How to Save Old Photos to Your Computer

Four ways to digitize photos so you can keep them forever

Here, we discuss four ways to save photo prints and negatives to your computer so you can edit, print, and share them as you wish. These backups also help ensure that your precious photos are preserved and less vulnerable to loss.

Use a Scanner

Scanning remains one of the most popular ways of digitizing photo prints and images. All it requires is a quality document/photo scanner, a computer or laptop, and ample time to process and save the pictures.

scanner

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You have many options when choosing a scanner. Some are slim and compact; others are bigger because they have both a flatbed and a document feeder. You can use a standard, high-quality scanner or one that's geared specifically toward photos and negatives, with adapters that let you scan negatives, transparencies, and slides. Scanners also offer varying levels of resolution and color depth.

Although scanners typically come prepackaged with their own scanning software, you can use most any image-editing or -viewing software (e.g. Photoshop, one of the many free alternatives to Photoshop, or a program that comes with the computer's operating system, such as macOS Preview) to import your images. For the best possible accuracy while scanning, be sure to first:

That last step is very important. Smudges, fingerprints, lint, hair, and dust particles left on photos or the scanning surface will show up in the digitized image. Microfiber cloths and cans of compressed air allow safe cleaning.

Scanning, editing, naming, saving, and organizing all your photo files can be time-consuming, but it's cost-effective, gives you full control over your images, and yields the most consistent results.

Use a Digital Camera, Smartphone, or Tablet

Digital cameras—and even modern smartphones and tablets—can work in a pinch to scan photos. Although most digital mirrorless and DSLR cameras have a variety of scene modes to best match shooting situations, this method requires some advance preparation.

When using your digital camera as a scanner, pay extra careful attention to:

  • Lighting: Ambient light should be as even across a photo’s surface as possible, with minimal (if any) glare and no shadows. The temperature of the light source is also important for accurate color reproduction; many digital cameras can automatically compensate (white-adjust) for this.
  • Stability: The slightest body movement can throw off focus and perspective. Foreshortening is what happens when the reproduced image looks like a trapezoid instead of a rectangle with perfectly squared corners. A tripod helps ensure that the camera lens stays parallel to photos, and using the self-timer function (or a remote shutter) eliminates shake.
  • Quality: Use the highest/superfine resolution (when in doubt, shoot in RAW), lowest ISO, and moderate/high aperture (f/5.6 or more). You can bracket your shots (i.e. one normal exposure, one at a higher f.stop, one at a lower f.stop) for each photo, since it’s easier to judge exposure on computer monitors than camera LCD screens.

As long as imperfection isn’t a big deal—you can always create archive copies later—you can turn a smartphone or tablet into a scanner, as well. Some camera and/or image editing apps offer white-balance adjustment, auto color correction, foreshortening compensation, and a host of other helpful tools. Others, such as PhotoScan by Google Photos (available for Android and iOS), are specifically designed to create and enhance digital photo scans from mobile devices.

To transfer photos from a digital camera or smartphone/tablet to a computer, you can use the product’s data/sync cable or a separate memory card reader. Once a device/card has been connected, simply navigate to the DCIM folder and copy all the files to your computer.

Use a Retail Store's Service

If you don’t have a photo scanner and aren’t interested in using a camera/smartphone to digitize photo prints, use the photo-scanning kiosks and/or drop-off services at stores such as Walmart, FedEx, Staples, Walgreens, Costco, Office Depot, Target, and CVS.

Costco's photo-scanning services

Prices, quality, turnaround time, and customer service can vary among them, so be sure to ask about the details first. Many of the aforementioned companies can process prints and digitize images, but some won’t return your original film/negatives.

Scanned photos from retail stores typically come on a CD, DVD, or flash drive, or they're uploaded to the cloud. From there, you can copy them to the desired folder on your computer. The physical CD/DVD or flash drive acts as an extra backup.

Use an Online Service

Hundreds of online photo-scanning services exist, all with varying prices, shipping requirements, quality, turnaround time, enhancements/specialties, etc. They cost more but generally provide far better results than retail stores, particularly with old and/or damaged photo prints that need restoration.

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