How To

How to digitize your old family photos and paper documents

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While most memories are stored in digital formats these days, if you go back a couple of decades, everything was analog. Printed photos of vacations, or old documents that make up your family history, may sit in boxes in your attic. Your personal and family memories are slowly degrading as the years pass, and at risk of becoming damaged, brittle, or decayed.

But once you’ve converted photographs and other paper records into digital formats, it’s much easier to view and access these precious memories—anytime, anywhere. Whether you’re into genealogy or just want to preserve memories of your adult children when they were kids, digitizing photos and documents is a must.

You can digitize any sort of media these days; in some cases it’s easy, and you can do it yourself, but in other cases, you need to find someone with the right equipment to do it for you. In this article, we discuss do-it-yourself methods for how to digitize old analog photos, legal or vital records, documents, and more. (And stay tuned; in a future article, we’ll also cover how to digitize analog audio and video recordings.)

How to scan, digitize, and preserve old photos

As we’ve gotten used to taking digital photos, we may have forgotten about how much rarer analog photographs were. Even the most camera-loving family probably didn’t take more than a few dozen photos at Christmas or a vacation. Film usually comes in rolls of 24 or 36 photos, and most occasions didn’t warrant a second roll. Not only that, but because of the fixed number of photos per roll, it was common to take fewer pictures in general than we typically do today (thanks to the virtually limitless storage on smartphones, cloud storage, and also DSLR cameras).

Because of this, while we may have 100 or more digital photographs on our phones (or digital cameras) from our last family event, and thousands or tens of thousands of digital photos stored in our libraries, there are far fewer analog photos in your shoebox.

But these old photos are valuable. Since there weren’t very many photos of us when we were young, or of our ancestors, it’s essential to hold onto the few that we have.

The best option for digitizing photos: a flatbed scanner

Digitizing photos is relatively easy. While you can use a smartphone to take a picture of a photo, it’s much better to use a flatbed scanner. This has better resolution and has the advantage of pressing photos flat to make sure that they are evenly lit. Scanning with a flatbed scanner also helps reduce effects such as slight distortion due to photo curvature or imperfect camera angles.

You can buy a good flatbed scanner for less than $100, though if you have a lot of photos and want to scan them with the highest quality, you may want to look for a scanner that is specifically designed for photos. These cost a few hundred dollars, but they can also scan slides and negatives. If you have a lot of negatives that were never printed, you can scan them like this, or you can have the negatives printed professionally. Most photo printing services will also give you scans.

Pro tip for scanning old photos: Use a microfiber cloth to gently clean photos’ surfaces before scanning, so no dust shows up on the scans. You may also need to gently wipe the scanner bed as well, in case any small dust particles may have accumulated.

How to scan, digitize, and preserve paper documents

You may have old letters or other documents that you’d like to convert to digital form. Digitizing documents is similar to digitizing photos. Unlike with photos, you need not be too concerned about the resolution of digitized documents, so you could just take photos with your smartphone. Though if you have a lot of documents to digitize, a flatbed scanner (or a document scanner—see below) is much easier.

A popular smartphone app for scanning papers: Genius Scan

Genius Scan is one of the most popular apps for scanning and keeping track of close-up text documents, including magazine or book pages, paper receipts, business cards, and any other text printed on paper. It’s available for both iPhone and iPad as well as for Android phones and tablets. It includes a lot of functionality for free, and also has an optional monthly paid subscription. This optional subscription unlocks more advanced features like OCR text recognition and extraction, searchable PDF creation, and business card scanning and contact creation.

(Note that this is not a paid endorsement; it’s just an app that we’ve found useful and worth recommending.)

Document scanners vs. flatbed scanners for digitizing paper docs

If you have large numbers of paper files, a document scanner can be helpful. This is a scanner that has a paper feed, which allows you to put from 20 to 50 pages in the feed and have them all scanned automatically. They are more expensive than flatbed scanners, costing a few hundred dollars. But if you need to digitize thousands of pages of documents, it’s worth getting one of these to save time. Both types of scanners may also be able to perform optical character recognition (OCR) to convert printed text into a digital text document format (such as plaintext .txt files, rich text format .rtf files, Microsoft Word .doc or .docx files, PDF files, etc.).

Pro tip for scanning old documents: If you’re using a document scanner with a feeder, be careful with old letters and documents that have tears. They could get stuck in the scanner and get damaged. It’s safer to use a flatbed scanner for delicate documents. Or, for extremely brittle documents that you don’t feel comfortable putting in a scanner, consider taking pictures of them in a well-lit place, ideally with multiple light sources to help avoid shadows in your photos.

How can I learn more?

Stay tuned to The Mac Security Blog, and subscribe to our newsletter; we’ll have more articles soon about preserving analog content and converting it into digital formats!

Each week on the Intego Mac Podcast, Intego’s Mac security experts discuss the latest Apple news, security and privacy stories, and offer practical advice on getting the most out of your Apple devices. Be sure to follow the podcast to make sure you don’t miss any episodes.

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About Kirk McElhearn

Kirk McElhearn writes about Apple products and more on his blog Kirkville. He is co-host of the Intego Mac Podcast, as well as several other podcasts, and is a regular contributor to The Mac Security Blog, TidBITS, and several other websites and publications. Kirk has written more than two dozen books, including Take Control books about Apple's media apps, Scrivener, and LaunchBar. Follow him on Twitter at @mcelhearn. View all posts by Kirk McElhearn →