I've been thinking a lot about family memories and legacy. My grandfather passed away recently and I've been going through boxes of family documents and memorabilia. This process actually started about a 18 months ago when my grandfather first became ill, since then and I've come across a treasure trove of memories. My grandparents traveled extensively throughout the world for my grandfather's work and in their guest bedroom closet we found boxes filled with thousands of slides from their journeys. Among my favorites are a photo of my grandparents sitting atop a camel in front of the great pyramids of Egypt. Another is of my grandfather dressed in a tuxedo at the Vatican. There were also slide carousels of family snapshots through the years and a number of photo albums.
Splitting up the slides photo albums between didn't seem fair. After all, how would you even go about playing slides today? We also noticed many of the photos already started to degrade with the years As the resident geek, I was charged with finding a way to preserve these memories and distribute them to the rest of our family. Digitizing was the only way to go.
I looked at a number of options for digitizing the slides and photos. It essentially boiled down to three options:
- Undertake the scanning work ourselves.
- Outsource the scanning to a local shop.
- Outsource the scanning to one of the many specialty scanning services advertised online.
Our first thought was to scan the slides ourselves. My uncle bought a fairly expensive automatic slide scanner for about $1,500 and set out to scan the slides. I took one of the wedding albums and set off with my flatbed USB scanner. Our thought was we could save money and time by scanning the photos ourselves since the turnaround for such a large batch of slides and photos was averaging two months at commercial shops. Our thought was we'd sell slide scanner for a little less than we paid for it and come out fairly cheap.
This was a mistake. First, we are not experts at this. Although my uncle is technically proficient, scanning even a few carousels of slides took lot of time and attention to manage and fiddle with the settings. The quality of the photos (likely due to the settings he choose) was not good. I scanned a wedding album using the flat bed USB scanner with no problem, but it was a miserable process and took me hours to scan at high resolution a few dozen photos. We quickly realized we would never finish this project if left to ourselves.
Moving on we started looking to outsource our scanning. Given the irreplaceable nature of the materials we were hesitant to ship the slides off to be scanned. While loss of a photo or slide can happen anywhere, we felt the risk of loss was lower at a smaller shop and the likelihood of finding and retrieving a lost image was higher when dealing with someone smaller and local. The downside of using a local photo store that performs scanning in-house rather than someone who outsources and scans in bulk is the price is going to be higher, though not necessarily prohibitively so.
Prices will vary by area, but for comparison, at the local shop individual slides cost $0.89 each to scan, but for anything more than 350 slides and the price came down to $0.59 each. For photos, a 600 dpi scan cost $1.00 for a single photo, but the price got as low as $0.50 for 500 or more photos.
We ended up having most of our slides, 3000 in total, scanned at the local shop. Turnaround time was about 6 weeks and in the end the slides were returned to us in the exact same condition as we dropped them off and nicely organized into corresponding folders based on the label of the individual slide carousels. The quality of the scans of course depended on the quality of the image but we were pleased.
After our initial batch of slide scanning we still had a few random photos in boxes and books and I found a Groupon for ScanDigital. ScanDigital is a California based company that specializes in digitization of family memories and will digitize photos, slides and negatives and video.
ScanDigital's normal pricing for scans is $0.48 for a 300 dpi photo scan or $0.68 for 600 dpi. Photos in albums and slides are a little more expensive. The goal here is to only scan once, so if you're going to the time and expense to have your memories digitized I strongly recommend opting for higher resolution. A general rule of thumb is a 300 dpi scan will allow you to duplicate that photo at the same size with minimal loss of quality. With 600 dpi you have room for enlargements.
My Groupon deal bought the price down even further so I figured I would give one of these bulk scanning services a try. I boxed up what I counted to be 230 individual photos of various sizes and mailed them of to ScanDigital for scanning. Their website was fairly user friendly to navigate and walked through the process of packing and sending the photos. They also have a tracking page detailing exactly where your order is in the process.
I counted 230 photos sent to ScanDigital, although they inventoried 229 for scanning. (I counted twice, but I guess it's possible my count was off.) The order took right at 30 days from the time ScanDigital received my package until they sent the original photos and data DVD with the scans back to me. The DVD arrived with 229 images at 600 dpi as ordered. As best I can tell they scanned all the photos I sent and I received all the photos I sent back, although I am still nervous about our counts being off by one.
With my Groupon deal and shipping, my total cost for 229 photos and shipping came to $95 and change. (Regular price without the Groupon would have been $155 plus $10 shipping.) By comparison, having the photos scanned locally would have cost me about $240 with tax. (For only 229 photos, the local shop charges $0.99 per scan.)
The image quality of the ScanDigital photos was fine. It's hard to compare one service quality to another since one shop scanned slides and another scanned photos of various quality. I was impressed that ScanDigital was able to scan photos of all sizes. While ScanDigital claims to offer "photo editing" including cropping, rotation, color correction and red-eye removal I found in practice their "photo editing" was limited to rotating the photo and applying a generic set of filters applied to the photos, similar to choosing the "enhance" button in iPhoto. Honestly, this was expected and is probably fine for the masses. But for me, perhaps it would have been better just left the photo alone since I ended up editing them all anyway.
Whether you do it yourself, choose a local shop or outsource the scanning to a big firm, digitizing the images is only half the job. I've found just about every image scanned had to be touched by me in some way. If the image was good quality usually a simple crop or straighten in iPhoto would be fine. It's amazing how much you can improve photos just with a little cropping and straightening. Due to age and normal deterioration many photos required additional work. Color correction and blemish removal was common. Some photos required a little extra care to repair damage. For this I did most of my work with the fabulous Pixelmator. For $15 I've more than gotten my money's worth out of this program.
At my grandfather's funeral I was able to put together a slideshow featuring about 200 of the newly digitized and enhanced photos for the family using FotoMagico, another wonderful application for displaying memories. I also was able to burn DVDs of all the images to share with the entire family, no more fighting over slide carousels or photo books, everyone had a copy of their own.
I have a couple pieces of advice for someone looking to tackle this type of project based on what I've learned:
- Start sooner rather than later. Starting 18 months ago meant I had the project basically completed and was able to finish it and prepare a video tribute that included these photos at my grandfather's funeral. Still, I wish we did this years ago. If so, I could have asked him why he was standing in front of the Vatican wearing a tuxedo.
- Spend the money to have the digitization done professionally, you'll be spending plenty of time editing the photos later. Perhaps you can get the family to chip in once they realize you'll all be able to reap the rewards from the venture.
- Inventory everything you have and research your options. You generally get much better pricing when you digitize in bulk.
- All things considered, I would spend a few extra bucks to keep things local peace of mind. Just check with the local shop to make they've got the proper equipment and specifications to do this appropriately and they're digitizing locally and not just shipping your items off and up-charging you.
- The higher resolution the better. You hope to only do this once, make it count.
- iPhoto is great for simple crops and rotation, but not for more complex edits. Invest in some better photo editing software. Pixelmator for $15 is my choice and they have extensive online tutorials. There are other options like Acorn, Photoshop Elements and Aperture are worth considering
- Backup, Backup, Backup! At every stage of this process. Backup or archive the original scans you receive, as well when you make edits and the finished photos. These are some of the most precious memories you have on your computer. I recommend a combination of local and off-site backup for redundancy.
In the end, it's been about a hundred hours and a couple thousand dollars in total but we're nearly complete with the process of digitizing all our family memories. It was a labor of love, but well worth it.
This article first appeared in the July Issue of ScreencastsOnline Monthly Magazine. ScreenCastsOnline monthly magazine is packed with hints, tips, articles and links to streamable versions of ScreenCastsOnline tutorials and delivered monthly via Newsstand on the iPad. You can find out more at http://www.screencastsonline.com/magazine/