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Quickly convert traditional prints into digital images

Added on Saturday 22nd of September 2007 11:42 pm EST


Adobe Photoshop 7/CS/CS2/CS3

Operating Systems:

Macintosh, Microsoft Windows


A box might be a convenient place to store your family’s photos, but if you keep them stashed away, you can’t take advantage of modern digital retouching techniques. When you convert your prints to digital images and bring them into Photoshop, you’ll open up a whole new world for those faces from the past.


To show you how to copy your prints as digital images, we’ll:

     Discuss two ways to turn your prints into high-quality digital files, and help you evaluate which option to choose.

     Explain the steps you’ll need to take to scan your images or to digitally photograph them.

     Provide you with tips to save copy time and improve results.



You can get so much more use out of your collection of prints if they’re digitized and on your computer than if they are sitting in a shoebox or album. Quickly copying your prints opens up creative uses like computer-designed scrapbooks, web galleries, and restoration techniques. Maybe a special occasion is coming up and you’d love to retouch a batch of images for your family. It might seem like a daunting task when you look at all those piles of prints, but we’ll show you how to get great copies of your prints without all the fuss.


Evaluate your options

The best way to get from a pile of prints to a collection of useful image files is by doing quick, efficient digital copying of the photos. There are several ways to copy prints including using a scanner or digital camera. But first, you’ll need to examine your collection.

To begin, look at the images you need copied. To decide on the most efficient way to get your photos copied, ask yourself these questions:

        Do I have a few images or piles of prints?

        Are they fairly similar in size, or do they range from wallet size to 8 x 10"?

        Are there many tiny images or a few extremely large ones?

A quick review of your raw materials will give you ideas on what system to use to copy them, by scanner or by digital camera.



If you have access to a scanner, you might think of using it first. Scanning images is useful when you have smaller images, or a variety of print sizes. It’s also good for doing ongoing projects where you can do a little now and a little later. Your scanner is limited, though, by its size and how large a print you can copy.


Digital camera

Copying the prints using your digital camera may be an option you haven't considered. Any digital camera can do a good job of copying fairly large prints (5 x 7" and above), but with many cameras having a macro setting, you can often easily copy much smaller images. With the pixel count of cameras climbing, even if you can’t fill the frame with your print, you have enough resolution to crop in to the image area and still print a good quality image.


Decide which system to use

Now that you’ve evaluated your stack of snapshots and know a bit about the advantages of each copying method, it’s time to make the big decision:

        If you have a fairly normal variety of snapshots to copy, mostly 4 x 6" prints with a few other sizes thrown in, either method could work for you, so the deciding factor may be based on time.

        If you have a short period of time to work or perhaps are borrowing the images from a friend, using your digital camera may be the most efficient way to go.

        If you’re not in a rush and would like to work a bit now and then on your project, a scanner may allow you the most flexible way to work. Set a few prints in the scanner, push a button, and you are free to go off and do other things. For actual quick recording of the print, nothing beats your digital camera. Many scanners take a minute or two to complete a high-resolution scan, while your digital camera takes only a fraction of a second.


Group your photos

No matter which system you choose, the first step is to sort your images into like sizes and to separate all color and black and white photos. You should even try to group photos with similar characteristics together, for example if they’re fairly dark or light. That way you can maintain the same scanner or digital camera settings for a group of images and you can save time by not having to reset them for each photo.


When you use a scanner

If you choose to scan your images, then there are several tips to make it go faster:

        Sort your stack of prints according to size and see how many of each size will fit on the scanner platen.

        Pay careful attention to keeping your edges straight, as it will save you hours of straightening later when you open the images for final adjustments in Photoshop.

        Have your scanner save the images in the TIFF format so that you are creating a high-quality file that will not degrade with each save as a JPEG would.

        Place some black and white construction paper, as demonstrated in Figure A, behind each set of images you’re scanning. You can later use those pure swatches to quickly color correct your images in Photoshop.

        Set your scanner’s preferences, if applicable, to automatically crop your photos and open them in Photoshop. This will save you time. Test your first few scans to see how successfully it works.

        Leave a wide space between the edges of your images to aid the scanner in determining where to crop.

        When edges abut, the scanner assumes they are one continuous photograph and will not crop them for you. This is not an issue since you can easily crop them in Photoshop.




Use the proper resolution

A scanner will allow you to choose what resolution to copy your photos. An easy number to remember is that a 300 DPI/PPI (Dots Per Inch or Pixels Per Inch) setting will give you more than enough resolution to reproduce the photograph, in any way, at its current size. This is a perfect setting for scanning an original 4x6" or 5x7" print. However, if you have smaller images that you want to enlarge, consider increasing the resolution of your scan.

By setting your scanner to 600 DPI/PPI, as shown in ...


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