Digitizing photos

GIMP is a digital photo editing program, so step one is to have your photos in digital form. Of course, any photos you take with your cell phone, or with most contemporary cameras, is already digital, so that is not a problem. But when my wife and I went on a trip to San Francisco in early 1979, or on our honeymoon in late 1979, or on our trip to England in 1981, we were shooting film. And we had even older photos than those that have meaning to us as our memories. Many of those old photos have problems which we would like to fix, and GIMP is a great tool for doing that. But first we have to get them into digital formats. There are a number of ways to do that.

Photo Services

If you have money and don’t want to tackle it yourself, you can always use a photo service. There are many such. A few years ago I retrieved the cache of home movies my father had shot over the years, and took the films to a local service to have them transferred to a DVD. I could then make copies with my DVD burner drive, and gave them to my Mom, brothers, and sisters as Christmas presents. Digitizing movie film was not something I wanted to take on, and the money it cost was well worth it in this case. But there is definitely a cost for this service. I went with the straight transfer option, no editing or retouching, and it cost me several hundreds of dollars. You can do the same thing for still photos, slides, and negatives, but you are trading money for time in that case.

TopTenReviews did a review what they considered the 6 best scanning services:

These recommendations are what TopTenReviews said about each service, not my personal experience, so I am just presenting this information as a service. And I did note on the GoPhoto site that they are merging with ScanCafe, so by the time you read this it might be the top 5 sites. And as for storage I plan to talk about that in the next tutorial.

In reviewing this list, I noticed it is entirely US-centric, but that may simply be Google only showing me what it thinks I want. In other countries try something like “Best photo scanning service” if you want to go in this direction. But the general rule is that you are spending money to avoid spending time and effort if you use a service.

Scanning at home

When you have more time than money the best option is to scan at home, and you have a number of options here. Some of the options use equipment you may already have, and others can use inexpensive equipment. Now I want to stress that I’m talking about options on the home hobbyist level. I have no doubt that the sort of person who does photo shoots with thousands of dollars worth of equipment would not be interested in these solutions. I am addressing the person who may have a few albums of old photos, or even an old shoe box full of photos, and who wants to preserve them and maybe share them with family and friends. You can really do this inexpensively, and in some cases for free if you already have the equipment. I’m going to look at solutions based on the media: prints, slides, and negatives. In most cases, the output will be JPEG photos, but for most purposes this is good enough, particularly if we are talking about photos a few decades or more old. My photos with my wife go back to the late 1970s, for instance, and the quality is a lot less than what I can get now on my Pixel 3a phone. But they are still important to us.


This is the easiest of all, because you likely have some of the equipment already. First option is your cellphone. There is a good app available from Google for both Android and iPhone devices called Photoscan by Google Photos. There is a review by PC Magazine you can look at, but it is pretty simple. And there are other options as well, such as Snapseed, Instagram, and Evernote. And the nice thing is that this is not limited to photographs. Back when this mattered to me, I scanned in my stack of business cards using the Evernote app so that I could store them digitally and be less cluttered. And you could use this to scan in postcards, ticket stubs, or any other memorabilia. With the higher quality of cameras in smart phones and the improved software, this may be all anyone needs. And since most people have a smart phone these days, it makes sense to try this first.

The other main option for prints and related is of course a flatbed scanner. While these can be expensive in some cases, the kind you might have at home does a decent job, and they can be had for about $100 here. They can also, in some cases, scan negatives, but I have to say my experience with this has not been very good. If you have a scanner that can do this you can of course try it out and see what you get.

Slides and Negatives

We have a lot of slides. Most of the photos from our honeymoon, for instance are slides, and I remember that early on my Christmas present for my wife was a slide projector. But the slides got put into trays and stored away in a closet and haven’t been seen in decades. The problem with digitizing slides is that you really need some equipment to do it. Again, I have seen some flatbed scanners with “slide attachments” that should scan them, but my experience has not been good with that. You could spend a lot of money for professional grade equipment, but for the home hobbyist there some very affordable options that produce decent results. And the nice thing is that they all let you digitize negatives as well as slides. Once again, TopTenReviews put together a nice roundup.

  • Wolverine Titan 8-in-1: Best slide to digital image converter overall ($150)
  • Digitnow Film Scanner: Best value converter ($50)
  • Sharper Image Slide and Negative converter: Most portable option ($100)
  • Kodak Scanza: Largest storage option ($160)

The prices quoted are from Amazon as of the day I write this, and may have changed by the time you read this. And as before, the recommendations about each one are what TopTenReviews said about them. For my money, the sweet spot is the choice between Wolverine and Kodak, and I have seen a number of reviews of the two of them head-to-head. The one I have is the Kodak Scanza, and I like it, though I have no doubt the Wolverine is a fine product, and the reviews all say so. I think I got the Scanza on sale a few years back. It works well with a variety of formats, including 35mm, 126, 110, Slide and negatives. It comes with a variety of plastic trays into which the film is loaded, and you move the slide into position manually and scan in the image. The photos are saved as JPEG images, and stored on an SD card (not included). The interface can be set for a variety of languages, and as you move the tray through the device you can see the image and line it up the way you want. Of course, I plan to do the real editing in GIMP, but it is nice that you can start with a well-framed image. And one feature that is nice is that you can flip the image either horizontally or vertically. Yes, GIMP can do that perfectly well, but it is nice to have that feature. In my case, I have an inexpensive card reader with a USB plug and that is how I get the photos into my computer.

So the bottom line is that digitizing photos does not need to be really difficult or very expensive. The only expense I had that I would not otherwise have is buying the Scanza. I would have my Pixel 3a in any case, and scanning photos is just a bonus. But once you have scanned in your photos, however you do it, you need to consider storage, safety, and related workflow issues, and that is the topic for the next tutorial.

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