12 handy tips on scanning all those family pictures

In the age of digital photos, photo scanners are still around largely because most of us – or our parents and grandparents – have collections of old film-based photos. Most people would like to get those photos scanned, if they could only figure out how. If that's the boat you're in, here are some tips that can help.

1. Face reality

Scanning photos is a time-intensive operation. Almost anything that speeds it up (other than buying a faster scanner) lowers the scan quality. So pick the level of quality you want, and then accept the amount of work that comes with it.

2. Know your scanners

If you're still looking for a scanner, the balance of scan quality and ease of use should be your key concern. Unfortunately, the scanners that are easiest to use tend to have the lowest quality. That said, if you'll be satisfied with scans that are suitable for viewing onscreen or reprinting at the same size – although with noticeable colour shifts and loss of resolution – consider using an inexpensive sheet fed scanner. These scanners make all the settings decisions for you, so all you have to do is feed the photos through a slot.

For a level of quality suitable for just about anyone but a pro or prosumer, consider an inexpensive flatbed scanner. Of course, if you spend a bit more money on a flatbed, you’ll get a better quality – broadly speaking. An expensive flatbed is going to make a bargain basement one look pretty poor, obviously enough. Also bear in mind that for the best quality, you should skip the printed photo, and scan the original negative instead – although you’ll need a scanner which can handle negatives.

3. Scanners on MFPs aren't great

Most MFPs are designed for scanning documents and are best avoided for photo scanning. You can recognise the few exceptions by options in their scan utilities that are clearly meant for photos, like a colour restore feature. Even for those, however, don't expect great quality results. The best MFPs are generally in the same class as an inexpensive flatbed.

4. Scanner drivers

Many scanners give you the choice of scanning with a separate scan utility or by calling up a driver from a program – using PhotoShop's File > Import command, for example. In most cases the interface and setting options are the same either way, so it doesn't matter which approach you take. However, you may also have the choice between using a WIA driver or a TWAIN driver. If this is the case, the TWAIN driver will almost always give you far more control over the scan settings and better results – even with the default settings.

5. Auto Mode can be your friend

Most scan utilities include an automatic or nearly automatic mode, the scanner equivalent of using a point and shoot camera. If you're in hurry or know nothing about scanning, the auto mode will usually provide reasonably good quality and may be all you need.

6. Fine-tune with advanced modes

If you want the best possible quality from your scanner, explore the advanced modes in your scan utility. The best way to get a feel for any given option is to scan the same image with different settings and compare the results. For many settings, you won't even have to scan repeatedly. Simply do a preview scan, change the settings, and you'll see the effect on the preview image.

7. Use restore for scanning faded photos

Most scan utilities offer a colour restore option for restoring colour to faded photos. Most often, there's more than one setting, so you can pick the one that matches the level of fading the photo has suffered from. If your scan utility doesn't offer colour restore, you'll have to fix the colour in a photo editing program instead, which is usually much harder to do.

8. Clean up dust and scratches

Many scanners offer digital dust and scratch removal features. Software-based efforts typically do a decent job when it comes to removing dust specks, but don't do much for scratches. Hardware-based features do a much better job, but add to the price of the scanner. If your scanner doesn't offer a good quality dust removal feature, blowing the dust off your photos before scanning with canned air takes a lot less time than manually removing dust specks in a photo editing program later.

9. Fix the lighting with backlight correction

Some scan utilities offer backlight correction. This can automatically improve photos that were shot with a bright light behind the subject, like someone standing in front of a window or with the sun over his or her shoulder. If your scan utility has the feature, it's well worth using for badly lit photos. Keep in mind, though, that some photos may be intentionally shot with backlighting for effect – to get a silhouette for example. So don't use the feature unless there's a reason to.

10. Scan multiple photos with batch mode

Also look for a batch mode, which lets you place multiple photos on the flatbed at once and have the scan utility automatically put each one in its own file. In most cases, you can run a preview scan and adjust scan settings separately for each photo before giving the scan command.

11. Picking a resolution is important

The basic rule for resolution is simple. For printers whose resolution is a multiple of 300 dots per inch (dpi), nothing over 300 pixels per inch for the photo will make any difference when you print, and even 200 ppi looks almost as good. So for anything you may print at the same size, set the scan resolution for at least 200 ppi and no higher than 300 ppi. For printers whose resolution is a multiple of 360 dpi, the equivalent scan resolutions are 360 ppi and 240 ppi.

If you think you might crop the image or print it at a larger size, scan it at a resolution that will give you at least 200 (or 240) ppi after it's enlarged. For a 4 x 6in photo that you might print at 8 by 10in, for example, 8 divided by 4 is 2. So if you want 200 ppi when you print at 8in, you need to scan at 400 ppi.

If you never expect to enlarge the image or even print it, 72 ppi is fine for viewing on screen. Scanning at higher resolutions takes longer, so if you can save time, you may as well.

12. Scanning photos in an album

If the photos you want to scan are already mounted in an album, it's best to take them out before scanning. It's hard to get book pages to lie flat on a flatbed, and it's hard to get a good scan if the photos aren't flat. If you can take individual pages out of the binder, use your scan utility's batch mode if it has one, so you can scan the whole page at once. Otherwise, it's best to take each photo out of the album, scan it, and then remount it.

If the photos are permanently mounted, and the pages won't come out, try scanning with the scanner close to the edge of the desk or table it's on. Put one page of the album as flat as possible on the flatbed, and let the facing page and cover hang straight down along the side of the desk or table.