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The Best New Ways to Scan Your Old Photos
With Google’s PhotoScan app, Epson’s FastFoto scanner or a mail-in service, it’s easier to rescue and digitize family memories, Joanna Stern says
New rules for the holidays: When the family is over, turn off the TV, tell Alexa to pipe down and ground your drone. Now go find those dusty shoeboxes full of old photographs.
Explain to those under 20 that these were taken on film—sort of like Snapchat, only the photos take a very long time to disappear.
Laugh at that Polaroid of Aunt Sally with a Bob Ross perm. Appreciate the dog-eared shot from your great-grandparents’ wedding. Ask the tough questions about Dad’s handlebar ’stache.
Then do not—I repeat, do not—put the photos back in the coffer. Instead, make a plan to bring them into the digital world.
Most of us have thousands of digital photos covering the past two decades backed up on hard drives, maybe even up in the cloud. But the trove of one-of-a-kind shots from earlier days? You’ve dumped them in the attic to feed the mice and the moths.
There are no more excuses. With new photo-scanning apps and a dedicated photo scanner like Epson’s FastFoto, it’s easier than ever to digitally organize your entire timeworn collection yourself. They can even automatically enhance the quality and sort by date—even by people in the shot, thanks to facial recognition.
I took my own advice. I scanned hundreds of photos to find the best method, while learning about near and dear family members—and even some I never met. Here are three options so you can do the same.
Cheap, Tedious Option: An App
The best photo scanner is the one in your pocket—sort of. It’s certainly the least expensive. With the right app, your smartphone can capture decent-quality photos. But if you’ve got a stack the size of a Jenga tower, it’s the most tedious option.
Don’t just point your smartphone camera at a photograph and hope for the best. Google’s new free PhotoScan app for iOS and Android couldn’t be any simpler to use. Clear off a well-lit space and lay down the photo. The app prompts you to move the phone over each edge so it can take four separate images. Then it combines them into one shot without glare or bright spots.
You can save the scans to your phone or to Google Photos, where Google makes each shot searchable by person or object. The scans aren’t as high-resolution as the ones you’d get with a dedicated scanner, but they are adequate for reprints and social media posts. They are also ideal for capturing all those framed photos Grandma keeps on her piano.
Now for the major shortcomings: The app can scan only one photo at a time, and there’s no built-in way to color-correct or set the photo’s original date. Photomyne, a free-to-try app for iOS and Android, solves all three of those problems.
When I held the app over a page in my mom’s 1975 photo album, it separated four photos into their own files. Then I set the date to May 1975 and hit the Restore setting to bring the orange washed-out prints back to their full-color glory. Snapping multiple prints at the same time, however, did decrease the quality and cause some glare. (Who’s that at my mom’s college graduation? Uncle Jim, or Patrick Swayze in “Ghost”? Hard to say.)
For unlimited photo saves, though, you’ll need to buy the paid version of the Photomyne app.
Expensive, Efficient Option: A Scanner
When you consider that time is money, the $650 Epson FastFoto FF-640 scanner shouldn’t scare you away. This isn’t an annoying flatbed scanner: It’s a photo-slurping robot. Connect it to your PC or Mac, put a stack of up to 30 photos in the feeder and watch it scan them, one a second. Who knew you could have so much fun with something that resembles a fax machine?
Quality and resolution are much better than the shots captured via one of the smartphone apps. You can choose 300 dots per inch (best for reprints and slideshows) or 600 dpi (best for poster printing or cropping).
The real greatness is in the software. Before you start, the software asks what year or date the batch was taken. There’s even a setting to tell the scanner to look for writing on the backside of the photo. It can’t read it, but it will save it for you.
Epson’s FastFoto scanner and software can digitize then color-correct old photos that have begun to fade.
My favorite part: Epson’s software can automatically save the original photo and a color-corrected copy. Dozens of faded, orange-ish photos instantly looked better. Even glossy photos taken in the ’90s of my sister and me looked better. What can’t be corrected? My terribly frizzy hair.
The photos are stored on your computer’s drive when scanned, but you can upload them to a cloud service, like Google Photos or Apple Photos.
The FastFoto isn’t perfect, though. The scanner jammed repeatedly when trying to scan older, smaller square prints. To fix the issue, I had to go one by one. (Epson recommends using the included carrier sheet for scanning smaller or fragile shots.)
Instant Polaroid pictures also aren’t currently supported. Since my parents took the bulk of my toddler shots with an instant cam, I kept trying anyway—and managed to scan some individually. (And FastFoto doesn’t scan negatives; that’s a whole other project.)
If you’re not a do-it-yourselfer, you can always box up your memories and send them out to a photo-scanning service. This option can be efficient and even fairly inexpensive, but you have to be OK with handing over your most cherished memories to complete strangers for a few days.
I gave it a shot. I organized a group of 100 shots by year, labeled them with Post-its and sent them off via FedEx to ScanMyPhotos.com, based in Irvine, Calif. Within a few days, my prints had been uploaded and the originals were back safely in my possession. A nice woman named Shannon kept me updated on the process throughout the week. Like other services including Memories Renewed and DigMyPics, ScanMyPhotos offers photo editing.
With the $145 prepaid service, the company sends you an 11-by-8.5-by- 5.5-inch box and asks you to stuff it full—that’s around 1,800 snapshots, according to company Chief Executive Mitch Goldstone. The company makes 300-dpi scans of the photos, at a price that comes out to about 8 cents each; for $250, or almost 14 cents each, you can double the resolution.
My biggest disappointment? ScanMyPhotos sends you a DVD with your digital copies. I haven’t owned a computer with a DVD drive in years. For an extra $20 you can have the photos uploaded to the cloud as soon as they are scanned, or to an 8GB USB drive for an extra $16. The service also offers options to scan negatives and slides.
When it came to my family project, I liked the Epson the best. I now have more than 600 old photos scanned and organized on a hard drive and in Google Photos. Of course, $650 is a lot of money to pay for a scanner, but you could split the cost with family members. I mean, can you really put a price on sharing Mom’s mullet on Facebook?
Before joining Travel, Stephanie was a New York Times staff reporter for many sections including Business Day, Real Estate, and Styles. She was part of the team that helped create Thursday Styles; the lead reporter for the Metro desk’s Neediest Cases series; and a member of the Continuous News Desk, which provides breaking news content toNytimes.com
Once you’ve turned the best of your travel photos into art, it’s time to store the rest. If boxes of prints are taking up closet (and psychic) space, there are plenty of sites online that will scan your old photos (as well as negatives, slides and videos) so you can store them digitally. But there are several things to keep in mind.
In general, these sites are a pain to navigate. They’re cluttered with too much text and fine print, and they offer so many options — Do you want your photos scanned in order? Do you want both sides of the photo scanned? — that if you don’t have a goal in mind before you go in, you can quickly be overwhelmed. Decide ahead of time what exactly you want to scan, how many photos you have and how you might use whatever you scan. Also, note that some of these companies by default send DVDs or CDs of your digital files. Not everyone has a CD or DVD player. If you want a thumb drive instead, be sure to select that option (if it’s offered) or call the company and see if it will provide one. Be aware, too, that it’s not unusual for these companies to have long lead times. A number of them digitize your photos in other countries, so it can take weeks to get your images back.
For affordable bulk scans, ScanMyPhotos.com is an old standby (you can read David Pogue’s review on nytimes.com). The company will scan about 1,800 photos at 300 dpi for $145 at its headquarters in Irvine, Calif.; the cost of sending the photo box to you, as well as the shipping of the box to ScanMyPhotos and back to you again is included in the price. That’s one of the least costly and most uncomplicated deals around. Other companies charge for shipping photo boxes. I asked a photo editor at The Times if 300 dpi is sufficient for scanning and she said that to print photos at larger sizes, a higher dpi is preferable. ScanMyPhotos has such an option: a prepaid box for $259 for the same number of scans at 600 dpi instead of 300 dpi. A thumb drive is an additional $15.95 a box.
Since our blog post regarding removing photos stuck on glass, we have received many requests to post some tips to remove photos stuck in photo albums. This is another hot topic in the world of photo scanning and while every method comes with risks, these tips sent in by others are the most frequent “success stories” that we received.
First, a little back story on those horrible magnetic albums and why they are evil. These older magnetic photo albums had pages covered in strips of tacky glue that would hold the photo and then were sealed under a clear plastic sheet. The glue, as it turns out, was highly acidic which had a two-fold effect.
Over time, the glue ate away at your photos, slowly destroying them as they sat on the shelf. Secondly, the glue, as it dried over the years, became extremely aggressive in maintaining the bond between the paper of the album and the photo which makes it really difficult to remove. Between the glue and the chemicals in the clear plastic sheet, it means certain doom for your photos sooner or later. It seems these albums were developed with only the short-term lifespan of photos in mind and I doubt there was much “stress-testing” on what would happen if the photos were left in the album for years.
AARP The Magazine (Dec, 2016, page 36), the world’s largest circulation publication with more than 47 million readers, listed the top 20 tech gifts to simplify your life. This directory with links to the companies profiled in AARP The Magazine’s tech special boasts their top tech gadgets. Tech Special, 20 New Gadgets To Simplify Your Life (Dec/Jan, page 36) lists amazing ‘organize and make more memories’ tech gifts, and includes “converting old photos to digital files.”
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