Photo and film scanning

11 tips for anyone starting a photo scanning project

Are you considering a photo scanning project and don’t know where to begin? This is for you.

  1. It is worth doing some research into best dpi settings before starting:
  2. Whatever you decide, write it down for future reference. I like keeping a small journal on the scanner just for this purpose.
  3. Scan to “.tiff” if you can. (This is the only early setup I regret: I chose “.jpg” because I was afraid of how much space I’d need to store all my scans. It turns out that most small scans at 1200 dpi are 5 MB or less. That’s 200K scans / TB. I have 2 x 2 TB drives, so I’m pretty sure I’ve got room.)
  4. Decide how you’re going to name them. Here’s mine: [date] – [family name + Archive] [description] [If the photo has notes on the back: “w notes”] [dpi settings] [P / D / S = Photo / Document / Slide] – [5 digit unique ID number]. Example: A 1.5×2.2″ black and white photo print with a full date and notes on the back: 1922-05-22 – CYIP Archive birthday party w notes 1200 dpi – P00784.
    • What if you don’t know all the dates?
      • Pictures when you know the date: “1922-10-02” (YYYY-MM-DD)
      • Pictures when you know the decade but not the full date, e.g, “194x“;
      • Pictures where you have a month but no decade like this “19xx-03
      • Pictures wher you can only nail down the century and are otherwise stumped: “19xx” or “20xx”
  5. If you have lots of photos without dates, use the technique I call batch sorting. Get every clue you can before you remove materials from their boxes, envelopes, bags, or drawers**. Here’s my post on how batch sorting is done. (**I attended Denise Levinick’s webinar Secrets in the Attic, where she advises tackling drawers of memorabilia carefully, like you are an archaeologist, where the layers themselves might yield clues.) This part might take some time, but don’t rush through it to get to the scanning. It’s like painting your house – the bettter the prep work, the better the results.
  6. Don’t forget to turn over the photos and scan the other side (if there are notes). I’ll scan the other side for nearly any mark, no matter how trivial, because you just never know when something small will turn into something significant. I add the notation “w notes” to all scans done double-sided.
  7. If you change your mind about any of your settings, record the change in your journal and keep going. If you have to rescan a particular one at the new settings, go ahead and do it. (We all have perfectionist tendencies when we’re doing this kind of work, but my goal is get it done the best you can, with the key point being done, not perfect.)
  8. If you have to redo a bunch of scans, don’t feel you have to redo all the numbering – the point is having a unique ID number, not counting how many images you have. (I wasted lots of time getting aggravated about this until I let it go.)
  9. Use software to help you catalogue. I use Adobe Lightroom’s desktop program. It is well worth the cost and turns a Herculean feat into something doable.
  10. Scan everything. It’s too hard to make editing decisions while you’re scanning, and you don’t know what you have until you have all of it. You’ve got duplicates, even triplicates? Scan them. You’ve got photos of people you don’t know? Scan them too. You’ve got terrible photos of summer vacations and postcards? Scan them too. Everything.
  11. Take breaks. If you have more than one box of materials you’re planning to digitize, it’s okay to do it in batches with long breaks between. I tend to do all my scanning in the winter months, when it’s forty below outside. I also review each scan as I go, because I often get genealogical “Ah ha!” moments when I’m doing this work. (My very best post so far came as an “Ah ha!” after scanning my uncle’s photos. See The James Bonds of Chinatown.)
The contents of one apple crate of photos, roughly sorted by decade. Photo: Linda Yip. © All rights reserved.
About five thousand photos, sorted by decade and sitting on my dining room table. Credit: Linda Yip. © All rights reserved.


This is a follow up post to Behind the scenes – my scanning setup.

This whole topic was inspired by a conversation I was following on the Facebook group Technology for Genealogy (must have a Facebook account to access the link).


10 thoughts on “11 tips for anyone starting a photo scanning project

  1. I myself have much scanning to do of both pictures and documents. I have an old scanner that is very slow so I have been putting it off. I should look around and see what is on the market at a good price. This was a good post with good advice.

    1. chmjr2

      Download the trial version of VueScan Pro and try it with your old scanner. Since it works with at least 25,000 different scanner makes and models, it will probably work with yours, even if the maker’s driver software is not available or not compatible with the latest versions of MacOS and Windows 10. For less than $100 USD, buy of VueScan Pro for its additional features that aren’t in the cheaper VueScan, including the ability to scan slides and negatives if your scanner can do them. I’ve found it speeds the scanning time to almost 1/2 the time to scan the same originals with EpsonScan on the Epson V600 scanner.

      See Linda’s review post about her experiences using the Epson FF640 photo/document scanner. It has been replaced by the newer FF680W model, which can connect wirelessly (the “W” in its name) with a computer and printer. Aside from newer features, it’s very similar to the FF640 in quality and features and is great for prints and documents, although it doesn’t do slides or negatives.

      1. Thank you,Art. This conversation reminds me I need to update this post, because thanks to you I’ve adopted VueScan Pro and it’s reinvigorating my scanning on the ancient-but-still-high-quality CanonScan 8400F flatbed.

  2. I too hesitated for months before beginning, caught between a deep desire to get going and an equally deep desire to do it right. Curtis Bisel of ScanYourEntireLife (dot) com argues for two flatbed scanners, alternating between them as you sort, clean, and archive. I initially didn’t have the money for that, so spent much of my time organizing and sorting (and removing photos from photo books / albums / envelope / etc.).

    That’s how I spent 2.5 years in 34 scanning sessions with about a 3000 scan total. Nearly all the originals were tiny black and whites, from 1915-1940. I don’t regret this in the least. I learned a lot throughout. It was when I came to the thousands of 4×6 photos from the 80s and realized I had FIFTY more weekends at my current rate, which would put me at five more years of weekends spent scanning. Put another way, I wasn’t as invested in these photos (this is an important consideration), I wanted them done, and I was daunted by the remaining work to do.

    My advice for you is asking yourself: what am I scanning? Are they predominantly frail, thick, tiny, negs, or film? Those need to be done with a flatbed scanner, and perhaps two flatbeds is your ideal setup. Let your collection guide you in your choice of scanner. As you can see, my collection determined for me that a document feeder-style scanner was the right second scanner.

    I hope this is helpful.

      1. Hi Nancy! I bought the Epson FF-640 as a supplement to my old Canon flatbed scanner. I’m not sure if I can provide a link here in the comment but if you search my site for “scanning” you’ll find a review because I love the Epson so much. It literally took years off my working timelines.

  3. Super useful advice Linda. Your file naming convention is excellent. I will incorporate some of your suggestions. I have always saved scans as jpgs. I must try Tiff. I recently started Adobe Lightroom CC. I am also using Photoshop Elements 15 for editing. Lots of work ahead to do my personal collection and my family. This is a hobby that is truly fascinating. I also use Google Photos and Microsoft Onedrive for cloud storage. I would like to create a family archive webpage which includes the many photos and some narratives. I would probably link it to my family tree website created by MyHeritage. Enjoy the journey everyone.

    1. Hi Gerry! Glad you like the file naming convention. It works for me. Others have suggested filing by family group progenitor, so all the files would line up by name. Either way, a naming convention is a way of basic organizing, and me, I like seeing all the files line up in date order.

      I read how one person uses the file path to identify everything, including listing all the people in the photo or document. I think if you’re going to try organizing your files using the file handing of the computer only, this is a good way to go. I realize I don’t worry so much about maximizing the file path thanks to Lightroom. A few people have also suggested using software to file by keywords, or apply captions, so I may do a follow up blog post on how I use Adobe Lightroom to sort and organize, and then export the images with the keywords in the metadata. I am not by any means a Lightroom expert but I feel the organizing alone was well worth the investment.

      Thanks for sharing your details. I like seeing how other people handle their own archives. I’d also like to create a private family archive page, as I was speaking with my cousin this week and he hadn’t seen some of the images I was describing and was hoping I could find a way to share it.

      Genealogy is indeed fascinating. Thanks very much for posting.


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