Archiving Your Old Photos

Over the past year I’ve managed to scan most of my old photographs. Getting them digitized makes them easier to store and easier to share. If you have an automatic backup like Carbonite (as you should), your photos will be backed up in the cloud. Also, once they are scanned you can throw out the originals which saves space and avoids further fading or deterioration.

One of my projects was to scan close to a thousand old 35mm negatives that I had saved in a paper shopping bag from my high school days. I was the photography editor for the school newspaper and yearbook, and the bag was full of “outtakes”, but still contained many interesting things. You can see them here:

I’ve found satisfactory ways of scanning most things. In this post I will describe what I have learned.

Scanning Photos

The most basic task in archiving is the scanning of photo prints. I’ve found that pretty much any desktop scanner will do the job. I use a Canon MX922 multifunction printer.

Just start scanning. Use a “Scanned Photos” folder to collect the unedited scans. I like to use a workflow of scanning, cleaning up the scans, editing the image’s metadata as needed, and moving the finished images to well-named folders.

If you have negatives for your prints, you may want to scan those instead. They are easier to scan, the quality may be better, and if you’re like me you’ve given away some of the prints but still have all the negatives. By scanning the negatives, you won’t miss out on the “good ones” that you gave away.

Scanning Slides and 35mm Negatives

For 35mm slides and negatives I bought a cheap standalone scanner from Amazon. There are quite a few available at a wide range of prices; the one I got was about $80 but is no longer being sold.

There are flatbed scanners that have attachments that will let you scan slides and negatives. I’ve never had any success using them, and don’t recommend that you try.

Read the specs and choose a film scanner that will handle the sizes of film that you have. Typically the scanners will accept slides and 35mm negatives (and maybe additional sizes), and will save the scanned images on an SD card. Once you figure out how to work it you can go through a big pile of negatives and slides pretty quickly.

Some scanners will also scan prints. I haven’t used one that does that, but you might want to consider that option. It looks like it’s limited to the more expensive scanners. Just remember that sending your boxes of photos off to a scanning service will cost hundreds of dollars, maybe thousands.

If you are scanning negatives they will typically slide through a plastic holder in the scanner. Be very careful to avoid getting dirt into the scanner as it will scratch both the plastic holder and the negative. You’ll probably want to buy a few spare holders and replace them when scratches get objectionable.

The scanner should have settings for scanning both negatives, and positive images such as slides. It also may let you select black and white or color, but it’s best to just scan everything in color. No matter the source, the resulting image file should be a positive image.

When scanning film or slides, be careful not to scan things so that the result is a mirror image. It’s sometimes hard to tell. Look for pictures with writing in them, like signs. Once you have figured out which way is right, note which side the emulsion (less-shiny) side is, and always scan things oriented that way. If you end up with a bunch of scans done wrong, you can fix them in editing.

Scanning Photo Albums and Scrapbooks

You may have photos mounted in albums that you want to preserve. The easiest way to do this is to remove the pictures from the album to scan them. If this isn’t practical, you can try to scan the album pages, in parts if they are too big, and then extract the individual photos during editing.

Scrapbooks are especially difficult, because they are usually too big to fit on a standard scanner. If I had to scan a scrapbook I would try to set up a stand that would hold a good camera exactly square above a flat surface, and take pictures of the pages. This has to be done precisely or the results will not be satisfactory. As an alternative you may wish to have a professional scanning service do your scrapbooks; it’s not cheap but may well be worth it. A typical price would be $150 for a 60-page scrapbook.

Photo Editing

The scanned images you generate will probably not be the best quality. Being able to clean up faded or poorly-exposed photos is one of the great advantages of digitizing.

To edit photos you can use any of a wide variety of photo editing applications. I use one called which is free and quite powerful. If you want more sophisticated control over things like colors, at the cost of a more complex interface, try Picture Window Pro. It’s also free, and worth checking out.

You may think you need to use Photoshop for this. By all means use it if you have it and know how to use it. But getting good at using Photoshop can take years. I doubt you want to make that kind of commitment, and you don’t have to.

Use the following steps to clean up a photo:

  • If the image is badly skewed, rotate it to appear vertical
  • If the image is oriented wrong and/or mirrored, correct the orientation
  • crop the image to get rid of borders and improve framing
  • try “Auto-Level” to see if it helps more than hurts; undo it if not
  • adjust brightness and contrast
  • sometimes “Sharpen” helps

These steps are quick to do and some can usually be skipped — in most cases you’ll only spend 20 seconds or so on a picture, and will end up with a much improved image. Once done, save the image back to the same file.

Getting Organized

Figure out a hierarchy of folders to give your picture library some sense of organization. It won’t be perfect but the goal should be to be able to find things relatively easily. Be sure to include things like dates and places. For example, often a set of photos will have a year printed on the back. That should be in the folder name for the pictures either directly or by hierarchy.

I don’t try to change the file name from the coded name generated by the camera or scanner. It’s just too much work.


Photo files have hidden coding called “metadata”, some generated by the scanner or camera, and some that you can add. There are programs that let you edit metadata, but I just use Windows: right-click on the photo file, pick “Properties, then pick Details. That’s the metadata.

I use the Title, Subject, Tags, and Comments fields, when appropriate, to record things I know about a picture or that are written on the back. Most photos files I generate don’t end up with metadata because the folder organization tells everything I know about the picture.

You can go really overboard with Tags. They provide a way to code details like peoples’ names, places, events, and such. Some programs let you search for photos by tag. I, however, don’t use them.

There are date fields in the metadata. But, at least with Windows, you have to specify a complete date like 1/28/2019, not just a year or a month and year. This greatly limits its usefulness.

Scanning Services

Sometimes you have negatives you can’t scan yourself, such as odd film sizes. Or perhaps you have important slides or negatives that you’d rather have done by professionals. There are many places to get this done, including the chain drug stores. What you’ll find out first is that getting this done is very expensive, and the prices vary widely.

I’ve had good luck with a mail-order service called Spartan Photo Center in South Carolina. They are reasonably priced (though you’ll still pay a fortune), and have done good work the few times I’ve used them. The only drawback is a rather complex pricing model, and a corresponding order form that will remind you of doing your taxes.

Throwing Out Your Originals

You will probably be inclined to save the original prints, slides, and negatives. By all means save a few of the most important ones, especially when having the originals has some meaning to you. But you really don’t have to save much.

Remember that you can easily make prints of your digitized photos, that are probably much better than the originals (thanks to your editing), using your printer. Buy some photo paper (look on eBay for a decent price) and get in the habit of making prints to share.

Once you get used to the idea of keeping your valuable photos in digital form, the hard copies stop being so important. Just toss them.

Backup, Archival Storage, and Distribution

The library you create should be something that gets preserved for many years. Make backup copies on DVDs, USB memory sticks, and portable hard drives. Review your backup method from time to time to make sure they stay in a readable form as technology advances. Using a cloud backup service preserves things even if you have a fire or other disaster.

You may wish to upload all your photos to one of the various photo-sharing sites. These are good for short-term sharing, but can’t be depended on to preserve photos for generations. Too many have been bought out or shut down to consider them a viable archival method.

The library of photos you create is something you can share. Send copies of the entire library, on a DVD or USB memory stick, to all your relatives. The more copies that are out there, the more likely that one will survive for generations.

Don’t forget that your photos may have value to others. Consider sending copies to appropriate organizations such as local historical societies, libraries, and such. Often old photos include buildings with historical interest, or even just what a neighborhood used to look like decades ago. Even people who may not know who you are may find elements of your family pictures of interest many years in the future.

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