How to Choose a Photo Scanner

Five things to consider like price, resolution, and speed

This article explains how to find the best photo scanner for your needs if you want to digitize old pictures, film slides, and more.

What Is a Photo Scanner?

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

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

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

5 Things To Consider When Buying a Photo Scanner

After you identify your scanning needs, you're ready to buy a scanner. Here are a few things to consider before purchasing:

  • Cost
  • What Are You Scanning?
  • Resolution Options
  • Speed
  • Type of Scanner

How Much Should a Photo Scanner Cost?

Scanners are available at a range of prices from less than $100 to thousands of dollars. The more features the scanner has, the more it costs. Locate scanners online that have good reputations and meet your criteria. 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.

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.

Price Range What You Can Expect
 $70-$150 Can include film scanners and flatbed photo and document scanners. Includes all the necessary cables and connectors to get started. Ideal for basic scanning (over 4000 dpi) of smaller, mostly standard-sized (8.5 x 11-inches) images and documents.
 $150-$500 The better all-around price tier with improved color depth, faster scanning speeds than less costly models, and more size options. Some may be able to scan up to 11 x 17-inch documents, or feature continuous scanning.
 $500-$2000 For those who want to do more than simply digitize photos or papers. Closer to professional quality. Even more color depth, the ability to scan slides, film, negatives, and more. A larger variety of file output options (PDF, TIFF, PNG, and more). Automatic dust and scratch removal. Can offer more than 12,000 dpi.
$2000-$5000+ Often the largest and most versatile scanner options. Very fast scanning speeds (some up to 80 pages per minute), batch scanning, and large-format scanning (12 x 17-inches or more). For those who want professional grade scanning.

What Are You Scanning?

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.

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, you may want to go with a scanner designed specifically for that purpose.

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

Resolution Options

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 necessary. 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.


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.

Types of Photo Scanners

Several types of scanners are available, each ideal for distinct scanning tasks. Knowing what you plan to scan, how quickly, and at what resolution will make it easier for you to decide what sort of scanner is right for you.

Drum Scanners

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

Flatbed Scanners

High-resolution flatbed scanners 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.

Budget Flatbed Scanners

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 helpful for scanning transparencies. However, these scanners do the trick for daily photo and document scanning.

Sheetfed Scanners

Sheetfed scanners tend to be smaller than a flatbed scanner and work as the name implies: You feed a document or photo into one end, and it pulls the page through to scan it. Unless it comes with an automatic document feeder (ADF), you'll have to insert every sheet manually. They aren't ideal for photos as they tend not to support higher resolutions, but a Sheetfed scanner could work if you want something simple that doesn't take up a lot of room.


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 photo needs.

Portable Scanners

Portable and pen scanners work fine for simple document and receipt scanning and often require you to move them over the item you're scanning manually. They aren't suitable for photos unless you have only a few small images to scan.

Scanner Variations

We can group some types of scanners—for example, drum scanners and roller scanners, or portable scanners and hand scanners—but there are even more variations.

Film Scanners

Film scanners specialize in scanning film and negatives. They're not a good fit for scanning documents, developed photos, or other images.

Keyboard Document Scanners

Some scanners are built just for documents (i.e., text), and some of those scanners are built into a computer keyboard. They don't offer any additional functionality over other types of scanners, but because they're inside your keyboard, they're always within reach and don't take up much desk space.

Scanner Apps

Many apps available for various smartphone models can effectively turn them (or rather, their built-in cameras) into a kind of scanner. Functionality and effectiveness will depend on the software, but some apps like Adobe Scan claim to be able to scan just about anything.

Orbital Scanner

Orbital scanners (or planetary scanners) aren't as science fiction-y as they sound. They're very similar to any other image scanner, with one significant difference: They've been designed to work without making physical contact. And that's because they're most often used to scan rare, damaged, or fragile books that could be destroyed if placed in a more traditional scanner.

3D Scanners

These are not the best choice for scanning photos, but a much better option for three-dimensional objects. Not all 3D scanners are built the same and may approach the process differently, but if you need to import the digital likeness of something, it's the way to go.

Who Should Buy a Photo Scanner?

With so much imagery and writing being created digitally, it's unlikely that most people will need a photo scanner. However, while their usefulness can be very situational, they're also definitely good to have around if you need them.

Anyone who might find themselves in a situation where they'll need to digitize multiple photos for an extended period (or even just in a creative field) should consider getting a photo scanner. Art students, librarians, research graduates, science majors, crafters, reporters—if one or two trips to a publicly available scanner or scanning service won't cut it, think about getting your own.

What to Do After You Buy a Photo Scanner

The first thing you'll want to do after getting your photo scanner is set it up and test it out. Play around with the settings on the scanner and the software you're using. Doing this will give you an idea of its capabilities and help you figure out what kind of configurations works best for what you need.

More Tips

Keep an eye on your files. When hooked up to a computer, many scanners will save the raw scanned images separately, leading to hard drive space filling up much faster than expected.

Transfer your scans from time to time. Digital scans can take up a lot of room—especially if you're scanning at a very high resolution. If able, you should periodically copy the scans you want to keep (but don't necessarily need to use all the time) to external media like a DVD or USB thumb drive.

You probably don't need max settings. Tempting as it may be to scan everything at the highest dpi and resolution your scanner will allow, that's usually not necessary. High resolutions are vital if you want to preserve important photos, but unless you're designing a billboard, you won't need to save something at 2000+ dpi. Around 600 dpi is preferable for saving pictures, with higher values best saved for either professional print projects or archival purposes.

  • How do I scan photos without a scanner?

    If you don't have a scanner but you need to digitize a photo, you can use your phone instead. There are a number of photo scanning apps available on both Android and IOS, and most modern smartphones are able to scan documents on their own.

  • How do scanners work?

    Different types of scanners function a little differently, but most use the same methods to capture and digitize data for photos and documents. Some scanners use complex electronics to turn light into electrical charges, which pass through an assortment of lenses, filters, and mirrors. Less expensive or more compact scanners may use hundreds of sensors that capture the image as the LED lights pass over it instead.

  • Why are my scanned images being cut off?

    If your scanned images are incomplete, that means they're being cropped incorrectly. The specific steps to adjust crop settings may differ based on the scanner model and manufacturer, but you'll want to make sure the document size is correct. Some scanners also have an automatic detection feature for page sizes.

  • How do I add a watermark to a scanned image?

    Some models of scanner may have a built-in watermark feature that you can use to automatically add a watermark to anything you scan. You can also manually add a watermark to scanned images after they've been scanned by using image editing software.

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