First of all, why digitize? Chances are, if you're reading this blog, you understand enough about the value of new technology and the internet in sharing and preserving important genealogical records. That includes our photos, which can be among our most precious family history heirlooms. By digitizing them, you can restore faded color and remove yellowing, you can preserve a restored copy and share it with other family members very easily, and after digitizing, you'll find you can preserve the original photos better since you'll be less likely to continue to handle them.
What do you need as far as equipment or technology in order to start digitizing? You'll need a scanner and photo editing software. Scanners don't have to cost a lot, but I highly recommend taking a little time to research some models in your price range and dig up customer reviews. Then, you'll need photo editing software. Most often, the software that comes with your scanner will have some photo editing features. If you want a few more editing features that allow you to do a little more cleanup of your photos, you'll want additional software. If you use a Mac, iPhoto should be sufficient for what you'll need. If you are a Windows user, the software I recommend is Adobe Photoshop Elements.
When it comes time to actually scan in your photos, there are some specific settings you'll need to use:
- Set your dpi for your scanner at no less than 300. You can go up to 600 dpi, but there won't be a noticeable improvement in your photo quality beyond 600 dpi. If you scan in less than 300 dpi, you won't get the quality you need and want.
- Scan in full color. This makes the individual photos larger, but you can always create grayscale or black and white versions later.
- Save your scanned photos as tif files, or with .tif extensions. This may be a photo format you aren't as familiar with. However, a tif file will give you flexibility in the future for a professional designer or restoration service to take the photo and make more advanced edits to it in order to preserve it. Again, you can always take a photo saved as a tif and create a jpg or bmp version later.
- Finally, if space is an issue on your computer, don't sidestep the recommendations above to save space. Simply group your pictures into manageable sets. Scan in each set, and then move to a Flash drive or a CD. That will clear up your hard drive space to scan in the next set of photos.
As far as photo handling while you are scanning, the following may seem obvious, but preserving your original photos is just as important as getting them digitized. Make sure your hands are washed and clean before handling photos. This is particularly important for older photos. The natural oils from our skin will rub off on the pictures, which is why photos that have been handled a lot tend to fade and yellow much faster.
If you have a lot of older photos, you probably have some that are in old photo albums or scrapbooks. Be particularly careful with these. Many of these older photo albums are a lot like our scrapbooks today. They tend to be paper books in a post-type binder. The photos were usually added by using photo corners that were glued to the pages. I do not recommend pulling individual photos out of scrapbooks or albums to scan in unless you simply can't get the page to scan properly because of photo placement. Here's my rule: if you are going to do more damage to the book by trying to prop it open on the scanner to get the full photo scanned in, try and gently pull the photo from the book. If you are going to do more damage to the photo by trying to pull it out, leave it in and scan the whole page. You can always crop and save each photo on a page as individual photo files later. And those photo corners can always be edited out of the photo.
One final tip: before you ever scan a single photo, decide on a file-naming convention that you will use on all of your photos. I recently had a whole box of more than 400 photos that had to be scanned and preserved. Rather than try and come up with descriptive file names for each of those, I just used a numbering system. The first photo I scanned was named 1.tif, and so on. As I scanned, I had a word processing document open where I listed the photo name and a description of what the photo was. For example, my first line in the document was "1.tif - Dolores Binney with her parents, Walter and Elsie." When I moved the photos to a CD to preserve, I made sure my index document was included. This way, my file names are short, and I can put as much text in as I need in order to identify the picture.