Scanning Tips For Photos and Paper

Want to display, share and make electronic copies of paper items in your collection? Scanning is a great way to get more enjoyment out of your old paper. But it takes time and there’s a lot to learn, so here’s some tips to consider before getting started:

  • Take time to learn - don’t scan your entire collection in one week. You don’t want to have to re-scan everything later, so start slowly with smaller projects until you get comfortable with the various settings, software programs, and techniques. Talk to other collectors and get their advice.
  • Get the right scanner. For most paper, you’ll want a good flatbed scanner, with at least 1200 dpi (optical, not interpolated) resolution. High quality flatbed scanners have gotten very cheap and often include built-in slide or negative scanning capability. Invest in quality - you’ll be spending a lot of time with this equipment!
  • Get the right software. Scanners often come with basic software (to provide the minimum set of scanning capabilities) plus a separate image-editing application. Or you can use a third party image-editing program of your choosing. Choose your software based on desired capabilities, ease of use, and price. Ask a friend for advice or start by trying the free software that came with the scanner. You’ll figure out fast enough what you like and don’t like.
  • Understand the tradeoff between scanning resolution and file size. One big decision is how much detail to capture (measure in 'dpi' or dots-per-inch). The higher the resolution, the bigger the files. But computer storage is getting cheaper by the day, and you don’t want to have to re-scan for higher quality five years from now. That said, much vintage paper was only printed at a certain resolution anyway, so scanning at higher dpi may be overkill. Find your own middle ground, depending on the specifics of what you’re scanning. Scan photos at a minimum of 300 dpi and ideally 600dpi or higher. Scan printed material (lithograph or letterpress) at a minimum of 150 dpi and ideally 300dpi or higher.
  • Understand document types and their corresponding file formats and settings. There are three basic scanning 'modes': color, grayscale, and black and white. Anything color, scan in color. Anything with black and white halftones (e.g. engravings), scan as grayscale. Text only, scan as black and white. The most common file formats for scanned material are JPEG (.JPG), GIF, TIF, and PNG. For text or line drawings, use GIF, TIF or PNG. For photos use JPEG or TIF, but make sure to set the JPEG quality to high or even maximum (JPEG is a compressed format and will otherwise compress your images too much). Purists may want to use TIF, which is uncompressed.
  • Test, test, and test your settings. Before you scan your whole collection, do a lot of testing to make sure you’ll get the results you want. View the scanned image on your screen - zoom in to check the resolution. How does it look? Try making large-format prints, either on a home printer or by uploading to a print-by-mail service. Assume that a few years from now, computer displays will be much bigger - will your current output be high enough quality?
  • Be careful not to damage your originals. Old paper can be fragile, and part of the art of scanning is handling with care. Beware of the spine with books or booklets: you’ll have to trade off scan quality with how much pressure you want to apply to get it flat on the scanner. If you have multiple copies or it’s not a rare piece, you may decide to cut the spine to get a high quality scan. But if in doubt - don’t damage the original.
  • Save and backup your raw scan files. Keep your raw scan files (edit from copies only, not the originals) and organize them into folders, especially for large projects. Be sure to backup your image files onto CD or DVD, and store them in a different location - you’ve got a lot of time invested in those files!
  • Learn about PDFs. Once you’ve scanned your paper items, you can display them as images on web pages or a CD-ROM. You may also want to make PDFs, a popular file format for sharing and displaying old paper. This requires purchasing software that can create PDFs, either from Adobe or another publisher (Acrobat Reader is free however for reading PDFs). You’ll need to experiment with settings and make decisions about file sizes here as well. PDFs can also be text searchable if you use optical character recognition (OCR) software to convert your scans into text.
  • Miscellaneous tips. Consider adding extra memory to your PC to speed the scanning process and to make it easier to work with large images. And don’t pour liquid on your scanner’s glass to clean it - just use a slightly dampened cotton cloth.