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How to Bulk Scan Photos

Boxes of old photographs and film are a common find during any spring cleaning operation. In the frenzy of organizing, we can get swept away with visions of scanning all of these and transforming them into digital gems. That is, until we realize just how many photographs have to be scanned and that we are not looking at a quick weekend project. It's hard to know where to begin and how much time we need to budget for the activity.

Bulk photo scanning is a challenge for many people trying to move their analog photos into a digital library. Once digitized, photos can be filed, downloaded, copied, compressed and more easily managed. However, print photos take up space and hundreds of them can fill several shoeboxes. With a typical scanner, digitizing these images can involve days of work.

Fortunately, there are ways to deal with this Mt. Everest of memories and images, without using months of your life that you will never get back. Here are the main steps involved in the process:


The first thing to do is to reduce the quantum of work. There is no point in spending time scanning photographs that aren’t worth saving. For every three good photographs, there are probably one to two that are blurry, duplicates or of unidentifiable subjects. Now is a good time to get rid of them.

Next, using a lint-free wipe cloth, wipe down the photographs that you plan to scan in order to remove dust, fingerprints and smudges. This might take a while, but will save you the greater effort of removing these smudges and marks at a later stage using photo editing software like Photoshop. It's also important to wipe the glass surface of the scanner if you’re using a flatbed style machine.

The 3 S's: Scanner, Software, Storage…

If you have decided to tackle the scanning project yourself instead of using a service, you will need to have access to the right equipment. The ideal machine for bulk scanning is one with a top load feeder that allows you to stack the photographs and batch process them quickly. However, you need to make sure you’re using a scanner equipped to handle photographs. Otherwise, your memories are at risk of being destroyed during the process. In addition to the scanner, you will need proper software on your computer to manage, organize and edit the resulting digital images.

Next on the must-have list is adequate storage. Image files take up a lot of space, and with hundreds of photographs, your hard disk space will be used up in no time. You can optimize your storage by using less bulky file formats but it's good to have a few free terabytes of space on your computer before starting this project.

Depending on the space available to you, you can pick from one of many file formats to save the scanned images in. BMP format is one of the largest and captures the most detail. TIFF is a moderate and middle-range size, and JPEG is the most common for basic photo storage with a smaller size. Color photos result in larger files, as compared to black and white photos. Scanning photos at a higher resolution yields larger files with higher DPI that are more suited for printing and enlargements.

The no feed, flat scanning option

If you only have access to a flatbed scanner for this project, there are still workarounds to save time. Fit as many photos on the scanner bed with at least 1/8th of an inch space between them on all sides. Keep them straight and aligned in one direction. You are making an aggregate image which you can later slice apart into separate images with a clip app tool or similar. If you don’t like the clip tool, then use the crop feature in a photo editing application. It’s slower than a feed approach, but this method does still allow you to run through a large number of photos relatively quickly.

Using a phone

There are a number of Android and iPhone apps available now that can take a print image and convert it into a photograph via a phone camera. However, it’s not as easy as just pointing and shooting. You have to ensure that there is enough lighting to avoid a glare. You also have to be careful not to cast a shadow over the photo, and try to keep a steady hand while scanning the photo. Otherwise you just end up with a fuzzy image or partially darkened image. Office Lens and Google Photo Scan are basic apps that work well, but there are plenty of other tools available to perfectionist photographers and archivists.

A bulk photo scanning service (recommended)

If you don’t have a lot of time and are willing to spend a little bit of money on this project, then a professional photo scanning service is a highly recommended option. All you have to do then do is ship the photographs to the service and sit back while they do all the scanning and labor-intensive work. They will then send your prints back to you along with all the digital images - securely stored on a thumb drive or uploaded to an online storage site.

Finally, remember to backup your photos

Remember, your recently digitized photos are just as vulnerable to computer mishaps as any other digital file. And you don't want to go through all the trouble of scanning to lose everything a month later to a corrupted drive, ransomware hack or other unforeseen event. Back up (or double back up) your digital library to devices or locations that are separate from your main computer. The right backup can involve a physical flash drive or a cloud-based storage subscription or both. This additional step may seem like a chore but when your computer dies on you (and chances are that it will, sooner rather than later), you will thank yourself for being prepared.

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