A how to guide for scanning in old family photos; tips, tricks, and more

Whether it’s the 1940s, 1990s, or the 1890s, if you’re going to start scanning in old family photos there’s some things you should know.

Scanning a box or three of old family photos can be a daunting task, here’s what I’ve learned in 25 years of doing it.

First let me save you some time, there are three ways to go about scanning in your old family photos, I’m going to go over it the DIY like a professional way. The two other ways are; DIY as fast as you can with no regard for info written on the photos or envelopes they’re contained in, or pay a professional business or specialist to do it.

If you want to DIY with the scanner on your all-in-one printer as fast as you can, you should stop reading now and don’t bother watching the video. Also, just please don’t unless it’s for a few photos only. If you are going to pay a pro, you might want to skip the first half of this post and the first two thirds of the video. You’ll still have a lot of work ahead of you, especially if you want future generations to know who & what is in the photos.

Please note this is a long post and may require a reread, or possibly bookmark it and finish up later. In the future I may make separate posts to delve deeper into some of the topics, so if there is something you’d like me to elaborate on mention it in the comments.

Where to start your photo scanning endeavor

Before you even start placing photos on a scanner, spend some time with your photos. This may save you time and frustration later one. Whether you have one, two, or more boxes of old prints, add at least one more empty box. Best thing you can do right off the start is make sure similar photos stay together. If you’re lucky your family kept everything in the original envelopes, including the negatives. If you’re even luckier they wrote on the envelope when and where the photos were taken “Florida vacation 1982.” Grab that envelope and any others that are possibly from that vacation and stick them in the empty box together.

Handling negatives, White gloves are a must. Find a dozen at B&H for about $7.

Now would be a good time to mention your fingers are probably dirtier than you think. It’s best to wash your hands before you start opening up envelopes or flipping through albums. Even better, invest in a stack of white gloves. For roughly $7 you can buy a dozen of these and have no fear about accidentally ruining your precious family treasures. If you are handling negative, gloves are a must in my mind.

Before you even open an envelope of photos to see what box or stack you should put them in, use the packaging to sort them. Many labs & film companies changed the look of their envelopes on a regular basis, so it can be pretty easy to tell the photos that belong in with the 1960s and the 1980s.

Let the marketing of the film companies do the sorting for you. Keep envelopes with similar looks together, chances are they won’t be more than a year or two apart.

Figuring out what to scan

If your answer to the problem above is “all of it” you’re either retired, or super ambitious. Best practice is start with a few envelopes from the same time frame. If you have those white gloves now’s the time to put them on.

First thing you’ll want to do is figure out if you have prints, negatives, or both. If you have both you’ll want to just scan the negatives, then use the prints as a reference, not only for what to scan, but also for clues to who or what may be in the photos via writing on the back. As looking at negatives, especially color ones, can be hard for the untrained eye.

For the sake of brevity, I’m going to leave out technical talk of which scanner to use, or how to use the scanner and software. Chances are you may be using different technology than I do, so it’s best to get that info from a more specific source than me. Just know if your scanner is a printer as well, you’ll want to look at other options for sure.

Not every photo is a winner. Save yourself some time, once you see your prescan of the negatives is ready, deselect blurry, out of focus, or random photos. Think about what your descendants & relatives would & wouldn’t care to see. Example; a roll of film I took when I was 10 has 8 photos in a row of my parents in the seat across from me on a whirly-whirl ride. Scanning negatives can take anywhere from 20-60 seconds each based on the ppi you’re scanning them at, save yourself time and scan in just one or two of similar photos.

Pro tip: Don’t overlook scanning scenes of random everyday life, even if no family member is in the photo. A gas station in 1989 doesn’t sound exciting to you, but in 2039 your family may look at it like we look at a 1950s gas station.

Don’t overlook the chance to scan the backs of photos that have writing, or the cover of the envelope. You don’t need them to be super high resolution so a fast scan works best. Pro tip: if you have an all-in-one printer-scanner besides the real scanner you’re using for the high resolution scans, use it to scan in the backs of photos, or envelope writing. Just make sure you store the files together with the related scans.

The way you look at this photo from 1957, is the same way your family may look at an image from 1987. Scan in some of the mundane everyday photos you find too. It’s all part of history.

Technical stuff about scanning dpi/ppi size

Ok, I know I said I wasn’t going to get technical, but there is one major technical scanning practice that needs to be addressed and that is the dots or pixels per square inch ratio (dpi or ppi).

While 72 dpi has been a standard display resolution for computers for some time, higher dpi can show subtle improvements on newer computers with HD screens. Where that dpi number lies is debatable, however one thing is for sure, if your image is under 200 dpi, it’s never going to be worth printing out. While most photos can be printed fairly decent at 200 dpi, it’s best to have your images at a minimum 300 dpi for the output setting.

Output vs input

Most scanning software will give you the option to select a dpi for the image you’re scanning, also called input, but what should that input dpi be? That all depends on what size & form the image you’re scanning is. For example; scanning in an 8×10 inch print, you’ll want to make sure it will at least be able to be reprinted at that same size, so a minimum of 300 dpi would be best. I typically like to make all my images printable at 11×14 inches large. Which would mean an 8×10 print would be scanned in around 450 dpi to ensure I’m roughly at 300 dpi if I was to print out an 11×14 photo. By comparison a 3×5 inch print might be scanned in around 800-900 dpi so its output is 11×14 at 300 dpi. A 35mm negative may require a 3,200 dpi input to reach the 300 dpi mark on an 11×14 print output.

Also, don’t forget, if you still have the negatives, you may be able to find a photo lab that can print directly from the negative which may bring you the best results possible if the negative is in good shape with limited scratches.

File types, storage size, and time saving

As mentioned above, determine what your future use for the photos are before you start scanning. While your scanner may do 4,000 dpi, on an 8×10 print that is overkill. Bigger isn’t always better. The only improvement you’ll get is seeing the texture of the photo paper that was used. Not to mention the file size will be in the GBs range, not Mbs and will add an extra minute to your scan time..

Speaking of file sizes, if you’re scanning in black and white prints &/or negatives, make sure to looks for a B&W setting (which is often referred to as “greyscale”). It will cut down your file size and scanning time considerably. Unless you’re looking to have the patina and yellowing you get with old prints, there’s little reason to have them in the RGB format.

.tiff is greater than .jpeg

While jpgs are the go to for digital viewing, do yourself and future generations a big solid and save your scans in the .tiff / .tif format. If you have a preference for a file type like DNG or PSD, I won’t argue against them, but just realize that the tiff format has remained the same since 1992 and is generally viewable by most computer programs. Beyond that it has a higher color range and doesn’t compress the images the way jpgs do. Plainly put, don’t scan in as .jpg, .gif, or .png.

Feel free to export your tiffs as jpgs when sharing with family, but scan the masters in as tiffs.

Post scanning

So you got your first batch scanned in. Maybe a roll or two from Christmas 1973. If you haven’t already, rename all those image files (hopefully tiffs) so they can be paired together even outside of your cataloging software.

For the remainder of this post I’ll be referencing how I do my post work in Adobe Lightroom. While some aspects may be software specific only, the majority of this is relatable for keeping info in the IPTC or metadata of your image files.

There are five very important parts in cataloging old family photos and the majority of it I have taken from my workflow as a photojournalist and how we for decades have cataloged the images we record for the newspapers and magazine we shoot for.

  • rating & color tags
  • key wording
  • date & location replacement
  • captioning
  • final folder

rate and color tag

In many photo library programs you can rate (give stars one through five) and color tag your image files. Take advantage of this as it can work like leaving a sticking note, or bookmark when you’re studying. First I generally rate all the photos I scan with 3 stars. If they aren’t at least 3 stars, please scroll back up and read “figuring out what to scan” again. You may want to give that writing on the back of photos a two star for later sorting. As you move through the images you’ll find some great photos, class pictures, Mt. Rushmore while it was under construction, wedding photos, and so on. Give those a 4 or 5 star rating and you’ll be able to pull the best of the best up when needed, without boring family members who aren’t into old photos as much as you.

So you’ve rated the photos and know where the best ones are, why do you need to color tag them? I use color tags to denote quickly where I’m at in the post production process. For me a green tag means it is freshly scanned in and needs the complete looking over. Yellow means it has had some work, typically captioning, or key-wording. A red tag means it’s all done. I’ve done everything I could from date changes to GPS tagging.

There are at least 6 colors, not to mention the ability to flag files as picks, or rejected, so you have plenty of options.


Key-wording can be elaborate, or pretty simple. As you go along you’ll figure out what you like best and if you’re anything like me you’ll probably end up going back over images you were finished with to add in a new set of key words.

As much as I’d love to have a downloadable keyword list for you, I don’t. Best advice I can give is start with the basics, the people in your photos. Create a keyword for each of them as they come along. Possibly create a surname parent keyword. As an example I have a keyword titled Family, with a sub category of JOHNSONS, followed by a subcategory for each person.

As a general rule I try to refer to all people by their maiden names, and make a judgement call on birth names that vary from their adult names. Maiden names for obvious reasons, but birth names can often come into play with adoption or with immigration. Whatever the choice stick with it and be ready for some random family member to have an issue with it. One thing to know, you can always edit the keywords in Lightroom and it will result in an automatic change in all your files in Lightroom. Sorry not good for stuff you’ve already sent to family or put online.

Beyond family members some keywords to think about are major holidays like Christmas, Easter, Halloween, etc. Events like birthday parties, vacations, graduations, and so on. Don’t forget you can make “events” & “holidays” a parent keyword which could help sort photos down the line.

Lastly, I have keywords for cities, states, countries and even counties, along with certain schools, museums, churches and parks my family visited. You can do something as simple as a “National Park” keyword, or you can do one specific for the parks themselves. This part on locations brings me to my next bit of metadata I like to enter.

Location & Date replacement

As I said above I have keywords for cities, states, and more, but in the metadata for any photo file there is a place to enter this information specifically. If you have all EXIF and IPTC set to show in the metadata you will see the fields under the “Image” section of the IPTC where you can enter in city, state, & country. This information can also be entered in any image file in Photoshop under the (File>File Info) drop down or by holding (command option shift + I) at the same time. There’s even a sub location category if you wanted to drop in place names, or county names.

On the top left side of the Metadata tab is a dropdown to show EXIF & IPTC info. Make sure it’s showing to see image location fields.

Adding or changing the date created might be the biggest game changer when organizing a large amount of old family photos. Even if you’re guessing, editing the “capture time” (technical way of saying when they were taken) on your old photos allows you to sort them in that order and will help tremendously when you find stray photos and have to compare them to other images.

Under Metadata>Edit Capture Time… you will get this time adjustment screen. For almost all scanned photos you’ll want to adjust to a specific date. Just select the photo, or photos you want to change.

Captioning your photos

Once again in the Metadata section you will find a “caption” field. This is the best place to add info about the individual photo, or group of photos. Like all metadata you can edit it all at once by selecting multiple images before you activate the field for editing. If you have writing on the back of a photo, or know who and where is in the photo, this is where you’ll enter that in long form. Think about the captions under photos in a newspaper. This is the same field I enter when submitting my photos to a paper.

Pro tip: The very first thing you should do with captions is write the general information that applies to each image in that set. Example: This image from the photo collection of grandpa’s name was scanned from negatives. It’s from a vacation trip to Arizona in Oct of 1957.”

Don’t be afraid to leave notes, or thoughts on the photos. Any info you can give to the next generation of people looking at these, the better.

Captioning will be the most time consuming part of the process.

File in a folder

Lightroom and other programs usually give you a way to make folders or albums to store similar photos together manually. Take advantage of this as it’s a quick way to locate photos when you have a large collection. I generally have a master folder called “family” with sub folders based on a single or group of surnames. Inside the surname folder I may break it up into decades, or a range of years based on children being born. My father was the second of two children, so I have a folder starting in 1945, my aunt’s birth year, to 1963, which is the year before my oldest cousin on that side was born.

This setup helps me easily sort images I’m not exactly sure of a year on, especially when one of those people are in it. The height & walking crawling ability of a child, along with birthday candles, graduations, and more can help you narrow down a year range better than anything short of writing on the back of the photo.

A video guide to scanning in old family photos

This is a pretty simple run down of the basic workflow I mentioned above for when I go through scanning in old family photos, whether it’s from film or prints. The video is about 20 minutes long and gives you an almost real time version of how long this process takes me.

Thanks for reading & watching.
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