How To Quickly Scan and Digitize Photos

Girl using computer to scan photos
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Whether equipped with a scanner or a smartphone, you can digitize photos in record time (assuming editing and touch-ups will be done later). Keep in mind, a dedicated scanner will result in higher-quality scans, but a smartphone can process photos in a blink of an eye. Here’s how to get started.

Prepare the Photos

It might seem like preparing photos will just cost you time, but there's no point in taking the time to scan the photos if you won't be able to use them later. By scanning photos together in clusters (birthday, weddings, by date), it’s easier to file them later.

Clear the Smear

Using a soft, lint-free cloth, wipe down the photos since any fingerprint, smudge or dust will show up on the scan (and it might not be salvageable). Be sure to wipe down the scanner bed, too.

Quick Scanning with a Scanner

If you have and are familiar with a particular image editing/scanning program for your scanner, stick with what you know. Otherwise, if you are unsure about what to use and just want to get started, your computer has some perfectly capable software already installed as part of the operating system.

For computers running Windows OS, it’s Windows Fax & Scan and on the Mac it's called Image Capture.

Once in the program, you’ll want to check/modify a few basic settings (sometimes appearing after clicking ‘options’ or ‘show more’) before you start scanning.

  • Image Format: You should be presented with a few options such as BMP (lossless uncompressed, huge file size, wide acceptance), TIFF (lossless compressed, huge/moderate file size, selective acceptance), and JPEG (lossy compressed, moderate/small file size, very wide acceptance). In most cases, JPEG images are perfectly suitable for photographs.
  • Color Mode: When scanning color photos, set the mode to color. Use the grayscale mode for everything else. The black and white mode is only for text/graphics scanning.
  • Resolution: The minimum scanning resolution for photos should be 300 DPI (allows for full-quality same-size prints). But if you think you might ever enlarge a photo (i.e. creating an 8"x10" or canvas print from a 4"x 6" original), set the DPI to 600.
  • Folder Location: If available, designate/create the folder that all scanned images will be saved to.

Fit as many photos on the scanner as possible, leaving at least an eighth of an inch of space in between. Make sure that the edges of photos are are aligned and parallel with each other (this makes for faster cropping later on). Close the lid, start the scan, and check the resulting image. If everything looks good, carefully place a new set of photos on the scanner and continue. Later you'll be able to separate the photos from the larger scan.

When you’ve finished processing all of the photos, the job is done. Technically. Each saved file is a collage of pictures, so a little more work is involved to separate them individually. When ready, use a photo editing program to open a scanned image file. You’ll want to crop one of the individual pictures, rotate (if necessary), and then save as a separate file (this is where you can type a meaningful file name for better organization). Click the undo button until the image reverts to its original, uncropped state. Continue this process of cropping until you’ve saved a separate copy of each picture within each scanned image file.

Many image editing/scanning software programs offer a batch mode that automates the scan-crop-rotate-save technique. It’s worth spending a few minutes to see if this option is available in the program you’re using – it will save a good amount of time and clicking.

Quick Scanning with a Smartphone

Since most of us don't carry a dedicated scanner with us, we can look to our smartphone for help. While there are many apps out there for this task, one that is fast and free is an app from Google called PhotoScan. It's available for Android and available for iOS.

While PhotoScan will step you through what to do, here's how it works: position the photo within the frame shown in the app. Hit the scan button to start the processing; you’ll see four white dots appear inside the frame. Align your device over the dots until they turn blue; these extra shots from different angles are used by the app to eliminate pesky glare and shadows. When complete, PhotoScan automatically performs the stitching, auto-enhancing, cropping, resizing, and rotating. Files are saved on your smartphone. Here are some tips to streamline the Google PhotoScan experience:

  • Work in an open, evenly-lit area
  • Adjust your positioning to minimize glare/shadows
  • Set photos on a flat, solid-color background (contrast helps the app identify edges)
  • Keep the smartphone/tablet parallel to the photo (no tilting)
  • If glare/reflection persists, try turning on the flash (not ideal, but we're trying to save time here)