How to revive your collection of old photographs.

Most of us have collections of old photos, either ones shot when we were young or collections inherited from relatives. In the latter there may be some genuinely valuable images, since people in developed countries have been taking photos since Eastman Kodak introduced the legendary Box Brownie at the turn of the 20th century.

Brownie cameras were taken to both World Wars and popular birthday and Christmas presents for children from the early 1950s. A search through old family photos could well reveal some treasures, although the overwhelming majority of originals will be black-and-white.

The 1960s saw the widespread introduction of 35mm colour slide film, thanks in a large part to Kodachrome becoming available in 35mm with a faster (ISO 64) speed and pre-paid processing included. Negative films in the same format took a bit longer to become popular but the invention by Kodak of C-41 processing in 1972 led to a proliferation of minilabs that made processing relatively cheap and easily accessible.

As a result of all these developments, a search through old shoeboxes (the traditional storage places for old photos) and photo albums will reveal a diverse collection of film types and formats, which will require different treatment.

Scanning and digitising old photos helps to preserve them and makes valuable image easier to share.

Why Digitise?
The main reasons to digitise old photos are to preserve them and make them easier to share. No matter how well they have been handled in the past. Old photos will change over time. Even B&W originals can fade, although they’re not a prone to fading as colour originals.

Gelatin emulsions can become damaged, either by mould infestations or physical injuries caused by abrasion or cracking. Colour originals are particularly vulnerable and 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.

Some of our older readers will have produced – or be in the process of creating – family history records. Digitising old photos will provide a valuable contribution to these documents. It also makes old photos much easier to share with 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.

What Equipment do you Need?

While you can copy prints by re-photographing them with a camera or smartphone, the process is tricky and time-consuming and the results depend upon your level of expertise. If you want to make prints from these copies in the future the results are often disappointing.

Similarly, you can buy 35mm slide holders that will fit onto a macro lens on your camera and allow you to re-photograph the image and save it in digital form with your camera’s native resolution. Cheap film scanners are also available for 35mm negatives and/or mounted slides, although the resolution is likely to be quite low (typically around 5 megapixels). The scans are often saved directly to an SD card.

Dedicated film scanners are available with low price tags but their capabilities are quite limited and most can only handle 35mm film.


In both these cases, you’ll normally need to spend extra time ‘cleaning up’ the scans to remove dust and physical damage like scratches and correct off-colours.

Black-and-white prints can be scanned successfully with a standard multi-function printer/copier/scanner.

If your collection consists mainly of prints, you can probably start straight away with your existing home office equipment. Virtually any multi-function printer/copier/scanner can be used to scan B&W prints. Canon produces a nice line of dedicated document scanners under the CanoScan LiDE brand name. The top model (LiDE400) has 4800 x 4800 pixel resolution and offers output resolutions up to 19.200 dots/inch (dpi), while the entry-level model has 2400 x 2400 pixel resolution. Both sell for less than AU$170. Epson’s Perfection V39 has similar specifications to the Canon LiDE400 and a similar price tag.

Colour prints will probably require post-scan editing to ‘restore’ faded colours. But, then, all scans should be checked in an image editor so you can fix blemishes and bring them back to life.

Negatives are a different matter. If you try to scan them with a flatbed scanner the results will be unusable; you need a dedicated film scanner that passes light through the film to the CCD array that collects the digital information.

Flatbed scanners with film scanning capabilities are the most versatile option for anyone with a mixed collection of prints, negatives and slides.

Epson produces a range of flatbed scanners with energy-efficient LED light sources in their covers and line arrays of CCD sensors below the platen to collect the image data.  The advantage of these scanners is their ability to scan both films and prints. Resolutions of flatbed film scanners range from 4800 x 9600 dpi to 6400 x 9600 dpi of optical resolution, with prices ranging from around AU$250 to $1400.

Check the interpolated resolution when shopping for a scanner as it will tell you how well the scanner’s driver software can ‘fill-in’ spaces between scanned dots. This is important if you plan to enlarge images for printing as well as when scanning film frames for archiving. Most scanners should offer an interpolated resolution of about 9600 x 9600 dpi.

Resolution is not the only criterion to consider when choosing a flatbed/film scanner; colour bit depth and DMax (maximum density) are almost as important. Bit depth defines the number of colour levels the device can record, while DMax defines the dynamic range it can handle. In each case, higher figures are better and you will pay the highest prices for scanners with 48-bit colour and 4.0DMax listed in their specifications.

Other criteria to consider when choosing a scanner include bundled software for dust and scratch removal, colour restoration and grain management. These tools can save you valuable retouching time when you edit scans before saving them. Sharpening software can also be a handy time-saver, although in most cases the same Unsharp Masking adjustments are available in your image editor. This tool can be useful when the raw scan is a little soft.

How to do it

Regardless of whether you’re scanning prints or film, each original should be cleaned before scanning to remove dust and fibres they may have attracted. Use a soft brush and compressed air blower to remove them. Mould is more difficult to deal with and may not be removable without damaging the originals. Similarly, there’s not much you can do to repair physical damage. Torn prints may be repairable with tape on the back of the print to hold the pieces together. Negatives that have been cut are almost impossible to repair and will require extensive editing.

It’s important to select the correct scanner settings for your originals, starting by distinguishing between prints and film since each will require different light sources. Images on film need to be separated into positive (‘reversal’ or ‘transparency’) and negative since the latter requires an additional processing step to convert the hues and tones into a ‘normal’ image.

Regardless of whether your scanner comes with ‘cleaning up’ tools, you will still need to put finishing touches to virtually all of your scanned images. The process needn’t take a lot of time if you know which tools to use and how to use them.

Any lint-free cloth can be used to clean dust and fibres off prints.

B&W originals can be scanned with either the colour or the greyscale mode. The colour mode collects more data, providing more flexibility to manipulate the image. You can change it back to greyscale after scanning. Sepia-toned originals should always be scanned in colour.

Always ‘preview’ or ‘pre-scan’ to check what the end result will looks like before committing to a scan.

Automatic settings can be useful for novices and provide a convenient shortcut. But they may not scan at the resolution you require for the end use of the scan. Different usages have different scanning requirements, which hare outlined in the table below.

Application Ideal Image Size (in pixels) Resolution (in pixels/inch
For phones and tablets 1024 x 768 pixels 72-92 ppi
Viewing on TV and monitor screens 1920 x 1080 pixels 72-92 ppi
Printing to 15 x 10 cm 2000 pixels wide 300 ppi
Printing to A4 size 4000 pixels wide 300 ppi
Printing at A3 and A3+ size 4500-5500 pixels wide 250-300 ppi

Most software applications include tools which act globally (on the whole image) to correct exposure and contrast levels and produce a nice colour balance. They may not deliver the exact result you want – especially in the case of colour adjustments – but they generally provide manual overrides that let you pull back over-adjustments.

Cloning and healing tools are also common in most image editors and you’ll generally find the related brush sizes are adjustable. Brush ‘softness’ and the intensity of  the adjustment are commonly provided as well. With these tools most of the blemishes found in scans of old photos are easily corrected.

You can find plenty of tips on various editing functions in our  Editing Tips section. Potential scanner buyers will also find a review of the Epson Perfection V600 flatbed/film scanner, which is still available locally. And watch for our up-coming review of Epson’s top-of-the-range  Perfection V850 Pro scanner which will be published towards the end of this month. (Join our newsletter to be advised on new reviews.)

Article by Margaret Brown 

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