New life for old photos

For decades, you faithfully recorded your most precious moments on film, picked a few snapshots from the bunch for photo albums, and then carefully stored the rest. But now those prints are fading. If they’re stored in nonarchival albums or—heaven forbid—in the attic or garage, they may be aging even faster.

You can save them. By scanning old photos and film into your Mac now, you’ll be able to stop the aging process and preserve irreplaceable photos. With the help of image-editing software, you may even be able to reverse some of the worst damage.

Once your photos are digitized, you can search your collection with a few mouse clicks; share your photos with others; and even use your favorites to create calendars, books, slide shows, and more.

Although scanning decades’ worth of old photos isn’t a quick process, it doesn’t have to become a second job. With the right tools and an efficient workflow, you can safely scan, catalog, and annotate your old photos, negatives, and slides in your spare time.

What you’ll need

If you’ve already made the switch to digital photography, you probably own many of the tools you’ll need for this project.

Scanner If you have the time and the patience, the best way to digitize your prints, negatives, and slides is to scan them yourself. In recent years, the quality and affordability of consumer scanners have improved—making them well suited to this type of project. (For more product information, see our scanner topic page.)

By scanning your old photos yourself, you’ll have maximum control over the handling of your prints—some of which may be very fragile—and over the quality of your scans. The downside is that scanning can be a labor-intensive process. However, once you have your system set up, you can work on the project while you answer e-mail and handle other mundane computer chores.

Of course, if you don’t have the time or the patience to take on the task of scanning, you can pay someone to do the work for you.

Companies such as DigMyPics will accept your bundled-up prints and slides, scan them, perform basic image correction, and then send you the originals along with the digital files on CD or DVD. DigMyPics even uploads proofs of your scans to its Web site so you can spot a problem and have it corrected before delivery. But the service isn’t inexpensive. You’ll spend 39 cents for each print (at 300 dpi; higher resolutions are available for an additional fee) and 59 cents for each frame of a 35mm negative or each 35mm slide (at 2,000 dpi). The company does offer discounts for orders of 500 or more.

Not all scanning services are created equal. Be sure to read the fine print on a company’s Web site, so you know exactly what services are included with the price of a scan. And before sending any scanning service all of your precious memories, perform a trial run. Send the service a few slides or prints you have duplicates of, and see how it performs. Are the scans high quality? Were your materials returned in good shape? Are customer-service representatives available to handle your questions and problems? Once you’re satisfied that a scanning service is reliable, you can begin to send batches of your pictures for archiving.

Photo-Management Software Once your old photos have been scanned, you’ll need a way to organize the new files. Apple’s iPhoto software ($79 as part of iLife ’06 ) is a great choice because it’s powerful and affordable. However, any photo-management software that helps you group photos, add keywords, and make backups will do the trick.

Image-Editing Software If your prints and negatives have been well preserved (ideally in archival albums or sleeves, and in a temperate climate), your scans may not need much touch-up work beyond the occasional exposure adjustment or the removal of a few dust spots. In these cases, iPhoto’s image-editing tools should suffice.

Pictures that have faded because of exposure to light and air or that have been damaged by careless handling and storage will require a bit more help. In these cases, you’ll need a full-fledged image editor such as Adobe Photoshop CS2 or Photoshop Elements ($649 and $80, respectively ). These programs offer powerful image-correction tools, layer controls, and masking features that give you precise control over specific areas of your photos. Plus, both programs support a variety of specialty plug-ins that can help you restore natural colors and even reduce grain.

Storage Space Creating high-quality scans doesn’t just take time; it also requires considerable hard-disk space. For example, 100 4-by-6-inch prints scanned at 300 dpi (dots per inch)—the lowest resolution I recommend—take up more than 600MB of space. If you’re digitizing a lot of images, I recommend investing in an external hard drive with a FireWire or USB 2.0 connection. If you’re on a tight budget, then using DVDs is a reasonable—although certainly more cumbersome—alternative.

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