Tips for Preserving Precious Family Photos
Chances are that most of you have a pile of family photo albums sitting in a box somewhere that rarely, if ever, gets to see the light of day. We live in a world where photos are shared constantly through social media, text messages, and email. Wouldn’t you like to share those older family photos as well? Wouldn’t you love to surprise your sibling with a #TBT (throw-back Thursday) Instagram photo of them dressed in their favorite Halloween costume or a photo of your parents at their high-school prom? Well, accomplishing this might be easier than you thought.
There are many new scanners on the market that can help you scan your precious memories so that you can share them, tag your friends and family on Facebook or Instagram, and even make more prints of them.
There are a few points to consider when purchasing a scanner to preserve your family's "Kodak" moments. The first consideration is whether you’ll only be scanning photos, or if you have old negatives and slides that you would like to preserve as well. If you don’t have negatives or slides, most flatbed scanners will do the job for you, but some scanners can handle prints and film also. We’ll talk about prints first and then move on to slides and negatives.
When you’re choosing a scanner for photos, the most important thing you need to think about is the purpose for which you are scanning them. Will you be re-printing them full size? Enlarging them? Putting them on your website or a social media site? Your answer will help you decide on the kind of scanner you will need. If you plan to share the photos on the Web, a wand or stand-alone scanner will give you sufficient image quality. If, however, you need high-quality scans for large prints, you would be better served by a high-resolution output flatbed scanner.
Wand scanners are small, handheld, and portable. These are great cost-effective units, and a solid choice if you need to scan photos in various locations. Maybe you want to make your parents a digital slideshow for their anniversary, but the photos you need are at their house. A wand scanner is an ideal way to digitize the photos without having to borrow the photos or lug around a larger scanner and computer. Wand scanners usually store the images on a memory card and can be uploaded to a computer later. The downside to these small scanners is that they have much lower resolution output than flatbeds. This Magic Wand scanner from ViewPoint Solutions gives you images up to 900 dpi (dots per inch, the higher this number, the better). This is more than enough for uploading images to a website or making a video slideshow. If you need to make high-quality prints or enlargements, a flatbed scanner is going to be more beneficial.
Flatbed scanners are the most common way to scan photos. Unlike the wand scanners that you track over the image, flatbeds have a scanning head inside that moves back and forth and reads the image that is placed face down on a piece of glass.
The benefit of a flatbed scanner compared to a wand scanner is that it offers a much higher resolution, meaning you can get a nice, high-quality scan and enlarge the image to make a print that is bigger than the original.
Many flatbed scanners, such as the CanoScan 9000F, also come with attachments to scan both 35mm and medium format film as well as photo prints, but we’ll discuss scanning film a little bit later.
An important thing to remember when scanning photos, especially at high resolution, is to make sure both your photo and the scanner glass are clean. The tiniest motes of dust will show up on the dark areas of the scanned image, and will require time-consuming retouching in a post-processing program. The best way to clean your glass is to spray it sparingly with a good lens-cleaning solution first, such as ROR, and then wipe with a soft microfiber cloth, such as you will find in this handy cleaning kit from Zeiss. After you get the smudges out, blow some compressed air on the glass to remove any residual dust. You can also carefully blow dust off the print. To protect your vintage prints, use a bulb blower like the Giottos Rocket Air Blower, which won't leave any damaging marks the way canned air can if you're too close to the print.
Even if you take these steps to get rid of dust, you will still have some marks on your final scan. The good news is that many of today’s scanners, like the Epson V600, come with built-in technology called Digital ICE that digitally removes dust spots from the image. It isn’t flawless, but it can work really well in most applications.
An important thing to remember is that scanning with Digital ICE and scanning at high resolutions drastically adds to the scan time. So if you have hundreds of photos to digitize, and you don’t need high-quality, dust-free scans, you shouldn’t use the highest resolution with Digital ICE activated.
Stand-alone scanners, such as the wand scanner, do not require connection to a computer. They digitize your images and save the files to a memory card or external drive.
One interesting stand-alone unit is the Smartphone Film Scanner from Lomography. It works with a wide range of smartphones to capture images from 35mm negatives. It comes with an app that allows you to edit and share your images immediately, right from your phone.
Another option for scanning only negatives is the Wolverine 20MP Film to Digital Image Converter. This scanner is extremely fast, taking only 3 seconds to convert a negative into a digital image. You can plug the unit into a computer with a USB cable, or save the files directly to an SD/SDHC card.
One more stand-alone option is the Ion Pics 2. It not only scans 35mm film, but also photo prints up to 5 x 7”. The Ion saves images to an SD card, a memory stick, or right to your iPad.
If you’re lucky enough to have negatives of old photos then you can really get the most out of your scans. Not only will you be able to get higher resolutions and sharper images from negatives than from prints, you’ll also be able to color-correct color negatives and slides, and bring out shadows and highlights in black-and-white negatives that might not be apparent in the prints. This can take a little bit of practice, but when you get a quality scan from the negative or slide it will save you time from fixing it in post-processing software.
We won’t go into too many details here, but there are two factors to keep in mind when you're scanning negatives or slides. The first is color: most scanning software will allow you to pick a gray point to tweak the white balance. You can simply find a color cast that looks natural to you. The next important step when scanning is to make sure you capture as much detail in the highlights and the shadows as possible. A good scan should be muddy and flat, with no blown highlights and plenty of details in the shadows. You can always add contrast and curves after the scan, but if you don’t capture that information when you scan, you won’t be able to add it later.
There are many flatbed scanners that come with special attachments for film negatives and slides. These scanners have a special area on the top of the scanner that illuminates the negatives or slides, rather than the light emanating from beneath as it does for scanning reflective photos. Film scanners usually come with 3 attachments, one for 35mm negatives (or un-mounted slide film), one for mounted slides, and another for 120/220 medium format film. If you have some of the rarer older film sizes, like APS, you might have to get creative and make a DIY film carrier.
If you have loads of film strips or slides to scan, you’ll most likely want to get a scanner that can perform batch scans. This will greatly decrease the amount of time you spend scanning. This PrimeFilm Scanner from Pacific Image will scan a roll of 35mm film up to 40 frames long, so you can set up the scanner and it will do all the work for you.
For batch scanning slides, the SlideScan 6000 from Braun can process batches of 50 slides at a time. These units are a lifesaver if you have hundreds of images to digitize.
Whichever method you choose, remember to always back up your files in at least two different places. After you’ve gone through all the trouble of scanning your precious photos, you'll want to make sure you have them for years to come.