Scanning photos to your computer is a very good idea. Converting your precious print photos to digital is a little time consuming, but totally worth it. It is such a relief knowing your printed photos are backed up on the computer. I mean, what if you lost them?
Scanning old photos turns film pictures and prints into digital ones, often with the same or better print quality than the original. Photo scanning software and digital scanning services DO exist, but scanning photos and old pictures into your computer at home is an easy DIY project. Plus, no photo scanning service will care as much about getting the best quality scan as you do.
You DON’T need a scanner or even a fancy app!
The BEST way to scan old pictures is actually to use your DSLR camera or smart phone camera to do it.
Advancements in DSLR and iPhone or Android phone technology allow you to get a much higher resolution “scan” by just simply taking a picture. A scan is simply a picture of a picture anyway…the scanner just lights it and records the picture row by row to create a scan. If you light your photo properly (which I outline in this post,) your “scan” will come out perfect.
There are a few things you need to know to get a professional quality “scan” with your camera. I’ve outlined exactly how to scan your old photos using either iPhone OR a DSLR.
Here are Step-By-Step Instructions…
How To Scan Photos Into Your Computer Using A DSLR camera:
Step 1: Prepare your old photo for scanning
Older pictures often accumulate dust and have wrinkles or creases which can decrease the quality of the end photo scan. Make sure to blow on the photo and use a clean, dry, lint-free cloth to remove any extra dust. Don’t use anything wet, tacky, sticky, or dirty to do this – it could damage the original photo.
(If dust does get included with your scan, don’t worry, it can be fixed pretty easily with Photoshop if you have it. Proper prep just saves you time in the editing process!)
Next put the old photo between acid-free tissue paper and put in a heavy book to flatten the old photo as much as you can.
Step 2: Set up a neutral, diffused light source.
You don’t just want to set your old photos up under your kitchen light…this can create an unwanted color cast (overly yellow or blue) to your “scan.” If your light isn’t bright enough, your photo scan will be grainy – you won’t want that either.
The solution is simple: window light! Plain old window light with diffusion (a sheer, white curtain) works perfectly. If you have photography lighting, that will work, too. A large daylight balanced softbox light with a temperature of around 5600 will give you nice, clean color for your photo scan.
Camera settings: DSLR cameras allow you to change the color settings (white balance) based on the light you are shooting in. In photography, this is because weather and time of day can cause dramatic shifts in color in your image – like a grey cast on cloudy, rainy days or that ‘golden hour’ pink/gold hue people love so much. Selecting the right white balance adds color to correct for these kinds of variations. For this project, I suggest selecting “neutral” white balance on your camera if you are able to. If not, don’t worry – your camera can figure it out most times in Auto which is probably the default setting.
Lens choice for scanning in old photos: 35mm to 50mm lenses tend to work the best for digitizing pictures as they are the focal length that most closely matches what your eye sees. The 35mm is really ideal for this, but I know a lot of us have a “nifty fifty” lens as our go to. It will work, especially for old photos that are already 8×10. For smaller photos, you will just need to set up your scan space on the floor to get the old photo in frame. A longer lens would need to be very far away to get the image in frame. This gets tricky…like ‘climb on a ladder to get the shot’ tricky. I don’t recommend it! Don’t forget to check that the lens you are using is clean and free of dust. Use a clean microfiber cloth to clean it, too.
Use a tripod if you have one. Hand holding a camera produces movement that will cause unwanted blurring in your final image. If you don’t have one, plan to use a higher shutter speed.
Other camera settings and exposure
As with any photo, you want to expose it correctly, paying attention to the meter in your camera. Here are some guidelines for your settings
ISO – around 200-400 – adjust as needed to get the proper exposure, but don’t go higher than 640 or your will be adding noticeable grain to your scan
Shutter speed: Ideally, your shutter speed should be no lower than 200-250
Aperture or F Stop: Keep your fstop around 4. You can go lower if you need to and the photo is completely flat.
Step 3: Focus on your picture and take several pictures of it
Use autofocus to focus on your picture, but also move the camera closer and farther from the subject to ensure it is as clear as it can be. In film photography, they use a lens on an arm that can be moved up and down to get the photo they are trying to enlarge in focus. That is kind of what you are doing here.
Get the photo to fill up as much of the frame in your camera viewfinder as you can and still keep it razor sharp clear. The more you fill the frame, the bigger you will be able to print the resulting scan later. I usually take at least five pictures of each picture to make sure I got it perfectly in focus – sometimes it can be hard to tell in camera. The light on these should all be the same – just pick the clearest one
How To Scan Photos Into Your Computer Using An IPhone:
If you don’t have a DSLR, modern iPhone and Android phones can do the job of scanning photos into your computer, and even more simply! The only downside to using a smart phone instead of a DSLR camera for scanning is that the files are smaller. This means you won’t be able to print the final print as big as if you took the image on a DSLR.
WIth a smart phone, there is a big upside though — it is SO simple! You won’t need to worry too much about camera settings – the lens on an iPhone is already around 35mm focal length and you can’t change it. You also can’t change settings for ISO, shutter speed or aperture – the phone does it for you. Just make sure you work hard to get the beautiful, bright, diffused light source right. Lighting when digitizing pictures with a phone camera is the key to ensuring a clear scan and avoiding grain.
Touch the screen of the phone to focus on the focal point of the old photo.
Getting your Scans into the computer
Once you have taken “scans” of your vintage photos, simply download them from your memory card onto your computer as you would any picture from your camera.
Cropping and Editing
Use Lightroom or Photoshop to remove any edges that don’t belong (backgrounds or tables you couldn’t crop in camera for example.) I often keep the film-style edges from old photos in my scans though, it adds to the vintage effect.
Open your image in Photoshop and zoom in to look for any dust, scratches, or places where the paper was ripped or torn. If a photo is very damaged, there will be a limit to how much you can clean up, but little dots of dust, etc. clean up perfectly using Photoshop’s healing tool.
Troubleshooting scanning old photos
If your scan looks blurry…Sometimes, no matter how much you try you just can’t get the vintage photo in focus. Either you are too close with your chosen lens OR the original photo might not have been perfectly in focus to begin with. In that case, you just get the “scan” as clear as you can. Find the most in-focus part of the original photo and then view it through your camera. Move your camera in and out and pay attention to when that spot looks the sharpest.