How to Quickly Scan and Digitize Photos

Use a scanner or a smartphone to digitize your photos and records

Whether equipped with a scanner or a smartphone, digitize photos in record time. A dedicated scanner will result in higher-quality scans, but a smartphone can process photos more quickly.

Prepare the Photos

It might seem like preparing photos will just cost you time, but there's no point in taking the time to scan the photos if you won't be able to use them later. By scanning photos together in clusters, it’s easier to file them later.

Using a soft, lint-free cloth, wipe down the photos because any fingerprint, smudge, or dust will show up on the scan. Wipe down the scanner bed, too.

Girl using computer to scan photos
btrenkel / Getty Images

Quick Scanning With a Scanner

If you have and are familiar with a particular image-scanning program for your scanner, stick with what you know. Otherwise, if you are unsure about what to use and just want to get started, your computer has some perfectly capable software already installed as part of the operating system. For computers running Windows, it’s Windows Fax & Scan, and on the Mac, it's called Image Capture.

Once in the program, tweak a few basic settings before you start scanning:

  • Image Format: You'll be presented with options such as BMP (lossless uncompressed, huge file size, wide acceptance), TIFF (lossless compressed, large file size, selective acceptance), and JPEG (lossy compressed, small file size, wide acceptance). In most cases, JPEG images are perfectly suitable for photographs.
  • Color Mode: When scanning color photos, set the mode to color. Use the grayscale mode for everything else. The black-and-white mode is only for text/graphics scanning.
  • Resolution: The minimum scanning resolution for photos should be 300 DPI to allow for full-quality same-size prints. Set the DPI to 600 if you intend to enlarge the photo.
  • Folder Location: Designate the folder that all scanned images will be saved to.

Fit as many photos on the scanner as possible, leaving at least an eighth of an inch of space in between. Align the edges of the photos. Close the lid, start the scan, and check the resulting image. If everything looks good, place a new set of photos on the scanner and continue. Later you'll be able to separate the photos from the group scan.

When you’ve finished processing all of the photos, this part of the job is done. Each saved file is a collage of pictures, so you'll need to separate them individually.

When ready, use a photo editing program to open a scanned image file. Crop one of the individual pictures, rotate if necessary, and then save as a separate file. Click the undo button until the image reverts to its original, uncropped state. Continue this process of cropping until you’ve saved a separate copy of each picture within each scanned image file.

Many image editing/scanning software programs offer a batch mode that automates the scan-crop-rotate-save technique.

Quick Scanning With a Smartphone

Smartphones work well as a surrogate for a dedicated scanner. While there are many apps out there for this task, one that is fast and free is an app from Google called PhotoScan. It's available for Android and iOS.

While PhotoScan will step you through what to do, here's how it works:

  1. Position the photo within the frame shown in the app.

  2. Tap the Scan button to start the processing; you’ll see four white dots appear inside the frame.

  3. Align your device over the dots until they turn blue; these extra shots from different angles are used by the app to eliminate pesky glare and shadows.

    Screenshots of Photoscan in operation.

When complete, PhotoScan automatically performs the stitching, auto-enhancing, cropping, resizing, and rotating. Files save on your smartphone.

Tips

  • Work in an open, evenly-lit area.
  • Adjust your positioning to minimize glare/shadows.
  • Set photos on a flat, solid-color background (contrast helps the app identify edges).
  • Keep the smartphone parallel to the photo (no tilting).
  • If glare or reflection persists, turn on the flash.