issues.

With a top-loading scanner, gravity aligns the photo, eliminating the problem. With a flatbed scanner, this shouldn't be a problem at all.

Aliasing

Aliasing (the Mioré pattern in this context) is the worst problem you'll run into. The lights from the scanner will reflect on the printed dots and leave an interference pattern on the digital image. The darker the source photo, the more noticable the pattern.

The horror.

Some scanners have built-in software that will "descreen" your photos (reduce the pattern), but I'm unsure of how well this actually works since my scanner doesn't have this feature.

Using a Gaussian blur and an image resize, you can perform your own descreening in Photoshop, but for the amount of time it takes versus the results that you get, it wasn't worth the time.

Supposedly, if you're using a flatbed scanner, you can reduce the effect by scanning your photos at a 15° angle to eliminate some of the interference. The trade-off is that you have to rotate the photo back to 0° in photo-editing software.

By the time I'd finished scanning all of the photos, I found that the effect doesn't bother me (it actually gives them a nice retro look), but if you know that it will keep you up at night, find a scanner with accurate descreening capabilities.

Bad Cropping

Sometimes a scanner will think that the photo that you've inserted is on a larger canvas than it actually is. This will result in a large, uneven, empty border surrounding a the sides of your image.

(I asked for string cheese for Christmas in 1997...)

This is all dependent on your scanner. You may never have this problem.

I hit this error about 10% of the time. My scanner's optional, accompanying software corrected the problem automatically, but I opted to import the JPEGs directly into a photo library and crop manually.

Editing the Photos

If you have experience editing RAW files in Photoshop, Lightroom, or Apple Photos, get ready for an all new level of fun.

Unless the photos that you're scanning are packed with detail (they aren't if they're old 6x4s), editing is difficult.

Looks like an Instagram filter, bur I've only adjusted the brightness.

Contrast can be downright awful. A slight adjustment of the knob may leave you with an unusable image.

White balance can be so bad that the slider turned up all the way to pink will still leave you with a blue-tinted image.

It takes some skill to make your retro photos look good, especially if they didn't look that great on paper. If you can get good at this, you can definitely put "proficient in Lightroom" on your resume...

Organization

The beauty is that when you're finally finished, you can do whatever you'd like with the photos.

If you just want to leave the photos in a single folder, go ahead.

If you want to go all out and create a new Apple Photos library for all of your childhood pictues, you can do that too.

If you opt for the later, adding metadata to photos takes way more time than scanning, especially if you're unsure where or when the photos were taken. You can guess based on other photos with dates or clues, and it can be rewarding if you're into that sort of thing; it's a big puzzle of your life.


Shifting gears a bit, at the end of the day, it's not the quality of the photos that counts. The photos themselves (except for the really awesome ones) aren't important either.

What's valuable is the personal story that they tell. They remind you of who you were, what you've done, how you've changed, and who you've become.

25. From Pennsylvania, USA. Software engineer at Amazon.com, traveler, scuba divemaster, amateur photographer, aspiring minimalist. A bit restless.

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