Tips for Digitizing Printed Photos

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Is digitizing your printed photos on your to-do list? Here are tips from the pros on why, how and when to digitize your photos (and when not to).

Have you ever thought about what irreplaceable items in your home might be damaged or destroyed in a severe storm or flood? Of course, people and pets are the main concern, But after that, many people consider their printed photo collection something that would be devastating to lose.

On the bright side, you can ensure that doesn’t happen by digitizing your photos. And while the magnitude of that project may sound intimidating, it’s really not. The advice below will start you on the right path and help you decide how to best preserve your precious photos.

Fun fact: An estimated 7.8 trillion photos have been preserved since the dawn of the photographic age. While many are stored digitally, up to half are still in albums and shoeboxes in closets. Moving yours to digital may take a while, so pace yourself.

Gather Your Print Photos in One Place

Gathering all your photos in one place is the must-do first step. The thought of this may be overwhelming, but don’t worry. You don’t have to do it alone, as we’ll explain below. Bringing together all your photos will help you determine the size of your project. An unused dining room table or a folding party table make perfect spots to begin.

Organize Your Print Photos Before You Scan

The last thing you want to do is to turn a physical mess into a digital mess. So get organized.

Start by removing photos from albums to prepare them for scanning. Next, put all photos in chronological order. Just like your phone displays photos from newest to oldest, viewing your photos in a timeline can help you make sense of what is important and what is not. Toss duplicates and duds.

Depending on how many photos you have and the time you can devote, this step alone can take a few weeks to many months to complete.

Use the 50-Year Test

You don’t need to digitize every photo. Ask yourself, Is this photo likely to be important to someone else in 50 years? If not, don’t bother.

DIY Digitizing Caution

At-home scanning can be economical and fun, or costly and frustrating. If you already own photo scanning equipment (we don’t recommend you buy any), do a test batch of 20 to 50 photos and clock how long it takes. Make sure you have the right settings for photo resolution and size before you begin. Minimum scanner settings are 600 ppi and at least one to two megabytes (MB) per photo file.

Remember that photos that look OK on a screen may not have proper resolution or size for future projects. Print your test batch at a professional photo lab before calling your test a success.

If you take on the scanning project, you’ll need enough computer storage space for all those photo files. If your computer’s hard drive lacks the space, you can add more storage affordably with an external hard drive.

Finally, follow the pros’ advice about naming your photo files. Using the format YYYY-MM-DD-info.jpg (year-month-date-info about the subject of the photo) helps you capture relevant information now and easily find your photos by date later.

Embrace Photo Outsourcing

Just because you can scan doesn’t mean you should. Investing in scanning equipment is a waste in most cases, because the equipment can be temperamental and hard to keep clean. Plus, once you finish your scanning project, you probably won’t ever use that equipment again.

If you enjoy photos and their stories but not the time or technology involved in digitizing, reach out to a professional photo manager. They can project-manage the entire endeavor or provide à la carte services.

Always Back Up Photos

Once digitized, back up those photos. Follow the 3-2-1 back up recommendation that the pros use: three copies of your photos in at least two locations, with one copy or more in a cloud-based service. Carbonite, Backblaze and Dropbox are well-known, but there are dozens of options. The print photos you started with can go back into storage and count as a backup, too.

Things You Can Do With Your Digital Photo Files

  • Share with your people. Don’t just throw your external drive backup in a desk drawer. Use a sharing site, like Smugmug or Forever, and let friends and family view and comment on old photos that haven’t been out of their shoeboxes in decades. Post a few on your favorite social media platform. For anyone who can’t (or won’t) use your photo sharing site, save photo files on a USB drive and give that to them so they have easy access.
  • Add details. What’s the story behind the photo? Once your photos are digitized, tweak the file name. Be sure it contains the date, keywords (AKA tags) and information about the people and places in the photo. You can automate some of this by turning on face tagging in your favorite photo management program.
  • Keep learning about photos. Photos are best enjoyed inside photo management programs like Apple Photos, Lightroom, Mylio.com, Google Photos and similar. Photo management programs (often called apps, whether you access them on a PC, Mac or mobile device) are always evolving, with new features and capabilities.
  • When you need an expert to help you keep up with change or to get started, turn to The Photo Managers, the industry group whose professional members help clients organize their photos and share their stories. Each September, The Photo Managers group hosts free international events to help non-techies learn ways to organize, protect, enhance and share their photos with others. Register at SaveYourPhotos.org for free access to more than 40 free mini-courses and resources.

Darla DeMorrow, Certified Pro Organizer
Darla DeMorrow is a Certified Professional Organizer® and owner of HeartWork Organizing (https://HeartWorkOrg.com) since 2004. Based near Philadelphia, PA, she is mom of 2, international speaker, and author of the best-selling book series SORT and Succeed, which outlines five simple steps to help you organize stuff, time, paperwork, money, and photos. The Upbeat, Organized Home Office is the third book in the series.