Sunday, January 18, 2009

Scanning Old Photos

When was the last time you used a film camera? I believe that most of us today take digital pictures. We tend to take digital photography for granted. We can take the picture and within a short time we post them to websites such as Picasa, flickr, Facebook, or any number of other sites. We also e-mail copies to friends, send copies on CD, print them with portable printers before we leave, or send them via camera phones to all our friends. But I bet everyone of us still has boxes or books full of pictures and slides. We need to do something with these photos to make them more useful in our research and to make sure that they can be shared with the family. 

I bet most of you have a scanner sitting on your desk. I have gone through at least a dozen scanners over the last few years. My wife and I used to have our own business scanning other people's pictures. That worked well during the mid 1990's when scanning and printing technology was more expensive. We had scanners for slides, scanners for photos and scanners for large format images. At that time the scanners were stand alone flatbed scanners. Today many of the scanners are integrated into multifunction printers. 

Let's discuss some basics of scanning. When you are shopping for a scanner they always brag about how high their resolution is (dpi). Some will claim 1200, 2400, 4800, 6200 or more dpi. Bigger is better, right? Not in all cases. Truthfully, you will probably never use more that 300 dpi when scanning. You may use 600 dpi if you want to edit small areas or a few pixels at a time but then you are working with a very large size picture and it may bog down your computer processor. For web publishing 100 to 150 dpi are usually sufficient.

Another common question is what format should I save the picture in. There are dozens of possible formats given as options. Each one has a specific purpose. I generally use two different formats depending on the purpose of the picture. TIF files have great detail but they take up more storage space. JPG files look nice and take up less space but they also have less detail. If you are editing the picture I would keep it in TIF format. If you want to e-mail it or post it to the web change it to JPG.

Why would you want to scan all your pictures? The first reason is to preserve a copy of the picture. This picture was a tin-type. We don't know who the boy is yet. If you look closely you will see several cracks in the picture. We scanned the picture and put it back in the book it come from. Within a few weeks the picture had totally disintegrated into a pile of small flakes. The digital copy is all that remains of this picture now. Additionally, pictures in old adhesive photo albums are susceptible to chemical deterioration and will change color over time. Scanning allows you the opportunity to preserve them and adjust their colors to make them look more like the original photograph. 

Another reason to scan your photos is to correct any imperfections. Over time pictures discolor, get water stains, crack, bend or rip. We have had to replace many body parts on the photos we worked on. Sometimes people have wanted to modify history in different ways. We have added people to family photos and deleted people from photos. If Uncle Jim wasn't at the last holiday get together we could add him to the picture and if Aunt Jane's ex-husband was in a picture we could erase him. Generally, I don't recommend changing your genealogy related photos in this way though. But you might want to restore the missing parts.

Notice the missing corner and water stains on the photo to the left. With some fairly inexpensive graphics software you can make the picture look almost like the day it was taken. We were able to add the missing foot by taking his brother's foot and enlarging it to more closely fit his dimensions.

Another technique that I use often is to scan the entire page of pictures at once. That way you can go in, crop out the pictures one by one and save them individually. It is much quicker than lining up the scanner each time and scanning one picture at a time. Also, you eliminate the potential for damaging the photos when you take them off the adhesive backed album pages.

Scanning entire photo albums may be time consuming but just think how happy everyone will be when you hand them a CD with all of great grandma Bessie's pictures. Have fun and scan away.


Miriam said...

Great scanning tips, Miles! I'd like to invite you and your readers to join us for Scanfest next Sunday, January 25th from 11 AM to 2 PM. Many genealogists get together online to chat while scanning their family photos, as a way to get started on their scanning projects, ask questions, exchange information, and get to know others in the genealogy world. You can go here to get more information.ching

Jane said...

Great scanning tips - and I agree about your resolution settings. I would caution people against ever scanning at 100 or 150 dpi though. If you go to all that trouble to get things ready, you might as well scan at 300 dpi so you can print it later (even if you don't plan on doing that now!).