If you see your family pictures starting to fade away in their shoe boxes, crumbling photo albums or moldering slide carousels, fear not. There are easy ways to save your valuable images — and maybe even make them better.
Shipping them off to a professional scanning company for digital conversion and retouching is one easy approach. Services like Memories Renewed, DigMyPics and ScanMyPhotos are easily found on the web and do fine work.
But if you’re inspired (or thrifty) and want to take a crack at transforming the pictures yourself, you just need time and the right tools. Here’s how to get started.
Step 1: Scan the hardware way
Most multifunction printers include scan and copy features. If you have one of those but have never scanned before, check your help guide. No scanner? Wirecutter, a New York Times Co. site that recommends products, has suggestions for reliable printers and scanners.
Unlike photographic prints, slides and negatives need backlighting to properly illuminate the image when scanning. Hardware designed to handle them, like the Kodak Scanza (around $170) or the Epson Perfection V600 Photo Scanner (around $200), are among those that scan prints, slides or negatives.
If you have a flatbed scanner — but no attachment for scanning transparencies — Make Magazine’s downloadable template for a do-it-yourself cardboard adapter is one inexpensive workaround.
Step 2: Scan with your phone or tablet
Using a mobile app that takes a picture of the picture is a quick way to “scan” photos. The resulting image quality may not be as good as with a hardware scanner, but apps are inexpensive and you spare fragile prints from bright light.
Google PhotoScan (free) and Photomyne (free, with in-app purchases) are two apps for Android and iOS that are created to capture images of physical photographs. They both boost color and contrast for the photos, as does the $7 Photo Scanner for iOS. An all-purpose scanning app — like Microsoft Office Lens (for Android, iOS and Windows) — may also do photos.
Capturing slide and negative images with an app can be more challenging because they are smaller and need backlight. The free Helmut Film Scanner for Android or the $6 FilmLab for iOS are two options.
Step 3: Select your photo-repair software
Once you have scanned your pictures, grab a program to fix the faded color, scratches, tears and other blemishes in the photos. Depending on the images’ condition, you may be able to get by with full-featured free apps, like Photos from Apple, Google Photos or Microsoft Photos. These all include tools for adjusting light and color and cropping torn edges; Apple and Microsoft’s programs also have tools for removing specks and blemishes.
If your default photo program doesn’t fit your needs, dozens of others await in the app store. The Adobe Photoshop family — including Adobe Photoshop Elements for Windows and Mac ($100, but a free 30-day trial is available) and Adobe Photoshop Express (free for Android, iOS and Windows touch-screen devices) — are among the more popular products.
The open-source GIMP program for Windows, Mac and Linux systems is also powerful and free, though it can take time to learn.
Step 4: Fix those photos
Now it’s time to whip out the toolbox:
• For scratches rips and tears in the photograph, look for the program’s “healing brush,” “spot fix” or “clone stamp” tool, which typically copies nearby pixels to cover up the damage. Use the tool to click or swipe over the blemishes.
• Click the automatic “enhance” button — or drag onscreen sliders to make manual adjustments to a photo’s contrast and color balance.
• Use the program’s cropping tool to slice away cluttered backgrounds and frayed edges.
Check your app’s help guide for specific instructions, or search YouTube for video demonstrations. Detailed tutorials are available online, like Adorama’s guide for those with Adobe Photoshop; the online Digital Photography School has instructions, too.
Step 5: Share your work in pixels or print
When you have the photos cleaned up and looking good, you can share them with family in all sorts of ways. Posting them to the online photo gallery like Google Photos, iCloud or OneDrive allows relatives to view and download copies wherever they may be (and upload images of their own). Online storage also keeps treasured images safe from fires and floods.
If you’re worried about digital formats not standing the test of time, you can also reprint your favorite images on acid-free archival photo paper for safekeeping. A number of picture-printing companies also offer the photo-book option to reprint all the restored images in a bound volume — which also makes a lovely gift for family members in some of those snaps.