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Scanning: DIY or Outsource

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An NDIIPP staff member listens to questions about personal digital archiving.
An NDIIPP staff member listens to questions about personal digital archiving.

At our personal digital archiving events, we get various questions about scanning family photos, slides, negatives and film. Questions like:  What type of scanner should I use? What resolution should I use? How can I scan negatives? While we’ve focused on developing tips and resources for saving personal digital materials created with software and hardware, we recognize that individuals have the both analog and digital materials and are looking for guidance on how to deal with both.

If you’re interested in converting your personal collections of photos or documents to digital files, you have two options. One, you can scan your own materials (or DIY). Two, you can outsource or use a scanning service to do it for you.

Do It Yourself

On our personal digital archiving scanning handout (PDF), we provide some basic steps about digitizing photos, documents and slides using a personal scanner.  This handout is a step-by-step overview touching on preparing the scanner and items, saving scanned items and access and storage tips. As always, when you’re working with your own hardware, consult your scanner’s manual for more specific information.

We also use this blog as an opportunity to informally share with you more detailed tips about scanning your photos or documents.  Barry Wheeler wrote excellent posts, describing scanning resolutions and scanner settings: What resolution should I use, part 1 and part 2.  He does a great job explaining the how and why of the scanning process.

scanner, by user npslibrarian, on flickr
scanner, by user npslibrarian, on flickr

If you plan to embark on a scanning project at some point in the future, there are some resources to help you protect your family collections in the meantime. Most of this advice is preventive and includes low-levels of effort for caring and storing your collections. I’ve found that ALA’s Preservation Week Resource List points to web-based information by format, which is quite handy if you’re looking for starting points.


Use a Scanning Service

As we’ve mentioned before, we can’t recommend personal archiving commercial services or tools. But if I was choosing a service to digitize my personal collection, these are some factors I would take into consideration based on what’s important to me.

Digitizing your collection is an investment.  How much are you willing to invest may drive your decision about choosing a service. A quick way to determine costs is to estimate the size of your collection or number of items and find out the service’s price per scan. This will give you a rough idea of the cost.

Aside from the cost of the service, there is also a “hidden” cost of storing your digital files now and in the future. You should have at least two copies of your archive on your choice of media (computer, CD/DVD, external hard drive or cloud). Think about what long-term storage options you’re most comfortable with and look into how much those storage medium cost too.  You may find the handout How Long Will Digital Storage Media Last? (PDF) helpful when thinking about which storage to choose.

Scanning resolution
What resolution will the images be scanned at? Commercial scanning resolutions can range from 300 dpi (dots per inch) to 3000 dpi, depending on the type of material scanned.  The higher the dpi, the larger the file, the more storage (on external media, optical or cloud) it requires.

The service may offer different resolution options so think about what you want to do with your scanned materials, particularly the photos. If you’re interested in sharing them, uploading them to photo sharing sites or printing them out, the resolution matters.  For example, if you’ll print photos at 4”x6” and 5”x7”, they can be scanned at 300 dpi. Larger print sizes, like 8″x10″ can be scanned at 600 dpi or greater. If you’re most concerned with saving them long-term, the highest-quality setting may be your best option.

What file format will your converted materials will be delivered in?

For photographs, JPEG (.jpg) and TIFF (.tif) are the standard file formats most commercial services use for conversion.  Generally, the JPEG format is a long-term consumer-level storage format, and it is also good for viewing software, uploading to photo sharing sites, or emailing. TIFF is generally thought of as a good long-term archival format when file size is not a consideration. TIFF files uncompressed and are larger than JPEGs, and therefore quite large. Again, the larger the file, the more storage space they require.

Scanned documents can be saved as TIFFs or PDFs (.pdf). Both formats are portable and accessible. PDFs enable smaller file size versus TIFF.   There are arguments for the merits of using either for long-term access, so it may come down to which format you’re more familiar working with or have knowledge about.

Storage and Access
Once your collection is converted, how does the service deliver your digital files? Does it return them on CD’s or DVD’s, external drives, or offer copies in the cloud?  Does it provide you with the option of copies on multiple storage media? Some services now provide online access for photos, which may allow you to share and download them.  Keep in mind that saving the only copy of your photos on photo sharing sites is not a best practice.

Care and Handling
How does the company care for and handle your materials? Does it restore old, fragile or damaged photos, documents or film? Careless handling during the conversion process could lead to damage of your originals.

Another thing to think about is if you’ll ship your collection to the service. There are no guarantees of safety or security with mailing services. If this is a concern, look into local scanning services where you can drop off your materials instead of shipping them.

Like I said, these are the factors I would take into consideration when choosing a scanning service.  Converting your family collections to into digital formats is a transition or preparation step to managing your entire personal digital archive.  Those digital files, along with any personal born-digital materials, can then be cared for long-term in the same way.

Updated 1/28/13: fixed typos

Comments (13)

  1. Thanks for the write up on Digital Preservation Photo’s.

    I have few questions:
    1.Who sell these scanner?
    2.I have some old neg. blk/wh from 1920 to 1950’s
    some are large neg’s. Does any mansf sell any holders for neg’s so I can scan them?
    3. What type computer monitor is best to use 720 or 1080 p. and LED or LCD?
    4. Photo software – which one is best to use and learn how to use them?
    I appreciate any help that you can give. Thanks!!!

    • Thanks for sharing your questions, Wilber. I’m glad you found the post useful, and its helping you think through some additional questions. While we at the Library can’t provide specific examples or answers to your questions, perhaps there are people reading this who might have suggestions for you. But, I may be able to offer some starting pointers.

      For your first two questions, you may want to look into stores that sell consumer-grade computer equipment. When I purchased my printer/scanner/copier, I asked the staff questions about software that came with it, the usability of the equipment, and types of settings available. Some of the scanners come with negative scanning attachments or you can purchase one separately, so you’ll just need to make sure it can scan your larger negatives.

      Regarding your last two questions, we again can’t give specific recommendations. Some photo software has video tutorials that walk you through the basic functions. If you’re looking for more advanced help, you could check with your local library (yes, I’m putting in a plug!) for books on the software you’ve chosen.

  2. In your comment about scanning photos, you suggest that 4×6 and 5×7 could be scanned at 300 dpi, and that larger print sizes at 600 dpi.

    Surely the opposite is true… the smaller the original, the higher the scan resolution should be. And prints larger than 8×10 rarely benefit from scans above 300 dpi unless there is extremely fine detail.

    Best wishes,


    • Good comment John. For printing purpose, the resolution determines how much information a scanner captures from the photo. A photo you scan with the intentions of printing it as a 4×6 or 5×7 print may not need as much fine detail as the larger 8×10, which is why 300 dpi is the standard for prints. You are correct, though, if you’re interested in the fine lines and details, starting with a higher resolution (plus playing around with your scanner settings) is the better option. This post by Barry Wheeler goes into detail about this:

  3. I will like information on DIY scanning negatives and converting them to good image files. My old HP scanjet 4570c has a transparent material adapter but HP will not update the software for the TMA to work with windows 7. Is there low cost software that could work

    • Shelia, here at the Library of Congress, we can’t provide specific examples or answers to your questions. As I mentioned in a comment above, perhaps you could ask staff at a consumer-equipment store specifically about scanning your negatives and your scanner’s software. The website of your scanning manufacturer could also address the issue you’re having with the software updates. About scanned file formats for images, take a look at the personal digital archiving scanning handout which talks about saving images as different formats.

  4. It may also be worth looking at the guidelines produced by the various memory organisations around the world. Some may be too technical, but they give a flavour of the issues being considered, and why they have reached the recommendations they have. It’s worth noting that they don’t all necessarily agree with each other either! Many institutions are adopting JPEG2000, it uses diferent compression technology to the original JPEG standard, and has a lossless compression option, so it can be a useful bridge between the file sizes of TIFF, and the reduced quality of JPEG. However, it is not so well supported in consumer programs (though it’s arguably a bit of a chicken and egg situation, it’s not in the tools, so it’s not used much, so there’s no incentive to add it to the tools and round we go in circles).


  5. Other factors to include in the DIY vs. Outsource equation:
    + Time: how much time do you have to devote to scanning and how much do you feel your time is worth compared to the cost of a scanning service?
    + Patience: related to time – what is the likelihood that you may lose interest in the project before it is completed?
    + Interest: for some, taking on a digitization project is an interesting way to learn about file types, resolution, scanner specifications, and other aspects of the process. For others, this kind of detail may be mind-numbing. Ask yourself where you fall on this spectrum…

  6. Scanning old, odd sized negatives can be problematical. Many of the negative holders are for 35mm or 120. Before you buy a scanner check what type of holders are included. I have used an Epson flatbed scanner that handles up to 4″x5″ negatives to successfully scan odd sized negatives by cutting cardboard negative holders to fit the scan area and cutting out an area to fit the negative size required. The Epson holders needed a small cutout near the beginning of the scan area to calibrate. Make it the same size as the Epson’s. I preferred to make the scans at the scanner’s maximum optical resolution because you can always make the image smaller but going the other way causes problems. Hard drives are big and cheap so there is a lot of room to store them. Backing them up and preserving for the future can be a problem but a good photographic print from the digital file is worthwhile.

    A scanner with a lot of manual controls can be a blessing but there is a learning curve. Having adequate bit depth is useful for making image adjustments for color, contrast and density. Many images can be made to look better than the originals with the proper manipulation. Learning some of the basics about image adjustments is worthwhile. Photo Restoration can work wonders on old pictures as long as it isn’t overdone. The restoration should not look like it was restored.

    The type of computer monitor will not make a difference for most people because many are good enough for the general population. Monitor calibration software will make more of a difference than type or brand. The software and hardware are a bit expensive (~$200 – $1,000+) but it will give you consistency if calibration is done often. The human eye can detect minute changes in color but how a person perceives color varies from individual to individual. The color of light you view a photograph under also influences what you see.

    If you have the time, money, and patience the results can be very rewarding.

  7. I’m surprised that I haven’t noticed mention of cost savings associated with your storage medium and resolution. Web standards are that they eye cannot see quality upon resolution being greater than 72dpi. With that said, a 72dpi image will certainly lose resolution should you want to enlarge it into a poster, however for someone with a massive physical media collection, using 72dpi can accomplish image preservation.. and so can a .zip archive, and perhaps the use of both may prove more efficient in an economic sense.

  8. Wow. I don’t have anything to add to this discussion but I wanted to express my gratitude for LOC’s investment into providing this information to the general public. I have opted to do my own digitizing of my family’s personal photo collection. This info is exactly what I need to get started. Thank you so much.

  9. In 2013, you published in The Signal an article titled “Scanning: DIY or outsource?” I am wondering if you have updated this advice taking into account improvements in technology since then. If not, can you recommend any good articles on the topic? Thank you.

  10. Thank you for sharing this great information. In this post give good explanation in deeply that helps people. Give some points in detail that helpful for people.

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