Scanning the family photo collection

Unclutterer reader Mary recently wrote to us describing her biggest organizing challenge:

I have boxes and boxes of family photos (some from the 1920s) I’d like to scan in and put on CDs (is that a good way to save them?) and also put on a website where family members can access them and print out what they’d like to keep. How do I even get started? How do I organize the project? I’m overwhelmed just thinking about it. Do I need a special scanner? What’s the fastest and best quality scanner? Can I save the photos on the cloud? Is there a way to record information I have about the photo with the scan? A lot was written on the back of photos — can both sides be scanned at once? Should I get rid of duplicates or bad photos to start off? It’s hard to throw away photos. Any suggestions, including new tech solutions, would be appreciated.

Mary, dealing with photos can be overwhelming. But it’s a very rewarding project, and you can break it down into smaller pieces so it’s not so intimidating. The following are some ideas about how to approach this project, looking at each decision you’ll need to make.

Decide which photos to keep

You won’t want to spend time or money scanning photos you don’t even think are worth keeping, so unclutter first. Photos to consider tossing are:

  • Duplicates. If you have family or friends who would like the duplicate prints, you can certainly pass them along. But why keep duplicates yourself?
  • Bad photos. This would include photos that are out of focus, photos that cut off someone’s head, and photos that are unflattering. You may want to keep some of these if there’s something else especially notable about the photo, but in most cases these are good riddance.
  • Photos of scenery. This is a personal choice, but many times the photos people take of the places they visit just aren’t that remarkable. My parents went to Hawaii years ago and took many photos, but I can find much better photos of those places online. The photos I cherish are the ones of my parents in Hawaii, not the ones of Hawaii itself.

You might think of this as going on a treasure hunt, finding the real gems among the many photos. If you can’t bring yourself to throw away any photos right now, you might simply create two categories of photos: the best ones (which you’ll scan) and all the rest.

Decide whether to scan them yourself or use a scanning service

Many people have happily used scanning services. Erin used ScanMyPhotos, as did a recent commenter, L. Charles. The company takes your prints, negatives and/or slides, does the scanning, and ships you back a DVD with those scans (along with your originals). If mailing off your photos makes you nervous, you may be able to find a company that does the work locally. Using a scanning service will save you a lot of time. I doubt the service will scan the backs of the photos, though.

If you prefer to scan your photos yourself, you’re going to be best off with a scanner that doesn’t require you to put the photos through a paper feed. That’s because every once in a while a photo might get damaged going through that feed. However, if you already have something like a ScanSnap iX500 you may be willing to take that risk. I know people who have used similar scanners with no problems.

If you already have a flatbed scanner as part of an all-in-one printer, that might be all you need. But what if you don’t have an appropriate scanner and want to buy one? I’m not an expert regarding scanners so I can’t tell you which scanner is best, but I can point you to some alternatives.

There are some scanning devices designed specifically for photos, which can sound appealing. But Consumer Reports wasn’t thrilled with the pass-through photo scanners it tested, even though it acknowledged that they have some distinct advantages.

Another option is a flatbed scanner, especially one that’s designed to handle photos, negatives, and slides. I know someone who’s happy with the Canon CanoScan 9000F MKII Color Image Scanner, but there are many other scanners to consider. If any readers have experience with specific photo scanners, I hope they’ll add their comments.

If you’re scanning photos yourself, you can scan the backs of the photos to capture the writing. (If you have a duplex scanner, you can probably scan both at once.) You could even use a scanning service for the photos, and then go through and scan the backs of the photos yourself once the prints are returned to you.

Next week, I’ll address the issue of storing the photos once you have them scanned.

18 Comments for “Scanning the family photo collection”

  1. posted by L on

    will you also be talking about what to do with all the negatives? I feel like I am drowning in them.

  2. posted by L on

    will you also be talking about what to do with all the negatives? I feel like I am drowning in them.

  3. posted by Bonnie on

    I had my great Grandmothers Album (1885 to 1948) and I scanned all the pictures. Posted them on the ICloud to my immediate family we could identify some photos. I met some people online who were related to me and we Identified almost all the people. It was one of the most amazing projects I have ever done. I hope to tell the family history through these photos.

  4. posted by Susan on

    Several years ago, after my dad died, I went through a plastic storage tub the size of a trunk full of family photos, albums, slides, scrap books momentos. Photos from my immediate family, my mom’s side of the family and my dad’s side of the family were sorted through. One of the first issues that I had to work through was that it was OK to throw away photos. Duplicates–my mom took photos and sent them to me and grandma. Now I have mom’s and grandmas photos. I had 3-4 copies of the same photo. Other siblings had their own copies. It’s really ok to toss photos in the trash. Duplicates, bad photos, scenery. Whittling down to good photos took a full weekend. Don’t be afraid to put the project aside and come back to it. After I decided which photo’s I wanted to keep I chose Scan Digital to put 500 photos to disc. They also provide an online link. I used a Groupon but follow them on Facebook and they offer specials there. I still had 250 of my own personal photos that I sent to a local company to digitize. Note that companies will not scan any photos with photographer’s logos or copywrites unless you have permission. Unfortunately my wedding photographer went out of business 20 years ago, but they still wouldn’t scan those photos. But they did scan my wedding video to DVD. For both companies I was told I would have a 4 week turn around and was given web tracking every step of the way from shipping to scanning to repacking the photos to shipping back to me. It was seamless.

    For the remainder of the photos that I didn’t choose to scan I’m down to a small plastic tote. Many older family photos I sent off to my uncle who still lives back east near other family. They will appreciate the old photos and momentos better than me or my siblings. It was a big job, at times fun then bittersweet but it is a relief to have it done.

  5. posted by Mike Hathaway on

    I was stuff with this same problem, What is fantastic is your images are not in an album. I discovered the Scasnap ix500 can scap pictures on mass with no problem at all. Well worth the money. Whats also nice is it can scan both sides so you can save a loved ones hand written notes.

    Also shoving them into the new google photo service can do amazing things. It can do facial recognition, pet recognition and all sorts of automatic sorting and grouping.

  6. posted by Michael De Groote on

    I have a few thoughts about this topic. Maybe one or two might be useful.

    BEFORE YOU THROW OUT OLD PHOTOGRAPHS: 1. Check with a local historian or historical society to see if they would want some of the photographs. Your father’s photograph of a parade, for example, may be the only existing photographic record. You indeed may not care about that float, but it might have great significance to the history of the city, town, county, the float sponsor, etc. I know somebody who was going to just get rid of some old photographs (really old glass negatives). They were worth thousands of dollars. Photos do not need to be a hundred years old to be valuable. Check first.
    2. Remember with digitization that it may have an shorter shelf-life than the originals. Improved technology and more photographically-minded relative might care a lot about the subtle things in the shadows that an ordinary scan might obscure. Keep the originals if you can.
    3. The negatives can be better, sharper, cleaner than the prints from the negatives. Consider having the negatives scanned by a good service.

  7. posted by Geof Garth on

    an easy way to get digital images from photos is to take a photo of them with your camera or phone. Do it in direct sunlight for best results and position so there is no glare. It goes really fast and for snapshots there is essentially no loss in resolution. You can crop any extra as needed.

  8. posted by Jessica on

    Scanmyphotos is the best. I am using the services for all my TV productions with TLC.

  9. posted by Ken Gassman on

    I’m in the process of scanning over two thousand old family photos. I’m using a flatbed Epson V600 (probably no longer available) with “auto-correction” software. I’m making jpeg images, and enhancing them with Aperture / Lightroom. Take those faded brown photos and make snappy black & white photos from them! Easy to do with proper software. Use a flatbed scanner (I’ve tried others that roll the photos through them — invariably I end up with distorted photos or mangled pictures).

  10. posted by Gina on

    I second Michael De Groote’s comment. As an archivist with specialty in digitization, the process explained by the post is essentially my job!

    I always like to recommend the Library of Congress’s Personal Digital Archiving: It includes specific tips like the settings for the scanner for photographs. There’s also lots of information on preserving the data you create or save on your computer. Digital files are MUCH more delicate then their analog counterparts. They can last, but only with active management, several copies (not just backups), and probably some conversion/migration at some point.

    Definitely do not save anything you scan to a CD or DVD you burn yourself. It’s an unstable media because you’re just moving around an ink layer, so less than perfect storage could ruin it without showing any outward signs. One alternative is called the M-DISC. They sell both DVD and Blu-ray capacities but the technology is different in that the data is engraved into a very hard material. So although you can’t guarantee you can open a JPEG image in 100 years, at least the media is still solid (well, if you still have a DVD drive!!). Information at, can be purchased many places online. Our government institution has adopted M-DISCS as an inexpensive preservation media, having received the recommendation from a university archives.

  11. posted by G. on

    Michael De Groote has a really good point – many towns have a lack of old photos of the town itself. Plenty of photos of the residents, but the town itself can be rare. Many had a photo or 2 taken for post cards, but no collection that shows the transformation over the years. Photos of residential neighborhoods are harder to find than the photos of the business areas.

    And Gina has good points about CD/DVDs and file formats.

    Regarding negatives, I think I’d rather keep all the negatives and keep just the very best photos. I’ve been seeing many color photos from the 60s-70s that are fading badly, and not from being in the sun. If I recall correctly, the color negatives have longer life than the prints?

  12. posted by Pat Reble on

    Fabulous advice for the person who asked the question, but not necessarily the best advice for the average person. When the issue was sorting through inherited clutter the overall guidance was, save what you love and chuck the rest. Why is it that when it comes to books and photos we lose the plot and start applying principles we would’t recommend for anything else?

  13. posted by Mitch Goldstone on

    Jeri, thanks for this important information to help unclutter, organize and enjoy decades and generations of family photo memories.

    Once digitized, I recommend everyone create many backups, the more the better. Leave duplicate DVDs/Flash Drives off site, on hard drives, at relatives homes, and in a safety deposit box.

    The new, best tip for archiving those JPEG files is to upload to your favorite photo-sharing service and cloud storage company, such as DropBox. But as the average order size for a typical order represents thousands of photos, that means you will be uploading for than 2 GB of data. Dropbox’s threshold for free uploading is 2 GB, so you will have to pay a fee for DropBox Pro.

    Alternatively, our best recommendation is to sign up with the Google Photos app. It scored raves from the tech media and is like magic. It uses image recognition to identify and sort your scanned photos, and those from your mobile devices. The storage of your JPEG files is FREE. Can’t beat that.

    The on challenge is that only digitized pictures can be uploaded. Here is our Businesswire release with the problem and the fix:

    Mitch Goldstone
    President & CEO

  14. posted by N on

    Does anyone have or has anyone used a the Doxie Flip (

  15. posted by N on

    Sorry, this is a better link:

  16. posted by Garden Goddess on

    I also inherited a LOT of very old family photos and needed a way to begin to organize them so I could get them into scrap books. I decided to get some of those inexpensive photo boxes and first sorted everything into decades. You could use big accordion files if you have a lot of bigger photos. I then went back through and further sorted each decade into years. That by itself helped a whole lot. I then got a very soft pencil and lightly wrote on the back the who, what, where & when. Make sure you use a soft pencil, writing on a hard surface and write very lightly so you don’t indent the photo. Do not use markers or ink as they can seep through the print. Hopefully you will have some oldsters around to help you identify anything unmarked that you aren’t familiar with. Do that ASAP. Holidays and family reunions are a great time to address the issue of orphan photos! I’m planning to keep all my photos in albums, but I will also be digitizing them eventually–which will make it easy to share with any family member who is interested. Good luck with your project.

  17. posted by Sam on

    As someone well versed in scanning and Photoshop, the best decision I made was to have someone else do it. I had thousands of photos of all sizes and 35mm slides. I used both and The results were excellent and I didn’t have to devote weeks of my life to the effort.

    With ScanMyPhotos, you bundle your photos of the same size with rubber bands. Put them in the pre-paid box and send them off.

    With ScanCafe, just put everything in a box and send them off. You can even send albums. Or send 35mm slides in a carousel (extra charge for the handling of the carousel). Doesn’t have to be organized. They will scan everything and you can preview the results on the web. You don’t pay for pictures you don’t like, up to certain limit.

    You will get back your images on CD-ROM(s). So much easier to edit and organize when they are on the computer.

    You can certainly throw out any duds before sending off your photos, but forget about organizing the photos beforehand. These service companies have made it inexpensive enough to scan everything. That’s the key – don’t get stopped before you get started. Just send them off.

    Note: Scancafe offers off-shore or USA based scanning. I went with off-shore (India) to save money. After all, with today’s shipping methods, there is not much difference between sending a package to Florida or Texas or India. But some people can’t get over the fact of having their photos leave the country, so ScanCafe added USA based scanning.

  18. posted by Diane on

    I don’t know that this applies to digital as much – but certainly for batches of “old” – ie hard copy family photos, in bags, or in their developing envelopes, etc – one way that I put together albums for my parents years ago – for bagfuls my mother had in her closet from the 1900s through the 1970s into the early 80s – was

    I took large 8 x 10 manila envelopes, one for each decade – and separated out, putting each decade together.

    Then I worked with one decade at a time, spilling out the contents of the envelope, and putting into a set of 10 separate smaller envelopes the photos from, e.g., 1901, 1902, 1903, etc. Same thru 1978, 1979 once I got to that larger manila one for the ’70s

    Some years required additional envelopes.

    I then put the photos within the small envelopes into the best order I could (January through December). I still didn’t decide about quality.

    But when that was all done, I found albums (back then I knew less about PCP or whatever the bad stuff is that we shouldn’t use against or near our photos). I decided to try to fit 1900-1929 into one, the 30s and 40s together, etc. It didn’t always work out that way. And I have some separate special albums for special vacations or events or landmark experiences/birthdays/weddings.

    But it was while doing that, that I left out bad photos. As to old photos of people I didn’t know – and as I had my mother at the time to guide me and I grew to knew the faces quite well of people I’d never known – I mainly did fine. As to those neither of us knew, I decided to keep anyway – I felt that I might find out one day – somehow – who that person was to the family. Time has shown me to be right in at least one instance, so I had a single separate holder in the oldest photo album, at least, to hold all the unknown people. In case the family was ever to contact a professional archivist (or married one into the family!)

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