Photo and scanning tips

The quality of the photos and scans you upload to Show & Tell is very important because it usually determines the quality of the feedback you’ll get about your items. For this reason, we occasionally delete items whose photos or scans are too blurry, dark, or small to see.

Photo Tips

  • Know your camera. Whether it’s the camera in your smartphone or a stand-alone digital camera, we suggest you get comfortable with it before your start uploading so you can fully take advantage of its capabilities.
  • Take multiple shots. Having multiple photos to choose from means you are more likely to find at least one or two good ones to upload. Be sure to include at least one photo of the entire item, not just four details or close-ups. Examples of close-ups include key features like a manufacturer’s mark or a design detail. If an item has accessories, get separate shots of those, too. And even though Show & Tell limits you to four images per item, you are free to post a second “Part Two” Show & Tell if additional detail photos are required.
  • Framing and angles. When shooting, fill the frame with each item, or crop your photo later to get rid of distracting backgrounds. Experiment with different camera angles (above, side, head-on, etc.). Keep your item centered if possible.
  • Take advantage of your camera’s settings. Examples of settings include the one that removes the date from the front of your photo and the “macro” setting (usually an icon showing a flower) for close-ups.
  • Avoid shaking. If your camera does not have built-in image-stabilization capabilities, use a tripod.
  • About backgrounds. Use uncluttered, neutral-colored backgrounds. White or light-colored backgrounds are best, patterned ones are the worst. Try a bath towel or solid-colored sheet to create a smooth, studio-like backdrop. Use the same background for all your items if possible.
  • About lighting. Focus as much diffuse (indirect) light onto your subject as possible. Don’t use a direct flash, which can wash out colors and cast harsh shadows. When outdoors, shoot in the shade in the morning or evening to avoid harsh midday sunlight. Indoors, let in natural light by opening blinds and curtains. You may want to bring additional lights into the room, perhaps even placing a lamp to one side of your item. Try using a white poster board alongside your item to reflect light into shadowed areas. Finally, don’t block light sources, which will cast shadows of your body onto your item, and don’t shoot into the light, which will create a silhouette effect around it.
  • About file formats and uploading. We accept jpg, gif, and png files of just about any size, but if you are trying to upload a large file (more than 1MB) on a slow connection, the upload might time-out. Users on slow connections should change the dpi (dots-per-inch) of their photos from 300 to 72 to reduce their size. You can also reduce a file’s size by cutting the maximum height or width of your photo to 800 pixels (that’s more than 11 inches, which is plenty big).
  • About third-party images. It’s fine to upload an image that helps tell the story of your item (for example, a scan of your item reproduced in an old magazine ad or catalog), but please make sure you have the right to share the image with us before doing so. We take complaints about unauthorized use seriously, and will delete items that are being posted on our site without permission.
  • Rotate your photos. After the shoot, be sure to rotate your photos if needed so they appear right-side up. Images shot with a smartphone or tablet sometimes do not appear properly rotated on our site, so you may want to download photos to your desktop computer first and then rotate them using your computer’s photo-editing software before uploading.

Scanning Tips

  • Choosing a scanner. For most collectible paper (vintage magazine ads, documents, photos, postcards, etc.), you’ll want a good flatbed scanner with at least 1200 dpi (optical, not interpolated) resolution. High-quality flatbed scanners often include built-in slide or negative scanning capabilities.
  • Go slow. Don’t scan your entire collection in one week. You don’t want to have to rescan everything later if you made a mistake on the settings, so start slowly with smaller projects until you get comfortable with the software and techniques.
  • Get the right software. Scanners often come with basic software to provide the minimum set of scanning capabilities, but more robust third-party programs are also available. In general, it’s fine to start with the free software that comes with the scanner—you’ll figure out soon enough if it’s right for you.
  • Scanning resolution versus file size. One big decision is how much detail to capture, as measured in dpi. The higher the resolution, the bigger the files. On the one hand, you don’t want to have to rescan for higher quality five years from now, so you might as well max out the dpi. That said, much vintage paper was only printed at a certain resolution anyway, so scanning at higher dpi may be overkill. In general, scan photos at 300 to 600 dpi and printed materials (lithographs or letterpress items) at 150 dpi to 300 dpi.
  • File formats and settings. There are three basic scanning modes: color, grayscale, and black and white. If your paper is in color, scan it in color. Anything with black-and-white halftones (e.g., engravings), scan as grayscale. If the document is text only, scan as black and white. The most common file formats for scanned material are jpg, gif, tif, and png. For text or line drawings, use gif, tif, or png. For photos, use jpg or tif, but be sure to set the jpg quality to high or even maximum (jpg is a compressed format, tif is uncompressed). To test the quality of your scan, view your file both on screen and printed out. You probably won’t do this again, so take the time to get it right.
  • Handling originals. Old paper can be fragile, so part of the art of scanning is handling it with care. For example, think twice before you crack the spine of a book to get a page to lay flat on the scanner bed (if you have multiple copies or if it’s not a rare book, then it may be worth the sacrifice to get a good scan, but when in doubt, never damage an original).
  • Saving and backing up. Keep your raw scan files in a safe place—edit from copies only—and be sure to back them up.
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