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How to get your old photos into your PC, store and print them

Updated on September 30, 2009
My grandparents on their wedding day, circa 1910
My grandparents on their wedding day, circa 1910

Preserving the past

Do you have old photographs, perhaps of family and friends, that are fading or discolouring with age? Can't find the negatives but would like to give prints to someone - maybe your kids or grandkids? Then you need to scan them into a computer, digitally restore them and then you can produce prints (almost) as good as new! This article will tell you the best way to do the scanning.

The most important thing when trying to make digital images of old photographs is to take care not to damage the originals in any way. For example, if you have old negatives or transparencies, don't use an auto-feeding scanner, just in case!

Similarly with prints: putting them in contact with the glass platen of a flatbed scanner with a pressure plate on top of them can damage the print. In such cases there is now a simple alternative: a frame to hold the print and stretch it very gently to keep it flat and a digital camera! A good quality digital camera of at least 5 megapixels will produce a good "scan" of an enprint or similar size photograph. Although it would probably not be suitable for many profesisonal uses, it will be more than adequate for most amateur ones. The photograph on the right was "digitised" in this way. Although the original was sepia, it was photographed in monochrome. An image editing program was used to remove any distortion caused by the print not being quite flat and "airbrush" out scratches and other marks. Contrast, brightness and sharpness were adjusted and then an effects filter used to make it sepia again. When printed out to about 10" x 8" (about four times the area of the original) it looks perfect. If you're going to go this route, use the "raw" option on your camera if it supports it. It'll use a lot more memory but you'll get better results - like using TIFF on a scanner.

If the prints are not too fragile then a flatbed scanner is an option. You'll probably want one that can do at least 1200 pixels per inch in both directions (i.e. up-down and left-right). Beware! Many scanners are advertised as having very high resolutions - 2400 or even 4800 dpi - but in low end scanners this is often only in one direction. In the other direction it may be only 600 dpi which is of limited use. Also, look only at the "native" resolution: ignore "interpolated" resolutions as they are meaningless marketing spin.

You can use a flatbed scanner with the pressure plate off (i.e. the lid open). Using your image editing program you can then, if you need to, correct for any image distortion caused by the print not being totally flat. You my also find that digitised image contrast is not as good as it might otherwise be with the lid open - but this is usually a minor consideration.

Always scan to a TIFF file. For an enprint (6" x 4") scanned at 1200 dpi in both directions and 24 bit colour (3 bytes per pixel), this will give you a file size of:

1200 x 1200 x 6 x 4 x 3 = 1440000 x 24 x 3 = 103 MB approx

Now on a modern computer this is not a problem. Keep the TIFF file unchanged and work on a copy of it - that way, if you make a mess of it you can always bin it and make another copy of the original. Files for posting on websites, emailing etc will need to be cut down dramatically and then stored as a JPG. The resolution of the TIFF file will be (1200 x 6) x (1200 x 4) which is 7200 x4800 - the equivalent of a 30 megapixel camera! Using your image editing program, downsize the picture t, say 800 x 600 and the save it as a jpg with the quality set to around 90%, if that's how your program does it. Aim for a file size of 60 - 100k bytes. JPG files use mathematical procedures to compress the image considerably but inevitably some detail will be lost. For most web and email uses this is acceptable. If you want to print, do so from a copy of the TIFF file, edited as required, for maximum quality.

Finally, back up both your original TIFF files and the ones you've spent hours editing to a CD or DVD. Make at least two copies and put one away for emergency use only. If you have a relative you can trust, leave it with them so if your house gets burgled and trashed there's another copy elsewhere. Take the safety copies out once a year and check them - make sure all the images are still visible on the screen. If there is a problem, make a new copy from the other backup, copying files from either disc to make up a good set. If you still have them on your hard disc then of course you can get them from there.

Most people talk of Photoshop as the best image editing software around and for many professionals that is probably still the case. However, there are alternatives:

  • Picasa from Google is free and very good if a little quirky.
  • Photoshop Elements, like the full version, is still not easy to learn and has some important limitations.
  • The Gimp is free (it's Open Source software) and although it has almost as steep a learning curve as Photoshop it produces results which are just as good.
  • Corel Paintshop Pro (formerly JASC Paintshop Pro) is brilliant. For most purposes the results you will get are indistinguishable from Photoshop but it is much easier to use and a fraction of the cost. You can use most filters and plugins intended for Photoshop with PsP and there are quite a few free ones around - just do a web search. There is now a version specifically for processing digital photographs.



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    • delia-delia profile image

      Delia 3 years ago

      Great advice, I forgot all about saving to TIFF ...thanks for reminding me...