Unlock the Shoebox 1 -- DIGITIZING YOUR PHOTOS

Posted by Chris D.

Just recently, I got a suitcase full of old family photos and mementos from an aunt who lives half a country away. It was stuffed into multiple shoe boxes containing photo albums, loose photos, negatives, and random things like news clippings, theater tickets, recipes and more. The "more" being a few well-preserved spiders.

Having volunteered to scan these for the extended family, I quickly saw this could be a sizable project. However, since many of the items were from multiple generations back, I also realized this stuff was pretty important to protect and share with my relatives.

I've done this type of project for more than one shoe box and for more than one side of the family. Along the way, I've picked up a few tips to make scanning, organizing and sharing historical family mementos much easier and less costly than you'd think.

Part 1, below, is about how to streamline the process to digitize the shoebox.

Part 2 is about how to use MemoryWeb to simplify and automate as much of the organization of your newly-scanned digital files as possible.

Part 3 gives tips and answers common questions/concerns about sharing photos with other people.


Getting started

Take a deep breath and chant, "this is going to be fun and everyone will thank me!" a few times before starting. Next, dig right in wherever your hands will fit and start sorting stuff you want to keep into piles. I find it best to sort items by type, such as:

  • Photo negatives and slides – my personal favorites and I'll explain why
  • Loose photos
  • Photo albums
  • Vital records, including things like birth and marriage certificates
  • News, like clippings announcing a new business, or an engagement
  • Mementos, like theater programs and recipes

My biggest recommendation to folks is to take those negatives to a scanning company and have them converted direct to digital pictures. The photo resolution (and headache from not scanning) is second to none. When scanning photo negatives or slides, the DPI (dots per inch) can be as high as 4,000 dpi (compared to 300 to 1,200 dpi when scanning a photo on a scanner). If you have negatives that are not 35MM, slides, etc. that is a different boat and you may have to pay your photo shop a premium to have them digitized or consider investing in a machine to do it yourself.

Now that the negatives are done, it's time to tackle the loose photos. I'd suggest you sort into groups by Century or Decade (as best as you can tell) or by ones that have notes on back. Why? I'll explain below.

Once the loose photos are grouped, you can either scan them yourself if you have the time, or take them to a scanning company. Both are described below.

Scanning like a pro

If you have a small number of items, or ones that are particularly old and fragile, consider scanning them yourself on your home printer, if it has the option. When scanning yourself, keep in mind:

  • Scan at least 600 dpi for important photos -- it takes longer, and the file sizes will be larger, but you'll be able to print these in decent quality.
  • Scan important photos as .TIF files -- these will also be larger files, but they tend to have the least amount of corruption/deterioration over time (also called bit rot). However, JPG, PNG, GIF, etc. are also fine.
  • When performing the scanning preview, be sure you are selecting only the area of the photo vs. the entire flat bed of the scanner. If not, you may end up with a small picture with a lot of white background at a low resolution.
  • Scan photos in batches based on any sorting you've done.
  • Save each group into a folder on your computer that is named something that will help you tag these as one group later -- for example, "1940's photos," "Trip to Disney 1990," etc.
  • Scan the backside of the photos that have writing on the reverse. Handwritten notes can evoke just as many memories as the photos themselves, and you may also want to link both sides together (see how here).

Scanning by a pro

If you have large quantities of photos, have photo negatives, and/or have slides, you really should take advantage of a scanning company. You may be surprised how quickly and affordably a scanning company can process your photos and the quality of the output will likely even better than you could produce at home.

A few tips for sending items out for scanning:

  • You can usually get the best pricing from high-volume places where you ship your photos to them.
  • If you're not sure which scanning company to trust with your originals, I'd check out the reviews of companies.
  • Some providers offer more custom services, such as saving your scans into separate folders, like "1940's photos," (may be an extra fee).
  • Any sorting/labeling done ahead of time can be extremely helpful to expedite the process of tagging photos in batches later on.
  • Some places will also scan print details on the back of photos (as an image, not as text).
One provider we researched is ScanMyPhotos.com. This company has been around since 1990 and offers a wide variety of scanning services to fit your specific needs. We really like how their website guides you through options such as whether you need your images scanned at the highest resolution or if you could get what you need with a lower, less-costly resolution. ScanMyPhotos also goes the extra mile to offer services such as front/back photo scanning and can even provide an Elite Concierge Expert for those who would like dedicated assistance throughout their project.

After you get your photos back, here are some more tips:

  • Keep the originals! Never, ever throw away the old photos, negatives, etc. This is the time now to put these away carefully in a storage place that is safe from water, mildew, sunlight, etc. that can now be your backup for the original copies
  • Put the digital copies on your computer, hard drive and/or cloud storage
  • Look at the digital photos and perform some high level organization, such as starting with folders. If you already grouped your photos into "folders" during the digitization process pat yourself on the back. If you didn't, no worries. We suggest making folders for:
    • Specific events, such as "Mary Bader's Wedding, 1971"
    • Specific mementos, such as "Steven Anthony's Baby Album"
    • General eras, such as "The 1930s"

Now that the hard work of scanning your photos is done, it's time to start tagging and enjoying these family treasures.

This concludes Part 1, which I hope gives you some help in streamlining the process of scanning in precious family memories. In Part 2, I'll give some tips on how to use MemoryWeb to simplify and automate as much of the organization of your newly-scanned digital files as possible. Part 3 gives tips and answers common questions/concerns about sharing photos with other people.