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Digitization, Part 2

May 15 2022

How I scanned my family photos, twice.

It’s now been two years since my previous post, and it’s time for an update. Since then, I’ve ended up scanning all of my family’s photos from around the time of my parents’ marriage to our switch to digital cameras. Due to poor digital organization practices on my end, I’ve had to scan all of these photos twice. Let me share some tips about scanning large volumes of photos, and how not to repeat my mix-up.

The boxes shown contain 11000 family photos. I have scanned every single one, twice.

Scanning Setup

The first step in scanning the photos was making sure they were organized physically. Luckily, my mother had kept all of the photos organized roughly chronologically. All I had to do was drag the boxes into a spot where I could leave them out for a week while scanning.

I gave each box a unique letter label, and as each envelope of photos was scanned I assigned it serial number. I chose to keep these globally unique across all boxes, just in case they moved around later. This number is not critical during scanning, but makes looking up photos later much faster (e.g. if I need to redo a scan).

The real key to this project was investing in a sheetfed scanner (the EPSON FF-640) designed for prints. This project would likely have taken 100 times longer with a typical flatbed scanner, so the couple hundred dollars I paid for the sheetfed scanner was well worth it. I also did not bother to get a negative scanner, as we were confident all negatives were printed.

My recommendation is to turn off all post-processing effects, other than dust removal, as image enhancements can always be applied later (and may be better in the future). I’d also scan at the highest DPI, which does slow the scanner down but captures more than enough detail to never feel the need to scan every photo again.

With how a sheetfed scanner works, dust is not a single speck on the digital copy but rather a line stretching vertically across the entire frame. I tried to scan without dust removal and found numerous ruined scans, so I ended up using dust removal on every photo. The problem is that scanning hundreds of old photos will expose the scanner to a lot of dust, glue and moisture. Every 10 or so sleeves of photos is the right time to open the scanner, blow it out with compressed air and wipe the scanning head off with a microfiber towel.

To stay sane, put some low-effort television on in the background. For this, I chose Squid Game.

The Importance of Backups

If there’s one thing I can emphasize, it’s how important it is to both have backups, and to check that they’re functional. I managed to lose the entirety of the 11000 family photos I scanned because of a sloppy migration of my digital files.

Originally, I scanned all of the photos to a portable HDD and backed them up into iCloud and onto my desktop’s hard drive. Some time later, I switched everything from iCloud to Dropbox because I needed Linux support. I didn’t move the photos from iCloud to Dropbox because I thought it’d be faster to reupload the photos straight from my workstation. But, for some reason, I had actually wiped this hard drive (I believe when switching to Linux) and taken the photos off the portable hard drive. To add insult to injury, I unknowingly made sure the iCloud copy was deleted: I was irritated that my iCloud was showing hundreds of gigabytes in use, even though I had no files in it, so I called up Apple support to have them manually clear my iCloud backup.

For the second go around, I’ve been much more careful with these photos. The primary copy lives on my new NAS, which is also automatically backed up into Dropbox. Additionally, I kept a copy on the portable hard drive at my parents house. This should avoid any loss of the photos into the future. Hopefully.

Remaining Photos

The very last stage of my digitization process is still ongoing, but I’ll still talk through my process. I am having my parents scan all of the remaining family photos, as I am no longer at home to do so. These are the photos I either couldn’t (e.g. Polaroids) or shouldn’t (e.g. fragile) put through the sheetfed scanner. In these cases, the photos are scanned via a flatbed scanner.

Similarly to the sheetfed scanner, I opted to disable all post-processing effects and scan at the highest DPI. The sheetfed scanner does have a plastic sheet for fragile photos, but it’s still easier and quicker in many cases to use the flatbed because you can scan multiple shots simultaneously and use software to split them up.

I don’t have a great organizational system here, as there are many different places these photos will need to return to, be it scrapbooks or large envelopes. Even so, the relatively small number compared to the absolute mass of 3x5 prints, and obviousness of a bad scan when doing one flatbed’s worth of photos at a time, makes this less important.