We all know photo albums are the first things people pack when they’re forced to leave home due to catastrophes like fire and flooding.

Most people rate photos among their most valuable possessions because they contain precious memories. The best way to make sure these memories are protected and kept safe throughout the years is to digitise them. Digitised photos will no longer fade; they’ll also be easier to organise, share and keep safe if something untoward happens to the originals.

Most people have collections of old photographs they would like to preserve and share.

It’s easy to save image files to a computer, tablet, phone or online cloud server and also to keep copies on several different storage devices as backups. It’s also simple to label the image files so they’re easy to locate when you want to share them via email and social media or include them in projects like scrapbooks, slideshows and printed publications.

Digitising is also the best way to preserve family history records. You can turn the family’s collection of old photos and documents into a valuable resource that can be accessed by other family members, including children and grandchildren. A photo book containing recollection of your childhood – or an important family event – is a valuable heirloom and well worth spending time on.

Double-page spread from a photo book created with old photographs that have been digitised by scanning them.

The digitisation process enables you to correct blemishes and adjust colour reproduction and the tonal balance. These adjustments simply can’t be made on original prints or slides.

Restoration issues

No matter how well they have been handled in the past, old photos won’t look as good as they did when originally taken. Digitising and restoration can bring them back to life, but there are a few issues you can expect to be confronted with.

All images will fade over time. Colour prints and slides will fade as the chemical dyes that make up the image will seldom remain stable for longer than 10-20 years. Even B&W originals can fade.

The original image on the left, which shows considerable fading, was copied from a 40-year-old colour slide. The edited version on the right shows the improvements that can be made with a few simple global colour adjustments. Note the loss of details in white areas, which is due to fading.

It’s not uncommon for B&W prints to start fading after about 20 years if they haven’t been correctly processed, although most should retain much of their sharpness and contrast for a lot longer. Sepia toned prints have the best stability but the toning process reduces their overall contrast.

With colour originals, different colours will fade at different rates. Cyan and yellow dyes are the most susceptible and when they fade, the result will be a purplish colour bias in the image.

Fading can also compromise details in bright areas in the photograph. While colours can often be effectively ‘restored’ there is no way to recover details that have faded away.

The gelatin emulsions on prints and films can also become damaged, either by mould infestations or physical injuries caused by abrasion or cracking. Poor handling can also produce tears and creases that can be addressed with editing software.

While turning your treasured physical photographs into digital copies may not seem as easy as leaving them in a photo album or box, having them edited, protected and shareable completely outweighs the costs. The difficulties you encounter will largely depend on the number of photos you need to scan and whether they are prints, negatives or slides.

From a practical standpoint, it’s important to work out how many images you want to copy in the first place and then decide what you’ll do with the digitised files. These factors will dictate the equipment you’ll need, which is covered in the next chapter.

If you’ve never undertaken a scanning project before, there are a few useful guidelines to keep in mind. Don’t be put off if your collection spans several shoeboxes or multiple albums. You don’t need to scan all your photos at once; in fact it’s better to scan small batches until you’ve established a scan-and-save routine, which will be different for B&W and colour originals as well as for prints, negatives and slides.

Be organised

Decide on the order in which you’ll tackle the task, the time you can allocate and where you will store the digitised image files. Start by making a few ‘practice scans’ to get the hang of the operation and ensure you’ve set your workflow up to deliver the results you want.

What tools will you need? Will you scan the originals chronologically or in the order they are packed in a box or slotted into an album? Is there a ‘natural’ order of importance?

Keeping all the files for a project in the same folder makes it easy to find copies when you need them. Individual folders within the main folder allow you to allocate scans to different people, places or occasions.

How are you going to organise the photos on your computer or external hard drive? We’d recommend establishing a system for naming and sorting files into folders, which can be labelled with date or place names to make it easy to find the photos you are looking for.

You may also want to consider keeping track of individual people so you can search for them by name or a tag after the scans have been saved. The software supplied with most scanners will usually allow you to tag each file with an identifier so you can group similar photos together.

Be selective

You don’t need to save every photo you’ve ever taken; only the ones that are important to you. (Think about how many photos you take with your phone that you delete immediately.)

While scanning old photos at home can be time-consuming, it can bring back many old and treasured memories. It also gives you complete control over how your photos are copied, organised and stored.

Be careful

Remove any surface dust and fibres with a blower-brush, which is available through most camera shops. You could also use a soft make-up brush like the ones offered by supermarkets and chemist shops.

Residual grime can usually be wiped off with a non-abrasive microfibre cloth, taking care not to scratch the emulsion surfaces of images on film. This attention to detail will save you time, removing any dust specks that degrade scans of originals that weren’t cleaned.

A blower brush, such as the one shown in this popular lens cleaning kit, can be used to remove superficial dust from slides and negatives, while the soft, lint-free cloth in the kit is useful for removing dust from prints before scanning them.

A different microfibre cloth should be used to clean the platen of the scanner as its glass surface can also attract dust and grime. Both cloths should be washed frequently to ensure they don’t accumulate grease.

Always preview your scans to make sure the original is correctly positioned and check that you’re using the correct settings for the end use of the scanned images. Check the stored files of your scans periodically to ensure they are scanning and saving properly.

Useful links:

Equipment for editing your photos

Is your monitor up to scratch?

Photo Editing pocket guide

This article by Margaret Brown is an excerpt from Photo Restoration pocket guide

Pocket guide Partner: Camera House

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