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How to Easily Digitize Photos to Preserve Your Memories

You can do it yourself and save some money or use a professional service to save time

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Chances are good that you've thought about bringing your old paper photos into the digital age.

Great idea. You likely have a lifetime — or at least more than half your lifetime — of precious memories trapped in photo albums, shoeboxes or dusty frames. While professional photojournalists started using digital cameras widely in the 1990s, the rest of the world wasn’t buying them wholeheartedly until 2003, the first year more digital than film cameras were sold.

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Your old photographs, once digitized, will no longer fade over time. They can be automatically repaired with smart software, restoring color, removing redeye and stitching rips. 

Photos can be organized and easily searched via keyword or tag on a computer, online cloud site, smartphone or tablet. And you can share them with friends and family over email and social media or create fun projects such as fridge magnets and slideshows.

You can scan old photos, negatives or slides in several ways. But you really have two main options:

1. Do it yourself.

2. Use a professional service.

First, organize the prints you have

No matter which direction you go, you can’t escape organizing your paper photos. Do that first before you convert them.

Otherwise, you risk a digital mess on top of your disorganized stacks of photos, says Mollie Bartelt, co-founder of Pixologie. Her company, based in Racine, Wisconsin, helps people sort, save and restore their family photos and video.

“You can organize your paper photos by major categories like decades or people and then suborganize them into sections, like family events,” she says. Bartelt recommends putting photos into piles or small boxes, divided by index cards and labeled with sticky notes.

Think about creating your own ‘cloud’

One product, which can save you monthly subscription fees for a cloud storage service, keeps all your digital photos and videos in one place, instead of scattered across various family laptops, smartphones or tablets. It’s called a personal cloud storage device.

In one way, this device is similar to an external hard drive because it stores information. But it connects to your home Wi-Fi network by itself, not through your computer. Each company’s proprietary app allows your computers, smartphones and tablets to store photos and other files on your always-on personal cloud storage device and share them privately at home or away.

SanDisk’s small white, cylindrical ibi ($90) joins your Wi-Fi network, automatically gathers and organizes your photos and videos — wherever they're stored — and houses them on its 1TB hard drive, enough for quarter a million photos or more than 100 hours of home movies.

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The 500-gigabyte (GB) Amber X ($224.10) uses object and facial recognition through artificial intelligence to help organize your photos. The company’s 1- or 2-terabyte (TB) AmberPRO models, starting at $550, double or quadruple Amber X’s capacity and have two hard drives inside; one is a backup to the other.

Western Digital’s My Cloud Home and My Cloud Home Duo give you more space. With My Cloud Home you have a choice of 4TB or 8TB, starting at $190. The Duo, with six sizes of storage starting at $300 for 4TB, has two hard drives to automatically back up itself.

Less expensive digital storage has evolved from small flash drives with USB-A plugs to separate Lightning connectors for iPhones and iPads, USB-C plugs for some Android phones and Mac computers, or micro-USB plugs for some Android phones. Adapters can turn USB-A plugs into what you need for your device, and some specialized USB sticks have software installed that will find your photos and videos on your devices automatically to copy them.

Save money. Scan the photos yourself

If you prefer to do your own digitizing, you can pick up a flatbed scanner for as little as $69 if you don't already own one. A multifunction printer, usually a combination inkjet printer, photocopier, scanner and sometimes fax machine, also can be used to scan photos.

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A high-speed scanner, while considerably more expensive, gives you more options. Faster scanners, such as Epson’s FastFoto FF 680W wireless scanner ($530), is one of very few that can do work in bulk, handling three dozen photos in its feeder, so you have less to do by hand.

Other scanners for home use generally have you scan prints one by one. A deluxe scanner used wirelessly over Wi-Fi also can perform many additional tasks:

• Capturing your image and any handwritten notes on the back in a single scan.

• Scanning postcards and Polaroid photos.

• Offering options for photo restoration and editing.

• Making tools available to help with file organization and automatic naming.

• Allowing you to share images to popular cloud services such as Dropbox and Google Drive.

A less costly scanner designed specifically to convert photos is ClearClick’s QuickConvert 2.0 scanner ($200), but don’t expect the same kind of resolution or sizes. QuickConvert will digitize prints no larger than 4x6 inches. No computer is required to scan, and the scanner's rechargeable battery makes it portable.

A 5-inch screen lets you see your scans upon completion. It also supports converting 35mm negatives and slides and negatives from Kodak’s smaller 110 and 126 cartridge films to digital images.

One advantage of flatbed scanners is their ability to handle larger formats to help you preserve irreplaceable historical documents, such as a child or grandchild's handprint or drawing, birth certificates, cherished letters and deeds, marriage licenses, newspaper articles and images of a sentimental keepsake like grandma's favorite broach or a great uncle's pocket watch.

When scanning any of your photos, which need to go through a scanner face down, keep in mind that the higher the dots per inch (DPI), the better a picture’s resolution will be. For photos, 300 DPI is OK, but 600 DPI is recommended to ensure you get all your pictures’ details. A resolution of 1,200 DPI is necessary only if you're looking to enlarge a photo to a poster-sized print.

Depending on how many photos you have, be aware this process might take a long time.

Save time. Pay a service to scan

If you have too many photos, are too busy, or don’t have enough confidence in your ability to digitize your photos on your own, check out local or national services that can do the work for you.

Online companies such as FotoBridge, iMemories, Legacybox and ScanMyPhotos will give you an estimate and send boxes and packing materials to your home with instructions so your precious cargo is preserved in transit. All of the companies will also digitize your old home movies, and some will convert your negatives or slides. Some also offer services to remove cracks and gaps in the emulsion and restore color as they’re copying your photographs.

The digitized images then become available to you on your choice of medium, depending on the service you choose: DVD, external hard drive, flash drive or online. And your original photographs are returned to you in the same way you sent them.

Alternatively, you can bring paper photos to some retailers in your area, including Costco, CVS and Walmart, which also offer services for digitizing paper photos and other media. Many Walgreens drugstores allow customers to scan a limited number of their own images in the store for transfer onto a digital medium.