How can I scan hundreds of old family photos easily and cheaply?
August 10, 2017 9:55 AM   Subscribe

I have several hundred family photos I need to scan and digitize within a short time, and am looking for the most efficient and cheap way to do that while I still have access to someone who can help me add dates and times and place names to the photos. Looking for equipment recommendations, process explanations, or even commercial services who might do the work economically while also balancing the hope to scan the pictures at high resolution for the future.

Yesterday I received a box with hundreds of family photos from my 88-year-old father. My mother died a few months ago, and he seems to be setting things up for his own passing. I want to scan these photos quickly and easily, if possible. And of course cheaply. But most important is quickly, while I still have access to his memories and can annotate places, times, and family member names. I do have a combination scanner/copier/printer, the Brother MFCJ450DW, which I could use. I guess my priorities are:
1. Quickly scan them in during the next 3-4 months.
2. Highest resolution practical.
3. Some easy system to annotate information like names and places and dates.
4. As cheap as possible, although given the urgency, I am not above spending a few more hundred dollars (up to $1000?) for equipment or services.
5. Although there are only a few dozen old fashioned 35mm slides in this box, my father does have hundreds if not thousands more slides covering a 60 -year span. So a system that could eventually accommodate scanning them in would be a nice extra.
6. An easy and secure way of sharing these pictures and information with my five other siblings, their dozens of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who are very soon going to over 100 in total.

I realize some of these requirements may be mutually exclusive, and am looking for the best fit of most of them for my priorities right now. I can take some time off the next few months to do the work myself and not affect our family finances, so that is an option also.

I am willing to hear any recommendations, including new equipment purchases, but also love to hear about processes for doing this efficiently, or even recommendations for a scanning service where someone else would do this. I am open to any solutions to the problem.

Thank you for any advice you might give. I am already full of regret I never got to ask my mother these types of questions, and really want to take advantage of the time left with my father.
posted by seasparrow to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
Scansnap isn't cheap, but you could pick up a used one on ebay, and it's a great tool for this.
posted by aspersioncast at 9:58 AM on August 10, 2017

I have a scanner that will scan photos, negatives, and slides- sometimes you can sit and do this while watching tv or listening to a podcast, etc.

When we had boxes and boxes of slides to scan from a grandparent, we took them to Costco - they send them out, and then give you two copies of a DVD. They also do this for photos. It might be worthwhile to have a service do the scanning part, and then you can spend your time with the renaming/identifying part.

I think Costco scans them at 600 dpi. They also say that they have free online storage and viewing, although we didn't explore that part of it.
posted by needlegrrl at 10:04 AM on August 10, 2017

If your father is amenable, a really nice way to do this would be to get him on camera going through the box and talking about all of the photos. Not only does this alleviate most of the time crunch since you can refer to the video later to annotate the scanned photos, it's a lovely way to preserve memories and share stories beyond mere names & dates.
posted by acidic at 10:22 AM on August 10, 2017 [8 favorites]

Something you might consider is to make just a regular copy of each on 8 1/2 x 11 paper at the copy shop, and then mark up those with information provided by whoever might know who is who in them (you can sit with them and mark up lots at a sitting, no computers or eyestrain involved). That can be done quickly, you don't need to worry about making a final decision about how to best digitize them, and you have a paper copy.

And yes, the suggestion above about videotaping the process of going through each is a great idea.
posted by BillMcMurdo at 10:25 AM on August 10, 2017 [7 favorites]

Epson FastFoto scanner is awesome and surprisingly effective. Autofeed is very effective and handles all but the the most fragile photos safely (so far). It takes longer to preprocess the photos (take them out of albums or frames, clean off any tape or debris) than it does to scan. Can easily do 100+ per hour at a reasonable quality level. Can you do better using a flatbed scanner - probably but perfect is the enemy of good enough! Cost is a bit on the expensive side $900CDN when I bought mine but ease of use quickly makes up for cost.

For slides find someone that has a DSLR (full frame preffered) and a macro lens. With a bit of effort you can cobble up a slide mounting jig and using a flash or LED light you can take pictures of the slides at a resolution that is probably more than adequate and can be done _MUCH_ faster than any flat bed scanner and probably better than any reasonably economical commercial service.
posted by gsquared at 10:30 AM on August 10, 2017

Slides are tricky. They attract dust, and unless you plan on individually dusting your hundreds of slides, you want to as-automatically-as-possible remove dust. This means the scanner needs an infrared channel. This adds mucho $$. There are lots of scanners out there, but not a lot with an infrared channel. I researched and tried to get a balance between scan quality and price. I ended up getting an Epson Perfection V600. I am pretty happy with the color and resolution results. Keep in mind that you will get mighty tired of unloading and reloading the slides/photos, not to mention it adds time, so pay attention to the loading mechanism of whatever you buy. My old scanner took about 5 minutes to scan one slide at a time and my new one takes about 6 minutes to scan 4 slides at a time (depending on my settings). I think some scanners have an automatic feed? (Not anything I could afford.)

When I made my decision to do it myself vs. get a service to do it for me, I took the total # of photos/slides and multiplied it by the amount of time it took to load, scan, save, and unload each item (it's longer than you think) and then realistically looked at the number of hours I'd be able to spend each day scanning, to figure out an end date for my project. I have no deadline, (still working on it) but you sort of do. Once you do the math, if you can't get the job done by your deadline, then it's probably time to hire the job out, even though it will cost and arm and three legs.
posted by molasses at 10:32 AM on August 10, 2017

I found the book "How to Archive Family Keepsakes" by Denise May Leverick was particularly useful, and it looks like she has a photo-specific book as well, "How to Archive Family Photos". She discussed pretty much all of your questions. I haven't started my photo project yet, but I was working on a handful of letters from WWI from my grandfather so I took the first title out of the library and found it very straighforward and helpful.

For annotating information, I am a big fan of setting file naming conventions. Instead of IMG001, I would call the file by a descriptor, like seasparrow_family_1964_picnic_01 and then have a spreadsheet with additional details like guesstimated date, attendees, etc. Obviously you could shorten this with codes or whatever you think is important. That way, the file will be forever at least mostly identified, even if it gets loose from folder structure, software solution, etc. I am also (at least in theory) a huge fan of tagging files, which you can easily do in bulk or individually. Again, the goal is to make as much of the metadata live with the file, rather than rely on something external like software or apps.

For storage, set up a shared folder on Dropbox, let your family scoop up stuff as they want. Burn a few DVDs for the older people and distribute at a gathering.

To lessen the need for speed, have your father at least write some general info on the outside of the slide carousels (my dad had thousands, as well, and he would note down some basics on the cardboard sleeves the slide trays lived in). Someone who took a lot of slides would often burn a whole roll or three of film at one event or place, so knowing that slide tray #27 contains their vacation to the Grand Canyon in 1972 might be all you need to know. If they're not in trays and just in the little cardboard developer boxes, there's less room, but still enough to get the basics. Also, get some post-its, go through the box of photos with him, note down what he says on the post-it, and stick like photos in a small envelope and stick the post-it to that.

What I'm saying is you can collect plenty of data BEFORE you start scanning, and that might be even better so that you can name the file right as you scan it, and you'll already know roughly who it is/what it's about before you start. This is a big job, but it needn't be fraught.
posted by clone boulevard at 11:35 AM on August 10, 2017 [4 favorites]

My local photo shop will scan 1000 photos for something like $150.
posted by cmoj at 11:45 AM on August 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

i have used for this in the past. very affordable, not quite so fast, but i believe you can pay for expedited. you get your photos back and a cd/dvd with all the hi-res files on them.

edit: oh, and i tagged/shared them on flickr. easy enough for other family members to use comments to add their memories/tags, and you don't need an account to view them.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 12:13 PM on August 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

My mom gave me a bunch (~500) of old family photos I wanted to digitize last year. I got a $100 Canon flat bed scanner from Amazon and just sat down and scanned them in. Took me about a week of evenings. The scanner I got could do multiple pictures at a time and split them into separate files. I put the photo details/years in the file names. You'd be surprised how fast you can scan pictures in if you just sit down and do it. I burned the picture files to DVD and sent my siblings a copy.
posted by LoveHam at 1:43 PM on August 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

Seconding the flatbed Canon recommendation - the CanoScan line is excellent for photos. (However, they may not have drivers for Win10.) I've worked with them for years, and they're low cost, simple to operate, and durable.

Your all-in-one scanner would work, but may not have hi-res scanning (defined as "above 300dpi") and may lack other settings. If you do use it, scan flatbed instead of through the feeder. Options include "set the page size to photo size" (may not be possible for the all-in-one) or "throw 3-5 photos onto the platen, and scan as many as fit on a page; edit later." I opt for edit-later, but I'm quick with Photoshop image cropping.

Deciding how you want to sort them - by name? by date? by place? Pick one of those as the first part of the filename, one as middle, one as end.

19780503_Josh Rita Dave_Grandmas House.jpg, and so on. Or Dave_Party_19780503.jpg possibly sorted into folders by location.

Be careful of making the filenames too long. Windows has a limit of 255 characters for file path, and that includes all the folders & subfolders. It's better to make an index listing filenames & photo contents than trying to fit all the details in the filenames. There is no fast way to do all this, but once you set up a system, it'll at least be simple to add each photo to it.

Slides are a special pain. A good flatbed can scan at high enough resolution to get something from the slides (2400? some go up to 4800 dpi, I think), but you might be looking at calling around to print shops to find out if anyone's got tech that's specially designed to convert those.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 2:02 PM on August 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you live in or near a larger city, you may have an LDS (Mormon) Family History Center Near you.
These are all open to the general public and are free.

Many of them have scanners that will let you scan for free. The one near me actually has a new fangled high speed photo scanner. It has a scanner for slides too. They have people there that can help you.
posted by luvmywife at 7:11 AM on August 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

Not super high resolution, but the Google PhotoScan app is an interesting one, there are some other apps out there too. I had some problems with glare and matte finished photos, but it was pretty quick.

A good flatbed even a $100 one will do a pretty good job of printed photographs.

Here is a discussion about how to keep the organization of the photos straight by using numbering/naming, photos with notes on the back you get to scan twice, if the scan had a number in it too, it might be easier to keep track.
posted by so_ at 8:54 AM on August 11, 2017

I've been doing this very process recently trying to catalogue family photos for all the cousins, etc. I've been tediously doing this manually, in batches which helps, but it is somewhat tedious. While using a service would be great, I'm sure as dpi resolution increase cost might increase as well.

I'm using an Epson XP-380 though any late model scanner, even printer-scanner combo will likely work fine. One thing I learned quickly, with damaged photos in particular, is to scan at the highest resolution your comfortable with. I've been doing no less than 600dpi and even most at 1200dpi+ because once you go in to edit, clean up and repair, the higher the resolution the better for working with detail without getting pixelation. Higher resolution means you can repair at near 4-12 pixel levels which is handy for comprehensive repairs.

Also, very important, even for black and white photos, scan at 24bit color. It will be easy to convert back to B&W but you'll have much more to work with at 24bits vrs, 8bit B&W. Also, as photos age they take on color casts and working in color allows you more options to preserve the aged look versus restoring to their former B&W glory.

So far I've been getting along well with Photoshop Elements for edits and repairs but find every now and then with extremely damaged photos a subscription to Photoshop CS might be handy for the advanced features.

Here is another thought, sadly I'm the tail end of the first cousins who are all in their late seventies and mid-eighties so all of the old folks are gone and so are much of the details of the family history except stories told to us when we were younger. I bought a TEAC digital recorder to chronicle the remaining stories of the various cousins - wish I had done this earlier with the old folks - very sad as many of the old folks were first generation out the 1880's Dakotas and the few stories I heard are amazing as "pioneers." Chronicle if you can; your grand children will appreciate it!

One comment was regarding taking photos to a simple copier and writing info down. That'd be great for names, dates, locations as a master reference to the actual scanned photos only. Get those photos scanned and at high resolutions for the best preservation and most options. Hard drives are cheap now, that is, storage and keep stuff in a couple of locations. One of my other cousins and I are also talking about opening a private Flickr account so photos can be easily exchanged between the various far flung family members.

Good luck and have fun!
posted by WinstonJulia at 6:18 AM on August 12, 2017

Coming to this late, but I wanted to second the recommendation for digmypics (which I originally found through this wirecutter piece). It's true that you could do a lot of this work yourself with a good flatbed scanner (or negative scanner). But if you want to do it well, it's going to be tedious work and you have to ask your self if you're ever really going to get around to it. In my case, I already had a flatbed scanner, but after sitting on a box of several hundred unscanned photos and negatives for more than 5 years, I just decided it was better to outsource it and have it all done by professionals.

With DigMyPics, the whole process took about a month (which I will say was longer than they advertised on their website). But at a price of between 40 to 50 cents per picture, I really can't complain. I thought they would have an automated machine to do the scanning...but having watched them scan my photos in real time (they have a cool little web app that let's you see previews of your photos as they're scanned) it looks like they're actually doing them by hand (or at least in very small batches.) Realizing that, the prices seem extremely reasonable. Now I have high quality scans of all my photos that are named/grouped systematically and already oriented the correct way etc and I could not be happier. So I highly recommend you consider them or a service like them instead of trying to do it yourself.

I will say the one thing they did not help with is the metadata, although they did name the photos in accordance with the groups that I sent them in as. So I'd recommend even if you're going to use a service, you spend some time grouping the photos (or slides or negatives) by year or person first, so when you get them back they are already in logical groups and than adding additional metadata (like geotags in the Mac Photos app or annotations) is not too difficult.
posted by dyslexictraveler at 8:45 AM on October 6, 2017

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