You love your digital camera and the convenience of iPhoto. But the past haunts you. You have boxes of prints, negatives, and slides that you haven’t seen in years. If you could get them into iPhoto, you could organize them into albums and share them through Web galleries, slide shows, books, or DVDs.
To bridge the gap between print and pixels, you’ll need a scanner. I’ll show you how to pick the right one, and I’ll share strategies for incorporating those old photos into your new digital workflow.
Scanning the Options
Before you run out and buy a new scanner, take stock of what types of media you need to digitize. Not all scanners are ideal for every task.
Piles of Prints
If you’ll be scanning printed photos, a flatbed scanner is your best bet. When you place a photo facedown on the scanner’s glass, a sensor glides beneath it and captures the image. If you have a closetful of photos, you may want to look for a scanner that supports a document feeder so you can scan multiple photos without having to hand-feed the scanner. Some of Hewlett-Packard’s flatbeds in the $200 to $300 range include photo feeders that can handle as many as 24 4-by-6-inch prints at a time (
). Other scanners accept optional document feeders that generally cost between $80 and $200, depending on the model. Just be sure to verify that the document feeder can handle photos — many can’t.
The Film Is Better Although you can get decent images by scanning prints, you’ll get significantly better results by scanning the original film. A print is one generation away from the original image, and it may have faded with time or been poorly printed to begin with. Worse, many photos are printed on linen-finish paper, which has a rough texture that blurs image detail when scanned.
Many flatbed scanners include a film adapter for scanning negatives or slides. With some scanners, the adapter snaps onto the scanner’s bed. However, this means finding and installing the adapter each time you want to scan a negative. A more convenient option is a scanner with the adapter built into the lid, such as Epson’s $199 Perfection 3170 Photo (
). The Perfection 3170 can scan negatives and mounted slides, and unlike many flatbeds, it can scan medium-format film such as the 120 format popular in old cameras.
For the Film Enthusiast If you’ve managed to keep the negatives for a majority of your old photos and you want the best possible image quality, a better choice may be a film scanner. Although not as versatile as a flatbed scanner — it can’t scan printed photos — a film scanner provides much sharper scans of negatives and slides. This quality will cost you: film scanner prices start at about $300 and rise steeply from there. (However, judging from all the film scanners for sale on eBay, I suspect that many people buy them, scan their photos, and then sell the scanners to recoup some of their investment.)
Scanners offer an intimidating number of features and choices for optimizing image quality. The most important of these is resolution, the number of dots per inch (dpi) the scanner uses to represent an image. As long as you capture enough information, you can do a lot of fine-tuning in iPhoto or Adobe Photoshop Elements, which is bundled with many scanners (
Volumes have been written about scanning resolution, but it boils down to a simple rule of thumb: if you plan to print your scans on an ink-jet photo printer, you can get fine results with a resolution of 180 to 240 dpi. If you’ll be ordering photographic prints from your scans, scan at 300 dpi. Scanning at more than 300 dpi won’t usually improve quality — but it will definitely use more disk space.
Scanning for Ken Burns
If you plan to apply iMovie’s Ken Burns pan-and-zoom effect to an image, you’ll want a high-resolution scan. A 300-dpi scan should have enough data to allow for tight zooms, but you may want to experiment to find the best resolution for a specific image and zoom setting.
Scanning with Cropping in Mind
Similarly, if you plan to crop out unwanted portions of an image, scan at 300 dpi — or even higher if you plan to crop dramatically. Cropping discards pixels, effectively lowering an image’s resolution, so the more data you have to begin with, the more cropping flexibility you have.
Which file format should you use for saving scanned images? iPhoto works best with JPEG files. However, the JPEG format is lossy, which means it sacrifices quality in order to save disk space. If this is the last time you plan to scan those old photos, you may want to get the highest-quality image possible. For this, a TIFF image is better.
When archiving my old slides, I scanned at 300 dpi and saved the images as TIFF files. Then I used Photoshop Elements’ Batch feature to save a second set of photos in JPEG format. Now I have JPEGs I can use in iPhoto, while my original, uncompressed scans are safely archived. If you don’t have Photoshop Elements, you can perform this automation chore using Yellow Mug Software’s EasyBatchPhoto ($14;
Photos, Meet iPhoto
Once you’ve scanned and saved your photos, you’re ready to import them into iPhoto.
Divide Before Conquering
To take advantage of iPhoto’s filing features, you may want to have a separate iPhoto roll for each set of related photos. In the Finder, move related photos into their own folder and give each folder a descriptive name, such as Thanksgiving 1972. Drag each folder into the iPhoto window; the program will give each roll the same name as its corresponding folder. Delete the folders after you’ve imported their shots.
Turn Back the Clock
To make your iPhoto library chronologically accurate, change the date of each roll to reflect when its shots were taken, not when you imported them. Click on the roll’s name (if you can’t see it, choose Rolls from the View menu) and type the desired date in the Date box near the lower left corner of the iPhoto window. Press return, and iPhoto immediately sorts the roll into the proper position.
Beware of Black-and-White
If you’re thinking of creating an iPhoto book from your newly scanned images, avoid using black-and-white photos. According to Apple, such photos print poorly because of the process used to produce iPhoto books. You can, however, order prints from black-and-white shots.
Time for Retouching
You can use iPhoto’s Retouch tool to fix scratches and dust specks, and its Enhance button to fix color and exposure problems. For serious retouching, though, use Photoshop Elements or Photoshop. To learn more about digital retouching, check out Katrin Eismann’s Photoshop Restoration and Retouching, second edition (New Riders, 2003).
The Sound of Music
Few iPod users offer high praise for the included earphones. As far as bundled earphones go, they aren’t the worst — but they certainly leave much to be desired.
People willing to make a modest investment in better sound should check out the E2c, from Shure (
). These $99 in-ear earphones have a high-performance driver for optimal sound quality, and they come with three sizes of disposable foam sleeves and three sizes of flexible rubbery sleeves to ensure a perfect fit. So music stays in and noise stays out — you get cleaner sound at lower volume without outside interference. (The E2c earphones work so well that the company suggests that you not wear them while running or biking near traffic.) — jonathan seff
Old photos do fade away, acquiring a blue or red tint as their dyes, well, die. If you have patience and a good eye for color, you can repair an old photo’s color with Photoshop’s built-in tools. But for the rest of us, there’s an easier alternative: the $49 Digital ROC plug-in for Photoshop and Photoshop Elements (
). Developed by Applied Science Fiction (a Kodak subsidiary), Digital ROC does an amazing job of improving faded photos. Just look at what it did for this 1955 slide of my dad in a TV studio.
Equally impressive are the company’s $79 Digital GEM plug-in, which sharpens images and reduces grain and digital artifacts, and the $49 Digital SHO plug-in, which optimizes brightness and contrast. You can download free trial versions of all three plug-ins before you buy.
Contributing Editor JIM HEID is the author of The Macintosh iLife (Peachpit Press/Avondale Media, 2003), and he publishes iLife tips at
Digital Hub is a monthly collection of tips and strategies for anyone who creates movies, music, or photographs for personal use. We want to hear from you! If you’ve got secrets to share or suggestions for column topics — or if you just want to tell us what you think of Digital Hub — e-mail us at