Scanning Sense

Here’s a big question: Is it OK to scan photos onto your computer for storage and reprinting?

The short answer is yes. Scanning is misunderstood. There is a common belief that scanning will destroy pictures. Sure scanning exposes images to heat and light, but a single pass of the scanner won’t cause permanent damage. Plus, it’s important to remember that by scanning your images you’re creating a digital copy in case something happens to the original.

While it’s not recommended to scan the same image again and again, it’s okay to scan it once. Photocopying is more hazardous to your images than scanning. Copiers are a toxic combination of heat, light and chemicals. Scanning is a quick pass of light. The key to saving your photos in a digital format is to know the facts.

It’s important to scan at a high resolution. You can always make a digital file smaller, but you can’t increase the resolution. It’s advisable to scan at the highest possible resolution (at least 600 dpi) at 100% scale, in color (even if they are black and white) and save them as Tiff files. Scanning photos at 100% scale is often all you need, but if the original is small then increase the percentage. That gives you the flexibility to enlarge the photo if you decide to publish the image in a family history book. Don’t forget to scan the back too. There might be information that you’ll need later on.

Don’t rely on being able to find the original again. You probably know at least one genealogist that has “lost” a family photo. It’s a scary situation. You’ll be glad you scanned the images as a back-up.

Each digitized picture will be multiple megabytes. These big files take up a lot of room on your hard drive. If you have a lot of photographs, you may need an external hard drive for storage.

By scanning them at these specifications you’ll be able to later reduce their size for sharing, projection or uploading. Consider these high resolution files your “archival” copies.

When scanning, turn off the auto-correct feature that automatically corrects flaws in an image. Save your photos in their original condition, then make copies and use photo editing software to “fix” problems. Always save those edited images as a separate file and keep the original scan. 
Slides and Negatives
Not all scanners have the capability to scan slides and negatives. When purchasing a scanner specifically ask if a particular model can accommodate these types of images, and then do your research. You can find specifications on the manufacturer’s website. Once you’ve purchased a machine, read the manual and follow their directions. If that doesn’t work, do an Internet search for your scanner model followed by “scanning slides” or “scanning negatives.” There are dedicated slide scanners, but they are expensive.

Cased Images: Daguerreotypes and Ambrotypes
It is possible to scan these cased images, but not all scanners can manage it. Sometimes the scanner reads the glass rather than the image causing a fuzzy scan. Try scanning one on your scanner to see what happens. If you have a dedicated photo scanner rather than a combination machine it should work.

If it doesn’t work, don’t take the images out of the cases. You could inadvertently cause damage to the image. Daguerreotypes have chemical salts on the surface of a silver plate and are very fragile.

Ambrotypes are on glass, but the photographic emulsion (the picture) can flake off. If you have a collection of these cased images, you’ll have better luck with a dedicated photo scanner. An alternative can use a camera to photograph these cased images, but the reflective mirror-like surface of a daguerreotype is a problem. You often end up photographing yourself in the image.

Once you’ve scanned your pictures store the originals in acid- and lignin-free boxes. Find an organizational system that works for you. In general, keep it simple such as filing images in surname order.

Use a photo organizing program to keyword your digital pictures so you’ll be able to see all the digital files of “Aunt Sue” with a single click. Once you have these digital files take time to share the images and the stories with family. They’ll appreciate it and you’ll be saving your family history.


Maureen Taylor ( is the author of Preserving Your Family Photographs (Picture Perfect Press). She can be reached on Facebook, Twitter and Linked In.

Other articles in the 18 December 2011 Weekly Discovery 

Extracting and Organizing Clues

Family History Tip: Clipping Tip 

Photo Corner