New life for old photos

Step 1: Set up your scanner

Set up your scanner, and load the driver software. If you have an older scanner, check the manufacturer’s Web site to see whether there’s an updated version of the driver. If no driver is available, you can try third-party software such as Hamrick Software’s VueScan ($50), which adds support and scanning controls for more than 400 scanners.

In addition to providing a stand-alone application that you can use to control the scanning process, many scanners also include a plug-in that lets you control the scanner through Photoshop or Photoshop Elements. Once you install the plug-in, you can access the scanner while in either program by going to File: Import and selecting the name of your scanner.

Step 2: Choose scanner settings

Before you begin scanning, take a moment to organize your material. I find that it’s helpful to scan prints of similar sizes during a session. This lets you use the same settings from scan to scan.

If you’re scanning a print, simply place the photo face-down on the scanner’s glass surface. If you’re scanning a negative, you’ll probably need to place it in a special holder before you can scan it. Make sure the film’s emulsion (the shinier side) is facing the correct direction—usually toward the scanner’s light source. Otherwise, your image will be reversed on your monitor. You may also need to remove the white backing in the scanner’s lid to reveal an additional light for scanning transparent images (see your scanner’s manual for details).

Close the lid and launch your scanning software. You’ll typically have two options here: Simple mode and Advanced mode. Simple mode requires fewer decisions but often comes with constraints, such as lower scanning resolutions (see “Full-Featured Scanning”). You may want to experiment to see which mode gives you the best results. I’ll walk you through the process of using the Advanced mode.

Full-Featured Scanning In Simple mode, Canon’s CanoScan plug-in limits the scanning resolution to 300 dpi. Advanced mode (pictured) lets you choose from a much greater variety of resolution options and control additional settings.

Get a Preview Start by clicking on the Preview button. This generates a quick look at your print so you can make sure it’s positioned properly. Once the image is on your screen, use the selection tool to draw a box around the specific area you want to scan. There’s no need to scan the entire glass surface.

Set Color Mode Next, choose a color mode for your scan. The options are usually Grayscale, B&W, and Color. For color prints, the choice is obvious. However, I often choose Color mode even when scanning black-and-white prints. The finished file still appears as a gray-scale image, but it also supports RGB tools, such as Photoshop’s Channel Mixer, for additional image-enhancement options.

Set Print Resolution The next choice, Output Resolution, is an important setting—and often a difficult one to understand. Unless you plan to use your images only on the Web or as e-mail attachments, I recommend a minimum resolution of 300 dpi. If you use a lower resolution, you won’t capture enough data to make high-quality prints at the same size as the original—never mind making enlargements. In fact, you may need to go higher than 300 dpi.

When choosing a resolution, consider the quality of your source material and the size at which you might want to reproduce the image in the future. If you’ll want to reprint the photo only at its original size or smaller, a resolution of 300 dpi should suffice. However, if you want prints bigger than the original, I recommend an output resolution of 600 dpi. If your print is in particularly good shape and you’d like to make a very large reproduction, you may even consider scanning at 1,200 dpi (if your scanner offers this resolution). But keep in mind that file size and scanning time increase substantially as you up the resolution. So you’ll need to balance your ambition for getting as many pixels as possible with the realities of your storage space and free time.

The following tables show that a 4-by-6-inch snapshot scanned at 300 dpi can easily produce a photo-quality 5-by-7-inch print. However, if you scan the same snapshot at 600 dpi, you can make much bigger prints from that file later on. But notice how the file size swells, too. You go from a 6MB file at 300 dpi to a 24MB file at 600 dpi. And keep in mind that the quality of the source material needs to be good if you’re going to make large prints. Otherwise, you’re just magnifying the image’s flaws. You won’t be able to make a stunning 11-by-14-inch print from an underexposed, grainy 4-by-6-inch photo just because you scan it at 600 dpi.

Output Resolution Guide for Prints

Original print size (in inches) Scan resolution (in DPI) File size (in MB) * Maximum print size at 240 DPI (in inches)
4x6 300 6 5x7
600 24 10x15
1,200 98 20x30
5x7 300 9 6x9
600 36 12x18
1,200 144 25x35
8x10 300 21 10x12
600 82 20x25
1,200 330 40x50

* When saved as a TIFF file.

Output Resolution Guide for 35mm Film

Original negative size Scan resolution (in DPI) Typical file size (in MB) * Maximum print size at 240 DPI (in inches)
35mm 2,000 15 8x12
3,000 35 12x18
4,000 61 25x38

* When saved as a TIFF file.

Set Resolution for Negatives and Slides Slides and negatives are much smaller than prints and therefore require a much higher output resolution. If you plan to print 8-by-10-inch or smaller copies of your negatives, a 2,000-dpi output resolution should suffice.

Additional Options Some scanners let you try to address common image problems during the scanning process. The most useful of these options is the Reduce Dust And Scratches filter, which attempts to eliminate dust spots and light scratches. But be careful when using this filter, as it may incorrectly detect a scratch or spot and remove valuable detail from your image. Be sure to check its work. Also keep in mind that the filter can only do so much. For severely marred material, you’ll need to perform more-selective retouching with your image editor.

Other scanning options you may find useful are Fading and Grain. These work particularly well with old prints that time has mistreated or that weren’t of very high quality to begin with. For example, older film often shows more grain than we’re used to seeing today. Although you probably can’t eliminate the grain entirely, using Grain correction may at least reduce its appearance.

Unless you’re scanning photos from a newspaper or magazine, you can safely ignore the Descreen option. I also tend to ignore image-adjustment tools such as Levels or Curves, which can slow down the scanning process. If your originals are good, today’s scanners will produce great-looking digital files without much tinkering. And if the images do need extra help, I’d rather work with the tools in Photoshop to restore them.

When you’re done, click on the Scan button. The scanner will make its final pass and display an electronic version of the picture on your screen. Most scanners preserve scan settings from one job to the next. So if your next scan uses the same medium, you shouldn’t have to do much work. But if you’ll be switching back and forth between different media, see if your scanner will let you save your settings as a preset. This way, you can quickly switch between setups without having to retype all of the numbers.

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