Here's How to Get Old Photos Out of Your Closet and Onto Your Computer

Here's How to Get Old Photos Out of Your Closet and Onto Your Computer

Smartphones have enabled most of the world to carry around a high-resolution camera in their pocket, which we’ve used to take over one trillion pictures per year. Those pictures are then perfectly preserved on our phone and on the cloud, accessible any time we have an internet connection. But what about photos taken in the pre-digital age?

The years (or decades) of snapshots taken during holidays, family reunions, or important family events? If they’re piled up in old shoeboxes or dusty photo albums in a hallway closet or basement, it’s time to take them out, and digitize them. Having a digital copy will allow you to upload them to social media, or back them up to an external hard drive, so they can’t get torn, lost, or damaged from accidental exposure to water, mold or fire.

This process may take a little while depending on how many pictures you want to digitize, but it’s actually become a lot easier lately thanks to advances in computer and cloud technology. If you’re looking for a good project to chip away at after work or on weekends, getting to relive some of your favorite childhood memories and share them with your closest friends and relatives is a pretty good one.

What Do I Need to Digitize Photos?

The only hardware you’ll need to digitize your photos is a scanner, so if you already have one you like, you’re ahead of the game. One thing to check before you go through this process is your scanner’s maximum dpi (dots per inch), which determines the quality of your scan.

It’s good to digitize photos in 300dpi, which will create a digital version of your photos that will look sharp on a phone, tablet, or computer screen. Keep in mind that the type of photo (Polaroid, 5 x 7, 8 x 10, etc.) may look sharper or more blurry depending how much you zoom into it once it’s on your computer.

Another factor to consider is the file format you scan your photos in. The most common photo format is JPG, which is a compressed version of an image (think of it like an MP3 quality song). Lossless photo formats like .tiff are uncompressed and have more information (think of it like a CD-quality song).

Lossless images take up significantly more space than compressed ones, and most photo upload forms on social media only support JPG and PNG files. For the best of both worlds, you can scan photos in the .tiff format and convert them later.

If you’re ready to undertake this project and don’t have a scanner, or want one that’s purpose-built for digitizing photos, we have some recommendations for you.

1. Brother INKvestmentTank Color Inkjet All-in-One Printer

Here's How to Get Old Photos Out of Your Closet and Onto Your Computer
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There are a lot of all-in-one printers out there (this means they can print, copy, scan, and fax from it), but I’ve had the best experience with options from Brother.

It can print up to 12 black and white or 10 color pages per minute, supports double-sided and wireless printing, and has “Inkvestment” ink cartridges, which the company says can handle between 3,000 and 5,000 pages before needing to be replaced.

Those specs are important to consider when getting an all-in-one printer, but the reason I’m recommending this model is its flatbed scanner, which is 8.5 x 11.7 inches big. That’s large enough to be able to scan any photos up to 8 X 10 inches, which includes many panoramic pictures, without a problem. It can also scan photos at a resolution of 1200 x 2400 dots per inch, so you can get an extreme amount of detail if you need to.

It works with both Windows and MacOS, and supports wireless scanning if it’s connected to your WiFi network, or plugged directly into your router.

2. Epson Perfection V600 Color Photo, Image, Film, Negative & Document Scanner

Here's How to Get Old Photos Out of Your Closet and Onto Your Computer
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If you’re really serious about scanning your photos, Epson’s Perfection V600 is purpose-built to guide you through the entire workflow.

Like Brother’s printer, the V600 has a maximum scanning area of 8.5 x 11.7 inches, and maximum resolution of 6400 x 9600dpi. Keep in mind that this is only a scanner; it can’t print, fax, or produce physical copies of your photos or documents.

What makes this scanner stand out is its versatility when it comes to photo digitalization. It has slots that allow you to scan slides, negatives, or panoramic film in addition to regular photos. The buttons on the front allow you to scan a photo, create a PDF of your scan, or e-mail your scan with one push. The latter two functions are very useful if you’re scanning documents that need to be easily distributed.

The V600 comes with three pieces of software: Epson’s “Digital ICE” and Easy Photo Fix apps, plus ArcSoft’s PhotoStudio. These programs allow you to apply color correction to your photos, or fix damage like wrinkles or creases that have accumulated over the years.

This scanner only has one real limitation: it needs to be plugged into your computer (Mac or PC) via a USB cable to work. Beyond that, this is a great all-in-one solution for people who want to scan and edit their pictures efficiently, or have photos on different mediums.

What Software Should I Use?

Epson’s scanner comes with photo scanning software, but there are apps built into both Windows and MacOS that can help you get the job done.

In Windows, there’s a program called Fax & Scan, which does what the name suggests. You can access your scanner, select your resolution and file format, and choose the eventual location of your scanned photo in a few clicks. You’ll also get to see a preview of what your scanned photo will look like, so you can adjust its placement on your scanner if necessary.

On the MacOS side your built-in option is called Preview, and it does all the same tasks as Print & Scan, plus has an option for color correction, which is the most common editing tool you’ll need for this project. I’ve used Preview to scan my photos, and I’ve been really impressed at how well color correction works; previously blown out pictures look practically new. These two apps are the way to go if you want a simple way to scan your photos; if you want to get into serious editing, there’s a wide range of software out there.

1. Photoshop Elements

Here's How to Get Old Photos Out of Your Closet and Onto Your Computer
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Photoshop is the best known photo editor out there, and there are two major versions available out there: Photoshop Elements and Photoshop CC (Creative Cloud.)

The slightly stripped-down Elements version supports both MacOS and Windows, and includes tools that allow you to use more complex “healing” tools to correct imperfections (tears, bumps, red eye, etc.) from your scanned images. This version of Photoshop is aimed at consumers, and the features that it doesn’t have aren’t really necessary unless you’re doing professional-grade editing work. Better yet, it has 55 tutorials to help guide you through the most common photo editing functions like removing unwanted objects from backgrounds, or adding cool patterns to your photos.

It doesn’t require a monthly fee, but may not be updated with the same frequency as Photoshop Creative Cloud. This version of Photoshop Elements was just released, though, so that shouldn’t be a problem.

Note: Another powerful photo editor that doesn’t come with a monthly fee is Pixelmator Pro. The MacOS-only app matches Photoshop nearly feature-to-feature, and its developers aggressively update the program to be more efficient and versatile. You can try Pixelmator Pro out for 30 days, or purchase it for $39.99.

2. Photoshop Creative Cloud

Here's How to Get Old Photos Out of Your Closet and Onto Your Computer
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If you don’t mind paying a monthly or annual fee for the most robust photo editing app, you can subscribe to the Creative Cloud version of Photoshop, which costs $20.99 per month if you commit to a year. This more robust version of Photoshop includes the latest versions of Adobe’s constantly evolving photo editing tools like being able to select and manipulate every single object in your picture with pinpoint precision. It also allows you to sync photos between the MacOS or Windows version of the app and its iPad app.

The version of the photo that’s synced contains all of your edits, so you can bounce between devices without losing any progress. Adobe regularly updates the Creative Cloud versions of its software to be compatible with new operating systems, and improve the effectiveness of its tools. This is overkill unless you want to fully erase people from the photos you’ve scanned, or want a tool that can be used for way more than one project.

How Should I Back Up My Photos?

Once you’ve scanned and edited your photos, it’s time to keep them safe. Because photos are one-of-a-kind files, and scanning them takes a fair amount of time and effort, you’re going to want to keep them in multiple places. If you only store them on your computer, and your computer crashes, you’re back to square one.

Uploading all of your pictures onto your social media profile will keep them safe in the cloud but it’ll compress the images significantly. This happens because even sites like Facebook don’t have enough server space to handle full-resolution versions that millions of photos upload to the site every year. I still think keeping photos on social media is a good cloud backup strategy because it’s better than nothing (keep in mind, social media sites will use AI to look at all the pictures you upload), but it’s not the best solution.

If you want to keep your photos safe, and stored in multiple places, here are your best options.

Note: These backup methods will work with your entire digital photo library, not just the ones you’ve recently scanned. It’s important to keep every digital photo you’ve got in one place.

1. An External Hard Drive

Here's How to Get Old Photos Out of Your Closet and Onto Your Computer
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We have an entire guide dedicated to the best external hard drives, but the one I’m going to recommend for this project is Western Digital’s 2TB Passport Ultra. It has more than enough storage to back up your entire computer, not just your photos, so you’ll be able to restore all of your files in case of a crash. It’s BUS-powered, which means it draws power from your computer instead of having to be plugged into an outlet, and physically small enough to fit safely in a drawer between backups.

Both Windows and MacOS have built-in backup tools, so it’s easy to make a full, restorable backup of your computer in case something bad happens. If you only want to back up a select number of your files, you can always copy and paste them onto the external hard drive.

2. Cloud Storage

Here's How to Get Old Photos Out of Your Closet and Onto Your Computer
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This is the solution that’s accessible to your right now. Both Apple and Google offer users some amount of free cloud storage to keep whatever files they want on their servers. You can upload any files to the cloud, and some of your space may already be filled by your photo library, but you can upload an additional backup just to be sure. The biggest benefit to using the cloud to store your photos is that it’s not in a physical location close to you.

If you back up your photos to an external hard drive, and something terrible happens (a fire, flood, or other emergency) both of your backups go with it. A cloud backup will allow you to access or restore your photo library from any computer connected to the internet.

Amazon Prime members can get free, unlimited full-resolution photo storage through a perk called Amazon Photos. The process is simple: Sign into your Amazon account, go to the Amazon Photos Page, and start uploading your images. This may take a while if you have a large photo library, or a slower internet connection, but you should be all set if you set this up to run overnight.

Once they’re uploaded, your photos will be organized by the date they were taken — this information is baked into each digital photo you take; it’s called metadata. Your recently-scanned photos may not have metadata, and they’ll be sorted by the day they were scanned; you can update this information later, so they appear in the appropriate place in your photo library.

As I mentioned earlier, Amazon Prime members get unlimited full-resolution photo storage and 5GB of video storage, but non-Prime members can use Amazon Photos with a shared 5GB cap for photos and videos. Pictures stored on Amazon Photos can be accessed through a web browser on your computer, or an app available on iOS and Android. If you download the app, you can set it to automatically upload every picture you take going forward, so you’ll always have a backup.