A tale of scanners, pictures and software (oh my!). Lessons learned.

Part 4. Project notes and ‘lessons learned’

At this point I’ve completed the first part of this project. I’ve gone through all the pictures in our family albums and all those I inherited via my Mom and Dad. I’ve gotten 1400+ scans, about half black & white and half color prints. I’ve done a handful of b&w negatives

Very old portrait of boy and girl in costume.

1893 Picture. Grandmother and her brother.

when I ran across compelling images and I could easily find the negative.

The oldest image I scanned was from about 1890 and it turned out great, far better than many that are half that old. I scanned lots other old (pre-1920, example above) items and got good results for almost all of them.

It seems the age of a b&w print is uncorrelated with getting a successful scan except that older means it had more time to get damaged. I’ve successfully scanned images from the biggest thing scanner will do (about 8.5”x11”) down to tiny prints barely 1”x1” in size. I’ve seen some near-miracles in rescuing severely faded images and some nearly complete failures with apparently better ones. I’ve learned I can’t predict the outcome, so if I like the picture I try it. And that’s a persistent theme:  variability. I did an 8×10 from around 1905 that looks so good I could believe it was made a week ago.  But some color prints from the 1960’s were so bad the only thing I could do was to scan to a black & white image just to get something. Yet I also found a some 50’s and 60’s color shots that came back to as good as the day they were printed. Vuescan’s option for automated ‘restore fading’ and ‘restore colors’

1926 portrait. My Mom at 3 years.

sometimes did nearly miraculous things and sometimes they proved useless. With all the options in Vuescan, for at least 95% of the prints I got scans that looked better than the print did and 2/3rds of the time I needed to do only minor tweaks to the settings the software created for itself.

I rate this phase of the project a success—I got the prints scanned and virtually all the scans look a lot better than the prints did. I’m happy with both the hardware and software.  Here’s some of what I learned about scanning my photos that you might find useful–someday when I have enough experience, I’ll add some notes about negatives and slides:

Lessons learned


  • Cleaning everything frequently is crucial to good scans.
  • Assume nothing looking at the photo, horrible looking prints sometimes had “miraculous” recoveries, not always but worth trying.
  • Scans of enlargements on canvas or canvas-like paper tended be troublesome because the scanner can exaggerate the texture. Sometimes selecting ‘magazine’ vice ‘photo’ as the input helped, because it turned on a descreen filter–no, that shouldn’t work, but it did. The scan may be ‘soft’ but I found it best to turn off the sharpening filter in the scanner software, it almost always made things worse.  Instead, save it as a TIFF and try sharpening in an editor.
  • Damaged prints, or others you want to work on in an editor, should be scanned and saved as a TIFF files to avoid adding JPG compression artifacts.
  • For prints, there’s no need to go crazy with resolution; I settled on 300ppi JPG files for almost everything.
  • Use the highest quality (lowest compression level) JPG setting, you’ll get good images but without monster file sizes. (Notice the exceptions here when TIFFs are needed).
  • I found it saved time and work to group photos so I could do several with the same ‘date taken’ and file name template.
  • Copy the backside of the image if there’s much info there, it needs preserving too and a scan is often quicker than typing.
  • Color curves and histograms are the scanner’s best friend, learn to use them and love them.

B&W prints

  • Good, glossy b&w prints, regardless of era, usually scan beautifully.
  • Higher resolution (600ppi, even 1200ppi) scans of little b&w prints often made marvelous details visible I couldn’t see on the print—worth trying.
  • Cleaning everything frequently is crucial to good scans.

"Hopelessly" faded shot from 1959.

Color prints

  • Even the best color prints don’t benefit from scan resolutions above 300ppi and some actually looked better at 150-200ppi, counter-intuitive but worth trying for problem prints.
  • Cleaning everything frequently is crucial to good scans.
  • Color prints on textured paper don’t scan as well as glossy paper and be sure to turn off the ‘sharpening’ filter for those.
  • Color prints that are too far gone to get a color scan often look good with a grey scale scan and something is a lot better than nothing.

photo brush and compressed air can Oh, and did I mention the need for cleaning?  😉  Much conflicting advice is out there on cleaning fluids for the scanner glass—use what makes sense to you, but avoid spraying anything on the glass. Find a soft cloth (as lint free as possible) to carefully wipe the prints. Compressed air is good to get the dust & lint off the glass and there will be some no matter what you did to avoid it. But use nothing on a transparency or negative other than some air (don’t blow on it though) or a soft photo brush.

It’s your turn. You know all those shoe boxes and albums of pictures are waiting in the closet. I put it off for years and you probably have, too. If I can tackle this, so can you. Invest the time, it’s actually kind of fun–okay, at least satisfying. You, your family and your descendants will thank you!

Next:Film scanning lessons learned.


About Dick Knisely

Science-guy, engineer, father, grandfather, husband -- yeah, I'm all of those things. I author this blog to share things I care about and you might care about, too. I hope you do and that you'll join in to share things you care about.
This entry was posted in Genealogy, Photography and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A tale of scanners, pictures and software (oh my!). Lessons learned.

  1. Pingback: A tale of scanners, pictures and software (oh my!), Part 3: Calibration « Presentation Impact

  2. Pingback: A tale of scanners, pictures and software (oh my!), Part 3: Calibration | What I think about that

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