Tips from a pro: Digitize your family photo albums

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By Nanci Dixon
When we cleared out our house to begin our full-time journey, one of the hardest things we had to do was leaving behind the mammoth number of family photo albums. After they languished in a storage locker for two years I did a “what if” measure of just taking cell phone camera photos of the most important pages in the albums “just in case.”

That actually worked pretty well, even through the acetate. I set up in a shady area, under the awning so the sky didn’t cause reflections, hand held my phone and snapped away. Since I didn’t do all of the pages or all of the photos, I had enough memory on my phone to keep them. We have thoroughly enjoyed scrolling through them the last couple of years.

Now, the storage unit is gone and I know my sister wants all those containers moved out of her house. Time to do it again…

This time I set up a better system to record the photos. Bought a small, cheap copy stand on Amazon (this one) to hold the phone steady in a down position. I love this stand! It will also hold the phone vertically like a mini tripod. It can also be used for group selfies, timed or long exposures, video or Zoom calls.

There are a couple of ways to easily record the images…

The simplest is just setting the camera up horizontally near a window, adding a white card to bounce light back from the window into the photo and then snap away. Remember to get a height that will allow slightly different photo sizes without changing your setup and far enough away that it can autofocus.

A good idea is to take a few shots and then look at them while enlarging some areas to see the focus and exposure.

Only slightly more complex is adding lights. Considering the number of photos and the time to record all of them, I wanted to only do it once. So I bought a pair of small, foldable, inexpensive LED, dimmable lights, again from Amazon, to put on each side of the copy stand. That keeps the amount and the color of the light consistent from one photo to another.

I found that the most accurate method was using a medium-gray surface to put the photo on. All cameras, even cell phone cameras, average the exposure to a neutral 15% gray. If the camera was determining the exposure for a light photo, for example a light shot on snow, it would make the snow scene darker, averaging to a gray tone. If it was a dark scene the camera would make the exposure lighter. Having a medium-gray surrounding the photo helps neutralize that.

I add the lights to each side of the photo at the same distance apart, skimming over the image rather than hitting it directly, checked for glare, and let the very sophisticated cell camera determine exposure, color balance and speed.

I went through extensive testing with apps that allowed me to choose exposure, speed, color balance, and ISO manually before deciding it worked just as well to let the camera do the work instead of me.

My camera automatically downloaded the images to my computer and I later backed them up to a hard drive. Moving the images to a flash drive would work too.

Now my son will be the proud owner of all those crates of albums – of course, only until he wants them gone too. And if disaster should strike, we now have our family memories digitally saved.

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Tom S.
3 months ago

Before going full time 4 years ago, I went digital too. My primary tool continues to be a Fujitsu ScanSnap scanner. It easily scans a pile of pictures at one time. Along with a flatbed scanner and my phone for larger items, all our pictures and paperwork are now digital. One thing I did to make sure I can get the physical back was to have a few digital pictures printed. Some of them, in particular the black and white pictures from my mother’s childhood, came back better than the originals.

Michael L. Logan
3 months ago

Just now having my old 8mm film converted to digital format. Sent off the film to a company in Arizona to be converted. 7 reels costing about $110.00 for old film of my racing in a Corvair.

Jane
3 months ago

Photomyne app is an excellent way to save photos. It allows you to take the photos while still in the album and covered with the plastic sheeting. I managed to start saving all my albums early and had them up to the year 2007 before the fire in Paradise, Ca in 2017 burned our home to the ground and everything in it, including all the rest of my albums. I still have all those other years so I feel fortunate!

Maggieon
3 months ago

Great tips. I’ve been using my ipad and the Photomyne app to scan old photos, then transfer them to a digital frame. It feels so good to discard those clunky photo albums. The digital photos are stored on my ipad and in the digital frame.

Ron T
3 months ago

For the last fifteen years or so all our photos have been “Born Digital.” So copies of them are on the laptop and a 2TB hard drive. For all those older images, we have a letter-size flatbed scanner with a built-in 35mm negative reader and I started last winter scanning all my saved negatives and prints (when I can’t find the negs) and they join those on the laptop and hard drive. It’ll take another winter or two do finish this project.

Keith
3 months ago

Interestingly enough I was just downsizing my 5th wheel to get ready to venture back out into the tall and uncut and was wondering what to do with three large photo albums full of old camping pictures, pictures of the family and old pictures of family and friends of the family now long gone.
When this article popped up! What a timely article on just what I need to do!
Now I can make cd’s of all these pictures and use them as Christmas gifts for the family.

wanderer
3 months ago
Reply to  Keith

This is the key; make copies for family and that way they exist in different locations, so no chance of losing them all in a flood, etc. No point in doing all that scanning and then keeping the goods all in one building.

I would, however, use thumb drives to record the items on, at least for the under-50 family members. Many of them do not have a CD drive any more.