Scanning Family Photos: Some Initial Lessons


Family photos are one of the most valuable things for you and your family. They capture memories and are a record of life unlike anything else. We capture the important things, the silly things, the beautiful things, and the what-ever-that-was things. If you could rescue one thing from your home in a fire, many would say these images!

In the last 20 years or so, photos have become relatively inexpensive and ubiquitous. It’s easy to capture a photo: pull out your phone and snap a pic or video. That wasn’t always the case, of course. Once photography was invented, it would have been cost prohibitive to take photographs very often. As time progresses, again of course, photography became cheaper and cheaper. For example, I think I have more photos of my children than have been taken parents throughout their lives.

Of course, my parents photos are prints, negatives, and slides for images taken before around 2002. Although there is nothing out there that says these images must be converted to digital, digital images will be much easier to manage in the long run.

Scanning family photos is the thing people talk about doing, but in the end I suspect most people don’t do it, or at least don’t complete it. It’s hard and expensive work and everyone has other priorities that get in the way.

At the time of writing this post, I haven’t completed the work yet either. While I have made a lot of progress I’ve had a few realizations and had to make some choices to make that progress. While I’m no expert, I thought I’d offer these thoughts and maybe they will help you too.

Photos are a burden

Photos are mainly for ourselves. We enjoy them and we enjoy the memories they bring. But what about our kids? Grandkids? 3-4 more generations down the road? Are they really going to give a darn about all those negatives or prints (let alone digital files)? If you have piles of stuff of that you have taken or inherited from your parents, you have to recognize that there is a good chance they are all going to end up in some landfill somewhere. Otherwise, someone will have to maintain the collection: haul it around as they move, move it to different backup servers, update the file format as formats change, etc. That’s all a lot of work and cost down the road for someone in the future. Make it worth their while.

Making it worth their while

Pictures are great! Who is that? I don’t know. Where as that? I don’t know. When was that? I don’t know. Should I care about this photo? No. Imagine the photos going into the trash….

For photos to have any value, they need metadata (i.e. data about data). Thus, you really need the “who, where, when” for each and every photograph. Many photo services today help with that: facial recognition, GPS locations, etc. But if you’re scanning old photos, you’re going to have to do it the hard way and write it down some way that will stick with the photos.

One way I wish I got done was sit down with the owners of the pictures and just chat about them. Oh, and record the conversation. Having people who care about the events and know the story behind the picture tell you about it is more valuable than a couple of text notes. If you still can, do it! Don’t wait!

Scans don’t have to be perfect

You can spend a lot of time worrying about the quality of the scans to the point of complete inaction. It almost doesn’t even matter. I know, I know, there are a lot of people that would disagree. They would give you all sorts of advice, like how to clean for dust, how to clean negatives, what kind of scanner is going to do the best job, etc. I have come to disagree with that view. If I want you want it done, scan your images to a size that doesn’t take too long, images don’t have to be uncompressed (i.e. tiffs or raw), and maybe wipe your negatives and flatbed scanner with a lint-free cloth once in a while, but don’t go for the best possible image. Why? Two reasons:

  1. If the process is slow, you won’t get it done
  2. Photos are a burden - creating massive high-quality files might find themselves deleted

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t scan in high quality, just that you don’t have to. Consider doing a quick first pass to capture as much as possible, and then do high quality scans if you feel the need later. I would argue it’s better to at least have the collection of okay quality scans than an empty collection of high quality scans.

Should I send them off?

If you need to get the scanning done, but you don’t have the time or interest, sure! Get them done! It’s not cheap, though. At this point, I probably scanned close to 2,000 images, which would translate to up to $2,000 US and I’m not done yet. For many, it’s totally worth the money, but I suspect you’ll still have a lot of prep work to do, and you’ll have to figure out what to do with them later. However, if you care about the photos, get them done.

Negatives or Prints?

Yes. Do both if you can.

Prints are easiest to work with. You can clearly see what they are, they don’t take much to set up in the scanner, etc. But they have a number of issues:

  1. Some don’t age well - colors fade, edges get worn, etc.
  2. Sometimes they didn’t have particularly good color balancing
  3. Pictures get mixed up - when people look at the photos they are often put away out of order or split from a collection and put into photo books
  4. Pictures are missing:. Prints are often given away to family, or, if someone is in a particularly bad mood, they can be destroyed.

Negatives, on the other hand are harder to work with, often requiring specialized scanner mounts depending on film sizes (e.g. 126 vs 35mm for example). However, if you have them they tend to stay together and show you the order of the photographs! A metadata bonus! But they have drawbacks too.

  1. While they seem to age well, they will accumulate dust and fingerprints
  2. While many scanners will color correct negatives, you may have to do extra tweaking to make the photos look right
  3. Negatives may be missing (or negatives never existed). You can’t scan what’s not there.

Since both prints and negatives have their value, I scan both. Granted, I don’t make super-excellent copies of both sets so it doesn’t take too long, but I find it’s worth it.

When I’m done, can I pitch the prints and negatives?

At some point, some one is going to dump the stuff. Just a reality. However, if you can, hold on to the photos as long as possible, even if you did scan them. Remember, I mentioned that I don’t do particularly high quality scans. 99% of the time, that’s probably fine. But once in a while, the desire for a high quality scan will arise. If you still have the originals, you might be able to scan it again doing all those things you need to do to make a great scan. Furthermore, someone might actually like to see those originals. Thus, there is still value in the originals. As I said, however, there will come a point in time where that value is less than the burden of keeping the photos.

Handwriting might be valuable

While photos are important artifacts showing that we were here, so is handwriting. When scanning photos, sometimes the backs of prints have some handwriting. If it describes the photo (correctly), then another metadata bonus! It’s also another artifact of life. Did your mother or father write that? Your grandparents? Why not capture it? It doesn’t have to be a high res scan.

”Repatriating” Photos

I use the term “repatriating” for when someone returns photos that they were given. For example, one of my aunts recently returned a big pile of photos my family has given to her over the years. I don’t know if this is a recent thing, but it makes sense: photos are a burden. The good news is that you might get to see photos you didn’t know about that add to your family’s history or you might get better copies than you currently own. So, I consider “repatriating” photos to be a good thing and I’ll do the same when possible

**Sharing Photos With Those Who Are In Them In your photo collection, you will have tons of photos of people outside your immediate family, i.e. friends, cousins, aunts and uncles, etc. Once you get your photos scanned and uploaded somewhere, you can then start to share them. However, this will take a bit of work.

Photo services like Google Photos include facial recognition and will attempt to identify and group all the faces it can find in your images. Now the hard part - you need to curate the facial recognition: identify the people, and correctly group them together. That will take some time.

Once you have all the faces identified, now you can put together collections you can share. Google Photos can create sharable albums based on multiple faces and you can share those albums with other people. For example, if you have recognized your aunt, uncle, and cousins, you can then build an album that will automatically add them into the album. Then you can simply share it with them. There’s a good chance they’ve never seen these photos and they will like getting the chance.

Things I’m still working out

Managing negatives, prints, scans, and digital photos is complicated. Very complicated. I haven’t fully resolved any of these issues yet.

How to ID each individual photo. I do generate an ID for groups of photos, mainly based on either the original negatives or how they are grouped, whether in envelopes, piles, or phonebooks. If I have negatives that number the images, then I have a good number to give them. Otherwise, I really have no real means of numbering the photo. I don’t identify the images by date because I usually do not have dates for the photos (unlike those taken by digital cameras).

If I do have an ID for a photo, how do I label prints? I’ve considered putting printable labels or handwriting the ID on the back (maybe even a QR code!). I’m not really sure what to do at this point.

FInding duplicates: Finding duplicates of photos taken by digital cameras is relatively easy, but finding duplications of photos that are scanned is far more difficult. First, two scans of the same photo will not be the same: different sizes, different color balance, etc. Given that most physical photos are a complete mess, finding duplicates in your scans and physic copies will be a trick.

Photo Books: I’m in a bit of a quandary about my parents photo books. Do I take the pictures out? Leave them in the book? At the very least, I should ensure I group the scanned photos in a album that roughly matches the photo book. Again, the fact they are grouped together is yet another example of metadata: these photos were kept together to display because they were considered important in some way.

Parting Thoughts

Once you’ve determined that scanning the photos are important to you, make sure you set yourself up for success. Give yourself obtainable goals. Stay organized! If you have to, set up spreadsheets, task lists, etc. that can help you keep track of what you have done and what you need to do. Indeed, I’m just talking photos here, you might also be dealing with reel-to-reel audio, cassette audio, VCR tapes, DAT tapes, 8-tracks, 8mm file, etc. so it’s easy to get overwhelmed. There is no rule that says you have to get it done immediately. However, keep in mind, photos are a burden and you want the value to be greater

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