Convert your old photos to digital pictures

Using a scanner to archive your memories digitally

By Dave Johnson

My wife recently showed me a photo, taken five years ago, of our daughter. It was so precious that I almost cried. I’d forgotten how young she looked. According to my wife, that photo had been buried at the bottom of a shoe box, where no one could appreciate it. In that moment, I decided to convert all my old photos into digital pictures so I’d be able to see those gems anytime, without digging out storage boxes from the garage or, worse yet, losing them altogether.

Scanning old photos is a great way to preserve memories and reduce clutter. When I convert old prints into digital pictures and store them on my computer, I get to see them more frequently. I also have more opportunities to share them with friends and family. Intrigued? Let’s look at the basics of photo scanning.

Choosing a scanner

To convert your photos, the first thing you'll need is a scanner. Scanners come in lots of different shapes and sizes, but they all work in more or less the same way—like a copy machine. But unlike a copier that scans your document and immediately prints a duplicate, scanners take a picture of your document and then send that information to your computer, where it can be saved as a file. For scanned photos, that’s usually the same JPEG format used by your digital camera. You can then do anything you like with the file: print it, send it in e‑mail, and even turn it into a desktop background. (To see a list of scanners that are compatible with Windows Vista, go to the Microsoft Store website.)

So what kind of scanner should you get? It depends on what you want to scan. Here’s a rundown of the most common scanners you’ll see in stores:

  • Flatbed scanner. This is the most common kind of scanner. It features a glass surface on which you place the item you want to scan. A scanning head—which works kind of like a tiny digital camera—moves across the glass and captures an image of the document, photo, or other item you're scanning. This is the best choice for scanning most photos.

  • Film scanner. Film scanners are too small to accept traditional photo prints. Instead, they’re designed to accommodate slides and negatives. Some flatbed scanners come with adapters for slides and negatives, but dedicated film scanners capture much higher quality images of these kinds of photos. If you have a large collection of slides and negatives, it might be worth investing in a film scanner.

  • Wand scanner. A wand (or handheld) scanner is similar to the scanning head from a flatbed scanner, mounted in a device you hold in your hand. Place the document or photo on a tabletop and then manually move the wand down the length of the item, as if you were sweeping dust off the table. These scanners are most common for folks who travel a lot and frequently need to scan text documents. They’re not very useful for photos, because their resolution and image quality is usually too low for good results.

Picture of a flatbed scanner
A flatbed scanner can make high–quality digital copies of documents, photos, and other flat items that fit on the glass scanning bed

Using your scanner

So, here you are—a stack of photos on your desk, ready to be scanned. A scanner sitting nearby. Now what?

Actually, that depends on your scanner. Every scanner has its own software with its own unique controls and settings. In general, though, you’ll find that scanner software tends to have two important modes (though the exact names of these modes will vary):

  • Automatic Scanning. In an automatic mode, you don’t need to choose any settings. Simply set the photo on the scanner, start the software that came with your scanner, and click the scan button. The photo will be automatically scanned at a high resolution, which is handy for printing. Most programs automatically save the photo to your computer for you. No muss, no fuss!

  • Custom Scanning. Custom mode lets you fine-tune the scanning process. You can customize settings, such as the image resolution, for example. If you’re scanning a photo to save for the ages, scan it at your scanner’s maximum resolution, so you can make high-quality prints later. If you are scanning it to send in e‑mail or post on the web, choose the scanner’s “web” resolution or choose a low number, such as 72 dots per inch (DPI). For more information on choosing a resolution for e‑mail, see Send pictures or videos in e‑mail. In addition, you might be able to adjust the document type. Scanners works best if they are set to a specific document type. You can often choose from among options such as Photograph, Negative, Illustration, and Newspaper, which you can use to scan different kinds of documents, papers, and film.

Example of typical scanner controls
You can usually set the resolution and document type when preparing to scan a photo

Scanning oversized photos

You might find that not all of your photos fit on your scanner’s glass bed. For example, last year, my wife showed me one of our wedding photos that had a terrible scratch down the middle. I wanted to scan the photo, digitally fix it, and then reprint it. Unfortunately, the picture was more than twice the size of the scanner. What to do?

Panoramic stitching to the rescue! Panoramic stitching is designed so you can take a series of photos with your digital camera and then combine them into a very wide or very tall "panorama." It’s a great way to capture breathtaking vistas that would be otherwise impossible to take with an ordinary camera. But what you might not realize is that by using the panoramic stitching tool built into many photo editing programs (including Windows Live Photo Gallery, for example), you can reproduce large, poster–sized images.

To scan a large image, place a portion of the image on the scanner, scan the photo, move the image, and scan another section until the entire photo is scanned. Make sure to scan in overlapping sections, so each scanned image has about 30 percent in common with the neighboring section. After, open all the overlapping sections in a program with panoramic stitching (such as Windows Live Photo Gallery) and use that program to automatically combine the separate sections into a seamless composite image.

Example of a set of photos stitched into a complete picture
Scan a larger photo in sections, and then use panoramic stitching software to combine them into a complete picture

I have a lot of scanning ahead of me—about ten bulging shoe boxes, at last count. When I’m done, I know that my family’s photo legacy will be preserved for future generations. And those pictures will be easier to share and enjoy than ever.

About the author

Picture of columnist Dave Johnson

Dave Johnson is a writer on the Windows team at Microsoft. In addition to writing about Windows, he's a scuba instructor, a drummer, an award-winning photographer, and the author of over three dozen books.

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