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

Most of us have old photos we value; either ones shot when we were young or collections inherited from relatives. The latter may contain universally valuable images, dating back to the early 20th Century when easy-to-operate cameras became affordable.

The widespread introduction of 35mm colour slide film in the 1960s was followed by consumer-level colour negative film from the 1970s on, when minilabs made processing relatively cheap and easy to access.

Scanning and digitising old photos helps to preserve our recollections of special people and events and makes valuable images easier to share.

Smartphone scanning

While you can copy prints by re-photographing them with a camera or smartphone, the results are variable. Smartphone scanning is fairly straightforward if you simply re-photograph each print using your smartphone’s camera.

But you’ll often have to contend with unsightly backgrounds and reflected glare from the shiny surfaces of the originals. You’ll also record all the scratches and other imperfections on the photos themselves. Subsequent prints will be disappointing.

Specialised scanning apps are available for iOS or Android devices, examples being Google PhotoScan, which takes five snapshots from multiple angles and then stitches them together, in the process correcting perspective and eliminating glare. It takes roughly 25 seconds to scan one photo: 15 for aiming the camera and 10 for processing. (Note that Google PhotoScan scans images at 72 pixels per inch, which is fine for displaying on a screen but too low in resolution for printing.)

Specialised apps are available to let you copy old photos with your smartphone but their capabilities are quite limited.

More capable is Microsoft’s Office Lens app, which enables a smartphone’s camera to snap a photo of a note, card, photo print or other document. Free to download and install on iOS or Android devices, it lets you choose the camera’s scanning resolution to the maximum the device supports (based on the camera’s megapixels).

Camera attachments

Digitising adapters for 35mm slides are available from most specialist camera shops and online re-sellers. They allow you to re-photograph the image and save it in digital form (JPEG, TIFF or the camera’s native raw file format) with your camera’s native resolution, which will yield usable images for editing and printing.

The simplest ones are slide holders with a translucent backing that fit onto the filter thread of your camera’s lens. Some are attached by a clamping screw. These holders work best with true macro lenses but can be used with lenses that can focus down to the distance between the slide and the camera’s image sensor (which varies with different cameras and holders).

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 copiers that can be attached to camera lenses are relatively inexpensive but their capabilities are quite limited and most can only handle 35mm film.

Note that none of these options will produce copies with quality as good as you would obtain from a dedicated scanner. You’ll probably need to spend extra time ‘cleaning up’ the scans to remove dust and physical damage like scratches and correct off-colours. (Most scanners include some automatic adjustments for colour, contrast and sharpness corrections.)

Multi-function printers

If your collection consists mainly of prints, you can probably start straight away with your existing home office equipment. Virtually any inkjet-based home and office multi-function printer/copier/scanner can be used to scan B&W and colour prints.

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

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.

If you have thousands of postcard-sized colour prints to scan it may be worth investing in a specialised print scanner that will do the job quickly and efficiently.

Negatives and slides 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. This illustration shows a holder on the platen containing colour slides ready for scanning.

While you can buy a dedicated film scanner for under $200, if you have a mixed media collection containing a lot of slides and/or negatives to scan it’s smarter to invest in a flatbed film scanner that can scan both films and prints. These scanners have energy-efficient LED light sources in their covers and line arrays of CCD sensors below the scanning platen to collect the image data.  Resolutions range from 4800 x 9600 dpi to 6400 x 9600 dpi of optical resolution.

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 interpolated resolutions up to about 9600 x 9600 dpi.

Resolution is not the only criterion to consider; colour bit depth and DMax (maximum density) are almost as important. Bit depth defines the number of colour levels the device can record – and therefore the range of hues and tones it can capture. DMax defines the width of the dynamic range it can handle between pure white and pure black. In each case, higher figures are better and you will pay the highest prices for scanners with 48-bit colour and 4.0 DMax listed in their specifications.
Other criteria to consider 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 the scanner driver and your image editor – and often in both. This tool can be useful when the raw scan might otherwise be a little soft.

The scanner driver should allow you to select the most suitable bit depth (circled in red in each of these screen grabs) to match both the type of original image and the end use for the digitised result. For black and white prints the highest bit depth is 16-bit, which is equivalent to 65,535 tones between pure white and pure black. Colour originals can be scanned at 48-bits, which is equivalent to 16 bits for each of the red, green and blue colour channels. Trillions of hue and tone combinations can be encompassed as a result.

How to do it

It’s important to select the correct scanner settings for your originals. 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.

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, but it produces larger files. (If necessary, you can change it back to greyscale after scanning.) Sepia-toned originals should always be scanned in colour.

Scans of prints on textured paper will almost always copy the texture, which makes the image appear a little soft.

Be careful when scanning prints on textured paper as the scan will often bring out the pattern of the stippling. Always ‘preview’ or ‘pre-scan’ to check what the end result will look like before committing to a scan.

All scanners come with software that lets you set the scan resolution and adjust brightness and colour parameters, if required.

Understand the settings

Automatic settings can be useful for novices and will provide a quick shortcut when you’re in a hurry. But they may not scan at the resolution you require for the end use of the scan. It’s important to know the best settings to use for different applications and become familiar with resolution calculations

Resolution is usually expressed in ‘pixels per inch’ (ppi) for the images themselves or ‘dots per inch’ (dpi) when they are to be printed. These terms are often used interchangeably. Photographs are normally printed at 300 dpi so if you have a small original like a 35mm negative or slide you will probably want to scan it at much higher resolution, especially if it will be printed.

Scanning at 600 ppi will give you a two times enlargement potential, while if you want to make A4 sized prints from a 35mm slide you would need to scan it at a resolution of at least 2400 ppi. Detailed resolution settings for different applications are outlined in the table below.

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

The parameters circled in red show the optimal scanner settings for digitising a 35mm slide that will be printed at A4 size. The box outlined in green on the left side of the screen shows some of the adjustment tools provided in a high-end flatbed scanner’s driver.

Useful links:

Image size and resolution requirements

Scan your old photos

Scanning hard copy photos

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

Pocket guide Partner: Camera House

If you’d like a professional to look after your photo scanning, try your local Camera House store.