Photo Digitization Tips
9/27/2009
Bogged down with boxfuls of family photos to digitize? We show you three ways to speed up the scanning process.


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Scanning your family photos, slides and negatives opens up many possibilities. You can use the digital images in your genealogy software and share them with relatives on a CD, DVD or photo-sharing Web site. And though you certainly won't want to discard the originals, digital copies serve as backups in case disaster strikes.

The catch: Scanning photos one by one is time-consuming—especially if you have hundreds or thousands of pictures to convert. There's got to be a better way, right? We dug into different digitizing options and discovered three routes to swifter scanning.

1. Scan multiple photos at once.
Using the right software can shave precious minutes from the scanning process. Adobe Photoshop Elements, a $99.99 photo-editing and -management program, lets you simultaneously scan multiple pictures with a flatbed scanner. Fit as many pictures as you can on the glass and scan them all together. Then open the file in Elements' Editor and select Divide Scanned Photos from the Image menu. The program will automatically create a separate file for each picture in the group of photos you scanned. Sometimes the software doesn't split the images in the right places, and you'll end up having to scan those pictures individually. But this option is still a great timesaver.

2. Get a photo-focused scanner.
Any flatbed scanner can handle photos, but some models are designed for that purpose—and even support slides and negatives. For instance, the Canon CanoScan 8600F, about $180, does a good job on photos and handles up to 12 35 mm negatives or four 35 mm slides at a time. If you have a lot of pictures to scan, you might consider Epson's photo scanners. The Perfection 4990 Photo, about $400, produces high-quality photo scans and handles various negative sizes, including up to 24 frames of 35 mm negatives at once. It also holds up to eight slides. The Perfection V700 Photo scanner, about $550, holds up to 12 35 mm slides. Flatbed scanners do all right with negatives and slides, but for the best quality, you need a dedicated film scanner. At the low end, the $190 Plustek OpticFilm 7200 scans only one slide or negative at a time, but it's pretty speedy. The Nikon Coolscan V ED film scanner is loaded with advanced features and has gotten terrific reviews, but it'll set you back about $565.

3. Use a scanning service.
High-end scanners aren't the most economical choice for most genealogists—cost- or timewise. Even if your scanner operates quickly and handles multiple slides and negatives at once, scanning a big photo collection could still take a long time. Getting good results also takes practice, especially with slides and negatives. If you're reluctant to invest the time and money to scan your pictures yourself, consider batch-scanning services. They use high-speed scanners to digitize thousands of photos in minutes. Your original pictures are returned to you, along with digital images on a CD or DVD. One service, 30 Minute Photos Etc., will do up to 1,000 photos for $49.95—pretty reasonable when you consider the time it'd take you to do it yourself.

The downside: Unless you live near one of the scanning facilities, you'll have to ship your precious pictures across the country. If that's not enough to set your stomach aflutter, one service, ScanCafe, then sends your pictures to India for scanning. The company says it's never lost pictures and even offers a $1,000 shipping guarantee. By taking advantage of lower labor costs abroad, the company can competitively price extras, such as individually reviewing and restoring each photo.

Most scanning services won't accept mounted photos or pictures that can't bend. Batch-scanners are most appropriate for modern prints in good condition, not fragile old photos. And you won't want to dissemble an old photo album—it's an important artifact filled with clues based on the photos' arrangement.

Click here to download a PDF chart comparing four scanning services, their prices and turnaround times. Is the best solution to your scanning project hours spent at your computer or a few days or weeks waiting nervously for your pictures to come back with a disc full of scans? You'll have to decide.

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