How to Digitize Your Old Photo Prints & Negatives

Digital photography has spoiled us a bit, I think.

Now when you need to do your due diligence and make sure you have all your photos saved and backed up, it’s a pretty simple task. But to digitize photos (prints, albums and negatives – remember these?), things get a bit more complicated and a lot more overwhelming.

Byodo-In Temple, Honolulu, Oahu, Hawaii

Scanned photo of the Byodo-In Temple on O’ahu, Hawaii

If you remember the days when cameras used actual film, you probably have a collection of photo albums, boxes of negatives and a bunch of loose photos in various places around your house. And I imagine that just the thought of digitizing everything makes you not want to start.

I get it. I also put off the task for many, many years. And had I not been drastically downsizing, moving 3000+ miles across two rather large countries and stuffing nearly everything I own into a pretty small station wagon, I can honestly say my photos would probably still not be digitized.

But, at the same time, I’ve also had a fire in my garage before and it was pretty frickin’ scary. While nothing sentimental was destroyed, just knowing that something like this could happen again kinda freaked me out. (And, for some of us, jumping out of a plane once is enough, so it’s kinda nice to keep the proof around. ;)

Skydiving in Colorado

So, if there are any photos you’d be devastated if you lost, it might be time to get your own project started. This way if anything does happen to the physical copies of your photos, you’ll have the digital backup.

And when deciding how to tackle the project of digitizing your photos you do have a few options, and below are the ones I considered.

A Few Ways to Create a Digital File from a Print or Negative

1. Scan the Photos Yourself

Beach on the island of St. Maarten in the Caribbean [Photo: Kim Olson]

Scanned photo of a beach on the island of St. Maarten in the Caribbean

Your first, and perhaps most obvious, choice is to scan your prints or negatives yourself.

I knew I wanted the control of doing it myself so I did some research and bought a scanner suited to the task.

I settled on the Epson V330 which wasn’t top of the line, but wasn’t the cheapest unit, either. It scanned way faster than my old printer/scanner and had the ability to scan negatives, too. Something I thought might come in handy.

Pros:

  • You have control over how fast (or slow) your stuff gets scanned. During any free moments you have during the day (even if it’s only 5-10 minutes), you can sit down and get a little bit done.
  • Your memories don’t leave your possession. The main reason I chose to do the scanning myself is because I wasn’t completely convinced A) the scanning company wouldn’t misplace even a single photo and B) the package wouldn’t be lost by the mail carrier never to be seen again.
  • More cost effective. Doing it myself saved money over having someone else do it (even figuring into account the cost of the scanner).

Cons:

  • It’s tedious. No matter how you look at it, if you have more than a handful of photos, you’re looking at a pretty large project.
  • Depending on the type of scanner you buy, the scanned image may not result in a very large file so you won’t be able to make large prints.
  • The scanned negatives may look decent, but not great. The bigger issue is that I found it far too time consuming to sort through all of my negatives to find just the few that I thought I may want enlarged. I decided a simple scan of the 4×6 or 5×7 I had already made was good enough for me.

2. Take Photos of Your Photos

Vatican City at Night [Photo: Kim Olson]

I took a photo of this 4×6″ print with my Canon s95 and while it’s not of the best quality ever, it turned out okay. [Night falls at the Vatican in Rome, Italy.]

Once I started scanning, I noticed that even with my newer faster scanner, each scan still took a while – about 30-60 seconds a scan. That may not sound like a lot at first, but it sure adds up over time.

So then my second option was to take photos of my photos. It may sound a little silly, and in fact it’s not a great option (see Cons below), but it’s a much, much faster one.

For images that I wanted simply to preserve but didn’t care as much about the quality or ability to print again in the future, I simply used my Canon s95 camera to snap a photo of my photo. I could quickly get through a stack of photos that would’ve taken far longer had I scanned them, instead.

Pros:

  • Fast and Easy.
  • For large photo album pages, taking photos was pretty much my only option since they were too wide for my scanner. So I either had to scan one page multiple times or settle for taking photos of the page. I opted for the latter.

Cons:

  • Problems with glare. Most of my older photos were glossy which makes it much more difficult to take photos of them because reflections and glare are super hard to eliminate. Finding just the right angle was difficult, but in most cases I could minimize it enough that I found the result acceptable.
  • Lower Quality Image. Due to the glare mentioned above, there was no way to get a high-quality photo of my photos.

3. Pay a Professional

The last option is to find a service that specializes in digitizing photos and negatives and have them do all the work for you.

Most services may be out of state for you, so you’d have had to mail in your box(es) of negatives or prints. They’d then scan it for you and (hopefully) return all of your images back to you with everything digitized.

Pros:

  • Easy. You don’t really have to do a thing except mail your stuff to them. They do all the work for you.
  • Bigger enlargements. You may be able to make larger prints if you use a service versus doing it yourself based on the equipment that’s being used.

Cons:

  • Risky? I personally thought it was a bit scary shipping off my photos and negatives since they were my only copies. It probably would’ve been just fine, but I was wary nonetheless.
  • Pricey. You pay for the convenience of having someone do it for you. The services I looked at were pretty expensive.

Since I’ve never used a service myself, I can’t really say much about them. But here are some links for further reading if you’re interested in this method:

Results

I’m pretty happy with my results. Overall, I probably scanned about half of my images and took photos of the other half.

After scrolling through my images, I’d say it was definitely worth my time and I’m so grateful to now have copies of all of my images in digital form so that if anything happens to my physical copies, I’ll at least have something left for myself and future generations.

And I just love being able to flip on my computer wherever I am in the world and have access to any of my photos in an instant. Because photos like the one of this wallaby remind me of amazing trips and always make me smile.

Wallaby in Australia

Wallaby in Australia

A thing to note

I do want to mention that the images I was preserving were all personal and not professional. I chose the methods I did because I simply wanted to make sure I had a digital copy of every image, even if it wasn’t perfect. I know I sacrificed quality, but it was a worthwhile tradeoff of time and money for me.

For professionals or those who want high-quality scans, I’d say you’re better off outsourcing or investing in a much better scanner than I did.

Whatever your choice, if this is a project you’ve been meaning to take on for a while, then there’s no time like now to get started! Let me know if you have any questions and I’ll do my best to help.

Good luck!