How to Choose a Photo Scanner

Photo scanners can be very simple or ultra-complicated — you choose

Digital cameras and smartphones come with increasingly complex cameras, and the photos from these cameras are in a digital format. However, you may need a separate photo scanner if you want to digitize old printed photographs or film slides. Here's how to choose the best photo scanner for your needs.

Flatbed scanner, elevated view
Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images

Professional photographers, artists, commercial printers, and ad agencies regularly scan and produce professional-quality images. You may want a scanner to scan old family film photographs, negatives, and transparencies. You can even use some photo scanners to scan documents and go paper-free with your receipts.

Scanning family photos may seem like a lot of work. However, after you scan the photos, every family member can have a digital copy.

Just like smartphones cut into the market share of traditional film cameras and digital cameras, digital photography cut into the scanner market. However, you can still find a selection of photo scanners from which to choose.

Flatbed scanners are popular and vary in cost and features. Film scanners, which are more expensive, scan at a higher resolution and are preferred by photo professionals.

Not all photo scanners are the same or in the same price range. The right scanner for you depends on what you plan to scan, the necessary scan quality, how much you are willing to spend, and how often you plan to scan.

How to Choose a Photo Scanner

Before you choose a photo scanner, do your homework. After you identify your scanning needs, you're ready to buy a scanner. Here's how:

  1. Identify what you plan to scan. Do you have 4-by-6-inch photos, 8-by-10-inch or larger photos, tiny transparencies, or negatives? Do you have all of these? If so, a flatbed scanner with a film adapter is for you. However, if you plan to scan transparencies only, you can buy a small transparency scanner for that purpose.

  2. Pick the scanner resolution you need. Scanner resolution is usually listed in dots per inch (dpi). In general, 300 dpi is sufficient for most purposes. For exceptionally high quality, 1200 dpi is needed. If you plan to enlarge a digital scan at some point, 3200 dpi is a safe resolution unless you plan to cover the side of a truck with the image. However, if you plan to post photos on the internet, use a lower resolution — 150 dpi should cover it.

  3. Estimate your speed needs. If you plan to do much scanning, the speed of the scanner factors into your decision. Manufacturer specifications typically include the speed of scanners on their websites. Check there and compare your favorites.

  4. Set a budget. Scanners are available in a range of prices from less than $100 to thousands of dollars. The more features the scanner has, the more it costs.

  5. Plan to diversify. Decide whether you want to scan documents as well as photos on your scanner. If so, you need a photo scanner that also scans documents.

  6. Choose a size. You may need a letter-size or larger flatbed scanner if you plan to scan large photos or documents. However, if you have a stack of hundreds of transparencies or negatives to scan, you may want to go with a scanner designed specifically for that purpose.

  7. Do your homework. Locate scanners online that have good reputations and meet the criteria you establish. You likely won't be able to walk into a store and test out the scanners on display, because most stores don't display scanners. Also, determine the seller's return policy.

  8. Order your scanner. Test the scanner as soon as you get it. That's the only way to know if it works right for you. If not, return it and try another one.

Clean photos, negatives, or transparencies before you scan. If you don't, the scanner picks up every dust speck.

About Photo Scanners

The best and most expensive photo scanners are drum scanners, but only specialized imaging bureaus can afford those.

High-resolution flatbed scanners, such as the Epson Perfection V850 Pro Photo Scanner (which costs more than $1,000), meet most high-quality scanning needs. Not only do these scan at ultra-high resolutions, these scanners frequently come with a set of adapters for scanning transparencies, slides, film, and negatives, as well as photo enhancing and correction software.

Don't overlook the selection of budget flatbed scanners that are available for around $100. These aren't the largest or fastest and aren't useful for scanning transparencies. However, for daily photo and document scanning, these scanners do the trick.

If you have an all-in-one printer, you may have a scanner. Get out the printer documentation and find the scanner specifications. Many all-in-one printer scanners go as high as 1200 dpi. It may be able to meet your document scanning needs and photos needs.

Portable scanners work fine for simple document and receipt scanning. These scanners aren't suitable for photo scanning unless you have only a few small images to scan.