Digitizing Old Photos
By Justine Dorton
I have what sometimes feels like 87,000 photographs in albums stacked in
my basement. They fill dozens of albums, and cover the interesting,
mundane, special, outrageous, and sacred moments of my life. They stop,
abruptly, in 2002. They have been replaced by, as you might have guessed,
digital files. Files and files and files of pictures, the sum of which is
likely closing in on 87 million. Please tell me I'm not the only one.
I struggled mightily with what to do with all these old albums. My
digital storage is well maintained and heavily backed up - no house fire
or earthquake is going to destroy my pictorial life since 2002. How could
I possibly guarantee the same for all those albums in the basement?
After a little bit of research and a little bit of luck, I've been able
to catalog about 70% of my family's photos digitally. I'll walk you
through how I did it.
Making Old Photographs Digital:
Let's start our walk through the first project I undertook with my
sisters to start saving some of our old photographs. My younger sister
snuck into our parent's home and borrowed all their crates full of old
pictures. Scattered around my family room we three sisters sat, filtering
out the pictures of most and least importance. We whittled 5 crates and
50 years of pictures down to about 700 pictures that most accurately
captured the important moments in our parents lives.
That stack of 700 pictures then sat there, fading away, losing more
quality and texture, for two more weeks, until I mustered the courage to
conquer it. I toyed with the idea of scanning each photo, and even messed
around with our scanner for a few attempts, but found the quality and
size of photo unacceptable for any really serious attempt at archiving.
There are scanners available that produce high picture quality, but the
real issue with scanners is their propensity for dust. Professional photo
restoration companies will keep their digital scanners in professionally
maintained dust-free rooms. Scanning your photos will guarantee that dust
will need to be removed from the photo image after you have captured it.
Depending on the quality of your camera, the quality of your scanner, and
the free time you've got on your hands (taking photos of your photos is
much faster), you can make that choice yourself.
If you are in the market for a scanner, or have the spare change to
spend, make sure you buy a scanner with at least a 36-bit color depth,
and the highest resolution you can possibly afford. Any resolution under
1200 dpi will result in diminished picture quality if you intend to
reprint your picture at some point (1200 dpi is sold for between
$150-$250 at many office supply stores). If you are certain you will
never want a scanned picture to be any larger than it was when originally
scanned, you can get away with a 600 dpi. These scanners can be found
for under $100.
If you do decide to use a scanner, you won't have to worry about lighting
or distortion, which we will talk about later, however, remember that
when using a scanner, you will always diminish the quality of the
portrait by introducing dust particles onto it. That can create more work
in a photo editing software to restore the image.
There are several important things to remember before using your camera
to capture an old photo digitally.
1. Camera type. You can archive photos with almost any digital camera.
There are only a few critical recommendations. If your camera has a
standard zoom and a digital zoom, it will be important to understand the
difference. You can use a standard, or optical, zoom to capture your
images, but should not use a digital zoom. A digital zoom will digitally
alter the image to achieve an artificially closer image. This will result
in substandard image quality.
Using your optical zoom is acceptable, but try to stay away from using
the wide angle portion of your zoom. This will distort the edges of the
picture, as you can see from the lines in the example picture below.
(think of pictures you've seen that have a fish-eye effect.)
2. Light. The light on the original photo absolutely must be natural
and muted. No flashes allowed here, folks. If you are a true photo
enthusiast, with a professional external flash and diffuser, feel free to
ignore that advice. If not, remember,no flashes! (see examples below)
Using a lamp
Using a flash
Use a window with filtered light, use a window's light on a cloudy day,
or choose a time of day when the sun won't be directly shining on your
spot. Aim to have the light be flat and uniform. If one side of the
picture is brighter than the other, this will show in your finished
picture.This is really the only tricky part. Using poor light will
greatly diminish the quality of your image, but if you have really bright
light, you'll notice a glare on your photos. Steer clear of anything that
puts out a strong incidentor directional light. And remember, natural
light is best, so no lamps. (You can do it. Don't get down here. You know
you want to do this. I know you can, so buck up, and keep reading!)
3. Level planes.(No, not aircraft). It's important to keep your image
and your camera on the same geometric plane. If the camera (or the image)
is tilted or skewed from the other, the image will be distorted, as one
part of the image is closer to the camera than the rest. (see examples
below) You don't need a tripod to do this, but it would certainly be made
easier with one. I'll show you how to do both.
Without a tripod:
Set up your work place. You'll want a flat surface to lay each photo. I
would suggest laying a white piece of paper down that will act as your
work surface. Without a tripod, using the floor could be ideal. Your
camera will need to be placed higher than the photo, hovering over it at
the same geometric plane as the photo. This simply means that the camera
has to be exactly perpendicular to the photo as it lays on the work
surface. Do not get too close to the photo, or you will get some
distortion (see distortion picture above). Not using a tripod, the safest
thing to do (not threatening the safety of your camera) is to handhold
the camera. A second option would be to adhere your image to a surface
that is vertical, and line your camera up accordingly.
With a tripod:
Using the same instructions as without a tripod, setup your work surface.
Place the tripod over the work surface with the lens pointed directly
down at the work surface, being sure to level out the camera to be
perpendicular with that surface.
Correct tripod setup
Incorrect tripod setup
Don't worry if you're not perfect! Obviously, the closer you get the
better, but being close will usually suffice for the purposes of
archiving and restoring.
Now, place a photo on your work surface. The first one will be the
toughest. Looking through the lens, try to fill the entire frame with the
picture. Zoom in or out (remembering the rules of zooming!), move the
camera closer or farther, whatever you need to do to fill the frame.
(If the photo doesn't cover every single millimeter of the lens, that's
ok. There are later steps that can correct that.)
Take a couple of practice shots to get a feel for where the picture needs
to be placed, how close the camera needs to be, how the light is
affecting the look and colors in the picture, etc. Again, don't place
the camera too close to the picture (no closer than twelve inches), to
avoid distortion. Find your perfect spot, with the best light, and set
up the shot again. If convenient, use a pencil or light pen to mark on
your work surface where the picture borders are. This will make later
pictures much easier and faster to work through.
Once you are comfortable with the quality of light and your work surface
is well set up, get to work! With an extra set of hands, you and a
partner can whisk through pictures quickly, just as my sister and I did.
We photographed our 700 family memories in a couple of hours.
Restoring Old Photographs:
Well, you've gotten all those old photographs converted to a digital
format. Congratulations! (see, I told you that you could do it!) Now
we've go to get them into a usable condition. Using whatever means your
camera has established, get your pictures onto your computer. Placing
them all in one folder will obviously help you manage this project. We'll
be making separate folders for pictures as we work on them.
If you don't have any photo software on your computer, there are a few
programs you can download or purchase that will meet most of your basic
needs. Picasa, a photo program by Google (available at
is free to download,and can be used to fix red eye, crop and straighten, correct
some color problems, and work out basic contrast issues. Adobe Photoshop is a
highly technical and powerful program that can solve serious technical problems,
but costs over $600, and takes a fair amount of training to use.Adobe also makes
a less expensive version, called
which retails for around
$70, and is far more user friendly. It is more powerful than any free software
you might find, but comes equipped with basic troubleshooting pre-sets, and is a
good first step into more serious restoration. Your computer may also come
installed with some version of photo editing software, so check with your software
Within a typical photo editing software program, you can open the
pictures, straighten up the image, and crop away any excess clippings
from the copied photo. If necessary, you can fiddle with contrast and
color settings to try and restore an older, faded picture to a more
vibrant and bright one, but beware of making the picture look too
stylized and unrealistic (see examples below).
Well repaired, natural tones
damaged picture, overly color corrected
After each photo is cropped and cleaned up, save it as a new file,
usually as a jpeg file. For filing ease, name each file as a date and
name, with the year first, followed by numeric month and date, and ending
with a short title. This will chronologically list all your files in your
finder window. If you create a second folder inside the first, you can
keep track of the photos you have finished, as well as those yet to edit.
This also makes it easier to toggle between the finished and unfinished
images. I suggest maintaining the original state of the first file as a
back-up. If, during the process of editing, mistakes are made, or the
picture doesn't turn out as you expected, you can always return to the
original file to start over. Or, if you ultimately need to hire a
professional to manage the picture, you still have the digital file of
If you are in need of more serious or technical photo-restoration, there
are several internet websites, as well as local businesses in most metro
areas that cater to this market. Starting with a digital image already in
hand may reduce your costs, in some situations. Some online
photo-restoration sites, such as
ScanCafe who offer
a variety of services, starting around $40 and increasing into the
hundreds. ScanCafe will scan and repair your old slides, negatives and photos, by hand-creating a perfect "digital negative" that never fades. They can do projects that restore color, recreate missing parts
from water or light damaged photos, and restore data lost in fold marks
and rips. Check local yellow pages for other options. Although sometimes
pricey, these can be a valuable tool.
Once you have your digital pictures in the restored and pristine shape
you'd like them, it's time to decide what on earth to do with them! Here
is where choices open up widely, and the creativity you've been bottling
inside gets to brim over.
Purchasing an external hard drive to serve as a back-up space for digital
images is a smart move. External hard drives range in size (and price,
obviously) from around a 160 GB drive for under $100, to a 1 TB drive for
around $500. These prices change all the time,though, so check with a
local retailer. These drives can fill up fast if you take pictures
prolifically, but if you are interested in long term storage for
judiciously chosen pictures, a smaller drive might do just fine. This
device could be easily grabbed in an emergency, with your data secure, or
transferred to another computer or another location.
Another option would be to store your data "off-site".A quick Google
search for "data storage" will yield dozens of companies that will store
your images at their facilities. A really reliable one that has been
around for over 10 years is at
Register and account with them and backup your photos and family history for
free. This would remove any worry about losing your data to a natural disaster
or faulty computer, as most of these companies use multiple back-up methods to
ensure their customers' data safety.
Burning your picture files to CD's or DVD's can be an easy and
inexpensive way to manually back up your files. You will only need a CD
or DVD burner on your computer. Read your computer owners manual for more
instructions. DVD's are rated to last, data intact, for 100 years,
however, most storage facilities that use DVD's have a policy to change
out DVD's at 50 years.
Keeping prints of pictures is a fun and easy way to archive, but photos,
no matter how new, will still be subject to aging and fading. Keep prints
only for personal use, and not as your sole archival means.
Remember, no matter what method you choose, make sure that you choose
more than one. Storing your data in at least two locations will help
ensure its safety.
After my sisters and I got our 700 pictures into top notch shape, we
downloaded software at Blurb
and created a beautiful, full color,
full-bleed 350 page book of all the pictures, as well as copies of important
documents and stories from their lives. It was given as a family present to them
on their anniversary. The download was a user friendly, easily understood program
that helped me design and create the book. Once the book was completed, the
finished file was uploaded to Blurb's website, where they - in only two
weeks - printed and published our book. Prices at Blurb start at only $12 for a
40 page softcover book. At the other end of the spectrum, a 440 page hard cover
book will set you back $65.
PicaBoo.com, Snapfish Photobooks, and
Kodak Photo Book - 5X7 Family Memories are other great
alternatives to look into for photo albums, with alternative options and pricing.
The uploaded files will usually stay active at the website for a year or
so, offering you the opportunity to buy extra books at a later time.
Additionally, you still retain the original file of the book, and can
upload it again if you need to purchase extra copies after the first
Updating and archiving old photos can certainly seem like a daunting
task, but your photos aren't going anywhere - yet. Start, and you'll see
just how easy it is. There's no need to remind you how important it is to
do something now to preserve your family's history. You'll be surprised
how fast you can get through your own 87 million family photos. Let us
know how it goes!