Digitize old photos and prints

Preserving Memories — Techniques For Digitizing Old Photos And Prints

Photographs and prints capture images on film and paper to provide a way to preserve the memories. They just don’t stand the test of time in the long run. Film is subject to decay when exposed to the elements and paper does not remain in pristine condition unless you have a controlled environment. This is the reason for duplicating the physical content to a digital content through a digitizing process. Once digitized, the content can be further duplicated and stored on servers or a cloud storage system to preserve it for future generations.

Albums store memories of photographs from events, places and special occasions.

Film rolls have an expiration date, usually 2 years. It has to be used and developed before that date, or else the results are not guaranteed. Photographers who shoot mainly film store the unused rolls in a cool and dry location to avoid exposure. Once developed, the film’s exposure are called prints. This is your typical photograph stored in photo albums. Prints can also refer to any printed image or document, including drawings and draft designs (e.g. fashion illustrations, architectural layouts, medical diagnostic images, desktop publishing, text documents etc.). Over the years they begin to degrade (e.g. color fading, molds, etc.) unless kept in a well preserved environment.

Many people understand that it is important to keep photos and prints away from direct sunlight (e.g. UVA light) and to insert them inside a protective sleeve stored in an album. Larger prints, poster sized, are often enclosed in picture frames. A special protective glossy finish with UV protection is used to help preserve the prints and also makes them more eye catching. Other prints like that on billboards or ad posters are often discarded after their time is over. Otherwise some collector could have them.

The prints material are made of certain pigments (organic vs. inorganic) that have specific qualities. Ink is popular for desktop printers, while more specialized chemicals are used in commercial printers. For photographs it is a different chemical process in the dark room where the film is developed into prints. Most prints also use paper, which in itself does not last very long when exposed to moisture. This is why they are usually laminated or applied with a gloss finish for further protection against the elements.

Old photographs begin to fade over time due to photodegradation. Exposure to sunlight further accelerates this due to UVA light, which decomposes the chemical bonds of the photograph’s material. Other things that cause fade include exposure to chemicals in the air, acid, moisture and smoke. This can lead to discoloration as well which makes the image less flattering to look at. These may provide an authentic look, especially with vintage photos but they need to be preserved in order to keep the memory alive.

It is not easy to preserve the memories, even if they are stored in an album. Without the negatives, it won’t be possible to reproduce the original. There are also usually just one copy of the photo or print, so if it gets damaged it won’t be possible to restore. The materials used for the process also do not last forever, unless kept in strict conditions like that in a museum. That is why it needs to be preserved the digital way. This is through digitizing the photos and saving to a computer. There are several ways this can be accomplished, which will be elaborated upon in the coming sections.


The most popular and oldest technique is to use a photo scanner (i.e. image scanner) device. There are different types available ranging from small prints to large commercial poster-sized scanners. They can be flatbed, in which the photo or print is placed on top of a glass surface to be scanned. They can also be sheet-fed, in which the photo or print is placed in a tray and fed into the scanner. Depending on how large the size is, the larger the scan the more expensive the equipment when it comes to image quality. There are cheap scanners that can scan large prints, but they tend to be low quality or monochrome (black and white or grayscale ideal for blueprints, architectural drawings, engineering design, etc.).

A commercial large format scanner (Source Paradigm Imaging)

Scanners are optical image capturing devices, which use either a CCD (Charge-Coupled Device) Array or CIS (Contact Image Sensor) photo sensor. It is like a digital camera, but physically captures an image in a much different way. It uses a glass surface, much like a lens, to capture the image through scanning. There are also handheld scanners, but they tend to be tedious to the user and the process of scanning as a whole. A handheld scanner is more ideal for capturing text (OCR) and scanning smaller prints, including business cards. The highest quality type of scanners use a PMT (Photomultiplier) tube sensor.

A desktop flatbed scanner (Source Plustek)
A sheet-fed type photo scanner (Source Plustek)

Scanners can reproduce a digital version of a photo or print in 2D (Two-Dimension). Once scanned, the image can be saved to a computer’s hard drive or another digital storage device. Users can then manipulate the image for further retouching or editing if they want to apply more finishing. By default, the scanner application uses a compressed file format like JPEG. Users can customize this if available to use other formats if they prefer a higher quality or less compression.

When using a scanner a specification to look for is the DPI (Dots Per Inch). DPI is a measure of image resolution or how many pixels an image contains. The more pixels there are the higher the resolution of the image. A scanner with a 6400 DPI is considered high resolution with 48-bit color depth. You can still have high resolution but get low quality. The more appropriate measure of quality in an image is pixel density, color bit depth and the type of display rendering the image (e.g. OLED, IPS, etc.).

DSLR/Mirrorless Cameras

Some photographers will take a photo of a photo. When attending a photo exhibit where it is permitted for photographers to take photos, I just use my DSLR camera. This is probably the most convenient and casual way to digitally reproduce an image. It does take some skill to frame and capture the image using proper exposure settings. You don’t want it to be too underexposed (more shadows) or too overexposed (more highlights). Photographers will need to find the balance to capture a great image of an image. The Smithsonian Institute even published a paper about how photography techniques are being used in museums to digitize items like paintings.

This painting of artist Frida Kahlo was shot with a DSLR camera (Painter Diego Rivera, LACMA Exhibit)

Some photographers use special rigs for mounting their DSLR camera to capture old photographs. This is required for vertical shots, including photos and prints. There are some guides online that show you how to do this. You are basically shooting with your camera pointing vertically downward. Specialty camera stores and vendors also sell these types of rigs if you are not a DIY type. This technique is also used in product photography (e.g. jewelry, accessories, etc.).

A vertically mounted DSLR camera can be used for digitizing old photos and prints (Source NoFilmSchool.com)

Smartphone Camera

Perhaps the most popular and convenient way to take images is with a smartphone camera. It can be both a handheld scanner and imaging device from capturing QR codes to the latest painting at an art gallery. Apps can be downloaded to the smartphone and installed to provide users with computational imaging features that can enhance the quality of the image.

A mounting rig for smartphone cameras (Source ALZO)

One of the best ways to capture old photos and prints is to use a special rig, like with DSLR cameras. It must be able to shoot vertically downward. There are specialized smartphone camera rigs that allow you to do this. Once the image is set and framed on the smartphone, users can set their smartphone timer on to capture the image. Some users are creative about the setup and provide DIY tips (see Youtube for more).

There are also apps you can install that provide clever techniques for scanning an image. These apps are called photo scanners and are available in versions for smartphones and tablets. One feature I find useful is image stitching. In this technique, the user takes a photos of the old photograph from different points (usually 4 points) or sections. The app then stitches the images together like it was taken from one shot. This is ideal for users who don’t have a rig setup that can take perfect overhead shots with their smartphone.


An iPad and similar tablet devices also provide photo scanning features. These can be used as a form of handheld scanner, with more ease. An app is also required to provide the photo scanning feature. It is used just like with a smartphone app, but tablets provide a larger screen and more precision and stability when used with two hands.

Photo scanning with an iPad (Source Photo Scanner Plus)

Photo Scanning Demo With Smartphone

I am going to give a short demo of an app on Android that can perform photo scanning. If you are not a precise shooter with a DSLR or don’t have a scanner at home, you can use your smartphone. This requires the Pixaloop app, but there are other apps available that have more or a similar functionality. After installing the app, you can begin by selecting a photo you want to digitize. Select the photo and you will be presented with 4 small circles that represent a section of the image.

The user is guided to take a photo of 4 sections with their smartphone camera. This requires aligning a large circle within each smaller circle.

The app then stitches all the captured images together to create a final composited image. Even the glare is minimized thanks to advanced computational techniques.

This is the final result from the photo scanning. This digitized image was from a photograph taken back in 1995 in Beverly Hills, CA.

This is a brilliant way to scan an image, like old photographs without using a flatbed scanner. Stitching the individual images together creates a digital version of the photograph. It is then saved to your memory, where it can be uploaded to the cloud or shared on social media (follow your app’s documentation or help section to learn more).


Flatbed scanners are the simplest digitizing device to use. All that is required is placing the photo or print on a glass bed and scanning to a computer. An even easier way to do this is with a sheet-fed scanner, in which the user can put several photos at the same time into a loading tray. A roller than feeds the photos 1 by 1 to be scanned. They both can be a time consuming process, but the sheet-fed type can be more convenient since you can load several photos at one time. There are also services available online for those who have many photos and prints to digitize and don’t have the device or time.

Using an existing digital camera, whether DSLR or mirrorless, is another way to digitize existing photos and prints. Smartphone cameras with special apps for photo scanning make it even easier for non-photographers. After the image has been scanned to digital format, it also allows users to further manipulate the image in editing software to get a better finish. Soon there will be no more photos and even less prints to digitize as most content are going straight to digital.

The good thing about digitizing photos and prints is that users are preserving the memories, since digital media can last much longer than physical media. Since the world has moved from film to digital, there are less places available for developing film. As it becomes more rare, it can also become more expensive. For existing photos and prints, the need to digitize them becomes important for documentation and curation purposes. The actual physical object can get lost, but once digitized it can be saved to a secure location for archiving or shared to others on photo sharing sites. This allows lasting impressions to be made for the next generations.



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