New rules for the holidays: When the family is over, turn off the TV, tell Alexa to pipe down and ground your drone. Now go find those dusty shoeboxes full of old photographs.
Explain to those under 20 that these were taken on film—sort of like Snapchat, only the photos take a very long time to disappear.
Laugh at that Polaroid of Aunt Sally with a Bob Ross perm. Appreciate the dog-eared shot from your great-grandparents’ wedding. Ask the tough questions about Dad’s handlebar ’stache.
Then do not—I repeat, do not—put the photos back in the coffer. Instead, make a plan to bring them into the digital world.
Most of us have thousands of digital photos covering the past two decades backed up on hard drives, maybe even up in the cloud. But the trove of one-of-a-kind shots from earlier days? You’ve dumped them in the attic to feed the mice and the moths.
There are no more excuses. With new photo-scanning apps and a dedicated photo scanner like Epson’s FastFoto, it’s easier than ever to digitally organize your entire timeworn collection yourself. They can even automatically enhance the quality and sort by date—even by people in the shot, thanks to facial recognition.
I took my own advice. I scanned hundreds of photos to find the best method, while learning about near and dear family members—and even some I never met. Here are three options so you can do the same.Cheap, Tedious Option: An App
The best photo scanner is the one in your pocket—sort of. It’s certainly the least expensive. With the right app, your smartphone can capture decent-quality photos. But if you’ve got a stack the size of a Jenga tower, it’s the most tedious option.
Don’t just point your smartphone camera at a photograph and hope for the best. Google’s new free PhotoScan app for iOS and Android couldn’t be any simpler to use. Clear off a well-lit space and lay down the photo. The app prompts you to move the phone over each edge so it can take four separate images. Then it combines them into one shot without glare or bright spots.
You can save the scans to your phone or to Google Photos, where Google makes each shot searchable by person or object. The scans aren’t as high-resolution as the ones you’d get with a dedicated scanner, but they are adequate for reprints and social media posts. They are also ideal for capturing all those framed photos Grandma keeps on her piano.
Now for the major shortcomings: The app can scan only one photo at a time, and there’s no built-in way to color-correct or set the photo’s original date. Photomyne, a free-to-try app for iOS and Android, solves all three of those problems.
When I held the app over a page in my mom’s 1975 photo album, it separated four photos into their own files. Then I set the date to May 1975 and hit the Restore setting to bring the orange washed-out prints back to their full-color glory. Snapping multiple prints at the same time, however, did decrease the quality and cause some glare. (Who’s that at my mom’s college graduation? Uncle Jim, or Patrick Swayze in “Ghost”? Hard to say.)
For unlimited photo saves, though, you’ll need to buy the paid version of the Photomyne app.
ENLARGEExpensive, Efficient Option: A Scanner
When you consider that time is money, the $650 Epson FastFoto FF-640 scanner shouldn’t scare you away. This isn’t an annoying flatbed scanner: It’s a photo-slurping robot. Connect it to your PC or Mac, put a stack of up to 30 photos in the feeder and watch it scan them, one a second. Who knew you could have so much fun with something that resembles a fax machine?
Quality and resolution are much better than the shots captured via one of the smartphone apps. You can choose 300 dots per inch (best for reprints and slideshows) or 600 dpi (best for poster printing or cropping).
The real greatness is in the software. Before you start, the software asks what year or date the batch was taken. There’s even a setting to tell the scanner to look for writing on the backside of the photo. It can’t read it, but it will save it for you.
My favorite part: Epson’s software can automatically save the original photo and a color-corrected copy. Dozens of faded, orange-ish photos instantly looked better. Even glossy photos taken in the ’90s of my sister and me looked better. What can’t be corrected? My terribly frizzy hair.
The photos are stored on your computer’s drive when scanned, but you can upload them to a cloud service, like Google Photos or Apple Photos.
The FastFoto isn’t perfect, though. The scanner jammed repeatedly when trying to scan older, smaller square prints. To fix the issue, I had to go one by one. (Epson recommends using the included carrier sheet for scanning smaller or fragile shots.)
Instant Polaroid pictures also aren’t currently supported. Since my parents took the bulk of my toddler shots with an instant cam, I kept trying anyway—and managed to scan some individually. (And FastFoto doesn’t scan negatives; that’s a whole other project.)Outsourced Option: A Mail-in Service
If you’re not a do-it-yourselfer, you can always box up your memories and send them out to a photo-scanning service. This option can be efficient and even fairly inexpensive, but you have to be OK with handing over your most cherished memories to complete strangers for a few days.
I gave it a shot. I organized a group of 100 shots by year, labeled them with Post-its and sent them off via FedEx to ScanMyPhotos.com, based in Irvine, Calif. Within a few days, my prints had been uploaded and the originals were back safely in my possession. A nice woman named Shannon kept me updated on the process throughout the week. Like other services including Memories Renewed and DigMyPics, ScanMyPhotos offers photo editing.
With the $145 prepaid service, the company sends you an 11-by-8.5-by- 5.5-inch box and asks you to stuff it full—that’s around 1,800 snapshots, according to company Chief Executive Mitch Goldstone. The company makes 300-dpi scans of the photos, at a price that comes out to about 8 cents each; for $250, or almost 14 cents each, you can double the resolution.
My biggest disappointment? ScanMyPhotos sends you a DVD with your digital copies. I haven’t owned a computer with a DVD drive in years. For an extra $20 you can have the photos uploaded to the cloud as soon as they are scanned, or to an 8GB USB drive for an extra $16.
When it came to my family project, I liked the Epson the best. I now have more than 600 old photos scanned and organized on a hard drive and in Google Photos. Of course, $650 is a lot of money to pay for a scanner, but you could split the cost with family members. I mean, can you really put a price on sharing Mom’s mullet on Facebook?
Write to Joanna Stern at firstname.lastname@example.org