How To Digitize Pictures: A Practical Guide

How To Digitize Pictures: A Practical Guide

My father (middle) early in his career on a shoot in Brazil

My father early in his career on a shoot in Brazil


Our downsizing journey was honestly so much easier and more enjoyable than I ever could have imagined it to be. Without too much effort we were able to get rid of approximately 95% of our worldly belongings. There was one impending task that filled me with dread though: what to do with nearly 10,000 printed photos. My father was a professional photographer and I was taught that photos are not only an art form but in many ways, sacred. So when I imagined myself getting rid of them, I wasn’t too confident that lightning wasn’t going to drop from the sky and jolt me.

One thing that I’ve learned about downsizing is that honesty with oneself is key. Yes, I knew that I really “should” get rid of the boxes of photos I’d dragged around for decades, but I made a deal with myself: if I realized that I just couldn’t go through downsizing my images for whatever reason, I would allow myself to keep whatever photos I wanted in hard copy. After all, I had joyfully and willingly gotten rid of pretty much everything else, so I figured I’d earned the “right” to hang on to three boxes. Giving myself this emergency exit before even starting allowed me to go into the process without any fear.

A small sampling of how many images I had accumulated over the years

The first order of business was to sort through all the images and decide what I wanted to keep/scan and what I wanted to throw away. This process took me several different sittings as the sheer volume of photos was significant. Fortunately, I switched to digital around 2006 so the last nine years I’ve been happily clicking away and storing images on my computer and hard drive. Had it not been for that, my total of images would have been in the 25,000 range.

One observation I made early on that helped me immensely in my extreme photo diet was that I had major redundancies in my collection. Each vacation or event that I had documented was represented by 20+ images. I really didn’t need that many snapshots of each event so just by being super selective, I was able to whittle down my piles by about 75%.

The remaining images proved to be more challenging to thin out. I had a goal of keeping just 1,000 photos when it was all said and done. That seemed like a reasonable amount of snapshots to represent my life, family, friendships, places I’d lived and trips I’d taken. The remaining couple thousand images were much slower to go through but by being ruthlessly selective, I was able to reach my 1k goal.

The ImageBox 9MP Stand Alone Digitizer

The ImageBox 9MP Stand Alone Digitizer

I placed all of the discarded images in boxes and closed them up, but didn’t throw them out. I gave myself 4 weeks to gauge whether I wanted to permanently get rid of them or to keep them. In the meantime, I got busy with digitizing my favorite 1,000 photos. To have a company professionally do that would have cost more than what I wanted to spend so I did research on consumer scanning solutions. In the end I went with the ImageBox 9MP StandAlone because it was reasonably priced ($125), it offered scanning for images, slides AND negatives, it was small and lightweight, and it was well reviewed.

All in all I have been very pleased with how the ImageBox has performed. Digitizing all 1,000 images only took me 12 or so hours. The process is very quick and easy and actually pretty fun. Now, a word about quality: this is not a professional scanner. There is a slight loss in quality from the original images to the digitized ones. I am willing to live with that loss in quality because for me, unlike my father, pictures are vehicles to trigger memories more than anything else. If you however really value the best quality possible in your images, you will want to look at getting your images professionally scanned.

Basic instructions on how to use the ImageBox:

1. Plug your unit in and insert an SD card (photo/video card does not come with the ImageBox). My 16GB SD card can hold thousands upon thousands of images, so it had more than enough room on it.

Digitizing images at touch of a button

Digitizing images at touch of a button

2. If you are scanning a photo, choose which size from the Menu function (3×5 or 4×6) and then move your slider below the display screen to Photo. Lift the top of the ImageBox lid and place your image upside down and back side up on top of the glass. Close the lid and press Scan. In 3 seconds, the ImageBox will take a 9MP photo of your image and store it onto your SD card. Lift cover and repeat for your other images. It helps to organize your images by size and by Color vs B&W. There is some basic light saturation fixes you can make in the ImageBox menu before scanning which saves time in post editing.

Negatives in tray inserted into negative slot

Negatives in tray inserted into negative slot

3. If you are scanning a negative, lift the cover and then take off the white plastic tab which allows for light from within the box to reach the slide/negative tray. Move the slider on the front to Film, adjust the Menu function to Negative, insert your negative into the negative tray and then slide the tray into the slot on the top of the ImageBox. Again, press Scan and in just 3 seconds you will end up with a digitized negative. With a negative strip, just slide down each image within the slot until you’ve digitized each negative in that strip.

4. For scanning a slide, insert your slides into the slide tray and again insert it into the slot in the ImageBox lid. Change your selection to Positive in the Menu and press Scan.

5. When you are done scanning your images, go ahead an dump the footage from your SD card onto your computer. I have a simple multi card reader that can decode a few different digital card types and sizes. Do check as you are starting out with digitizing to make sure that the images are making it onto the card and that there aren’t any modifications you need to make within the ImageBox Menu in terms of quality.

That’s all there is to it. As I said, I would recommend this to those that want to digitize their images and can deal with a slight loss in quality. It is quick and easy to use. It feels amazing to have all of my very favorite photos now archived and in a stable format that isn’t going to degrade in time (like many of my photos were doing). As a back up, I have all of my data stored on a hard drive which I update regularly. It’s been really fun to share many of the images with old friends and people I haven’t seen in years. For most of them, these are images that they have never seen before and having them out of a box and onto my computer has allowed me to easily distribute them.

And, if you are curious, in the end, I didn’t feel the need to keep all of the images in hard copy. We got rid of the 9,000 or so pictures by placing them in boxes and taking them to the city dump in our trash trailer. On the way, it rained and the boxes  became very wet. When we went to throw them out, one of the boxes broke open and hundreds of images went sliding out onto the trash ramp. Surprisingly there was no emotional discomfort at all and if anything I was humored at seeing my life in pictures scattered about for the world to see at the dump. As we drove away, no lightning bolts thundered down to punish me and today I have no regrets at all with the decisions that I made.

Digital Camera

Sample of a digitized black & white photo of my father (left) with a close friend setting up a show at a gallery

Digital Camera

Sample of a digitized slide. Picture is of Andrew in Senegal in his 20s

How about you? How do you deal with your photos?


Want to learn more about tiny house living and how to build a tiny house? Want to do so for FREE? Sign up for our totally free 7 Day Tiny House eCourse! Find out more HERE.

21 Responses to How To Digitize Pictures: A Practical Guide

  1. Rudy July 15, 2015 at 11:29 am #

    I would like to encourage you to have multiple digital back ups. Digital storage is far from truly stable as many things can happen to storage media from mechanical issues with a hard drive to degradation of the coatings of hard drive platters. I know digital is being sold as the ultimate thing but consider the likelihood that a printed picture may last a hundred years can you really rely that to be true for an electronic device?

    • Gabriella July 15, 2015 at 3:29 pm #

      Thank you Rudy!! Interesting to hear that. I for sure have considered digital to be a very stable medium. I’m actually planning on putting the images on another digital storage device (right now they are on my computer and a hard drive) and storing it off site from where we live. Putting them on the cloud doesn’t feel like a great option since I have over 200GB in digital images. I figure there is always going to be technology that bridges one innovation to the next so I’ll always make sure that everything I’m storing digitally makes that jump.

      • Joy July 15, 2015 at 7:14 pm #

        FYI – you might want to consider DropBox – $99 a year for 1TB of storage. It’s a great option.

      • Bob July 16, 2015 at 5:26 am #

        I already have a Google account (gmail) so already have 15GB of free document storage. Don’t store photos there though since I prefer to upload at full resolution rather than store the pics at slightly lower resolution to get the free unlimited storage there. Google Drive storage is a little more than Drop Box for 1TB at $119.88/yr. For photos I started using Flickr where I can store 1TB of full resolution pics for free.

  2. Gail July 15, 2015 at 11:31 am #

    Wow, Gabriella, this information is VERY helpful. Thank you for sharing the technical details, as well as the emotional ones.

    • Gabriella July 15, 2015 at 3:29 pm #

      So welcome Gail!

  3. Ginger July 15, 2015 at 12:31 pm #

    Thank you for sharing this. I have boxes upon boxes of photos of my own as well as the ones my parents had before they died. Like you, I have been taught to cherish photographs and cannot even get rid of one. I know I will digitize the vast majority of them, but I am just not sure I can throw any away…yet. This is my history, my life and the lives of my family. Having seen the display of photos at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC and knowing those photos were all that was left of the people in that particular town makes it even harder. You have more guts than I do.

    • Gabriella July 15, 2015 at 3:44 pm #

      Ginger, I totally hear you. I will say that I kept my grandparents’ photo albums (I was given two small ones) from when they lived in Germany. The albums were so beautiful. delicate, and masterfully put together in those days that there is no way I could throw them out after digitizing the pages on a flat bed scanner. My mother is in possession of my own childhood photos and someday I will digitize those album pages for archiving purposes and to stabilize the decrease in quality they are experiencing from film degradation. I doubt I will throw the albums out because my father put so much love and attention to putting those together. Also, I have amazing memories of leafing through those pages over the years and to not be able to sit with the albums on my lap would be really, really sad.

      You bring up an interesting point and it’s got me wondering: what will my kids think when they go back and look at their photos digitally? Will they miss them in print? My very strong suspicion is that since they are being raised in a digital age, that they won’t miss printed photos of their childhood. Our family tradition is that I create pretty intricate and love infused moving slide shows and home videos of the kids’ childhood photos and videos. For them, their memories will be of us sitting down and watching the home movies together. Whereas the photos in print were pretty much always just in boxes so they didn’t grow up looking through them.

      I think it’s so good for everyone to be really honest with their specific needs. I would encourage you to move through any process with photos with so much patience and curiosity and to only do what feels right for you! 🙂

  4. Allan July 16, 2015 at 4:45 am #

    As mentioned previously, digital isn’t as stable as many believe. I have a friend who is webmaster and another who is a librarian for a major organization. The webmaster warns me away from large thumb drives and such because of the risk of failure. Having a variety of smaller drives means losing less if the device fails. I just had an external drive die. Fortunately, I knew a professional who, with 48 hours, was able to retrieve much of the material – but not all. My material is saved to my laptop, my new external drive and some files are also on thumb drives.

    In addition to mechanical failure, consider loss by theft or fire. One back up isn’t enough.

    The other concern is how technology progresses and changes. This makes it difficult – or impossible – for new devices to access older files. For example, my current MacBook Pro can’t open files written in ClarisWorks, so I have to keep two older Macs. My librarian friend this is a quiet, major issue for her world: how will they access the past?

    Finally, with the actual photos, I would suggest people who are downsizing consider either offering them to family and friends or donating them to local museums. The images represent not just you and your family, but a moment in time. They can show how people lived, played, dressed, worked, what streetscapes looked like and so forth. This can have value later on for academics, municipal governments, and the general public. And there is the environmental aspect to taking them to a landfill – how long will it take for photographs to break down and what chemicals will be released into the ground water?

    • Bob July 16, 2015 at 5:49 am #

      Agree on the reliability of devices we all can plug into the computer. It is better than it used to be however. Making multiple copies is a very good suggestion. I work in the IT field. I keep an external disk with my primary backups in a fire safe. I have other means to recover the most important information with many sources to retrieve that. Allan mentioned about the issue with technology progress rendering many documents inaccessible due to being created with old programs no longer supported. One solution I use to reduce that is to use Libre Office. Used to be Open Office but after Oracle bought the original company who produced it they started talking of commercializing it. The original programers didn’t like that talk so split and started their own company called the Document Foundation and continued to improve Open Office, now called Libre Office. It is now better than the Oracle Open office and, in many ways, better than Microsoft Office. I have used it at work in recent years to open and convert Microsoft Works documents for our users (which Microsoft no longer will support). Libre Office also works on the old Word Pro and Ami Pro and Lotus 123 and even *Claris Works* documents from way back in the ’80s. It even knows the difference between Word Perfect and Works documents even though they have the same file extension (last 3 letters of file name on a Windows PC). Just a suggestion for those with older documents. Libre Office is free and can be downloaded for MS Windows, MAC, and Linux. Maybe that Librarian friend should look into this one. Sorry about promoting a product but this program is one way to minimize how many programs and computers (versions) you need to hang onto and downsize that so it seems to fit right in with what we all want here. Costs less (free) and allows you to do what you need with less (one program instead of 3-4 programs/computers). 🙂

      • SUSIE July 16, 2015 at 12:57 pm #

        Excellent post..Thanks for the info…

  5. ken July 16, 2015 at 5:05 am #

    Don’t they make a scanner where you would not have had to lift the lid and position the photo 1000 times? Ought to be some sort of auto feed.

    • Bob July 16, 2015 at 6:10 am #

      There are scanners that have multi-document auto feeders. But the majority of them are much larger (take up a lot of space). Most of them also require documents to be flexible enough to easily bend up to 180 degrees around a roller that is about 1/2 inch diameter or smaller, which could damage many photos, especially older photos, before they are even scanned. There is a price to pay for the convenience of not manually setting photos on the scanner bed or feeding photos straight in through the single feed slot. You must weigh the importance of the options available, the convenience vs saving space vs how often you would use the device after the initial push to downsize. Perhaps something to consider is to find a good auto feed scanner that won’t damage photos for the initial downsizing and then sell that bigger device and invest in a smaller one with manual feed for ongoing downsizing and space savings?

      • Perry October 16, 2015 at 12:35 pm #

        I digitized hundreds (thousands maybe?) of photos with a Fujitsu ScanSnap scanner. It has a auto document feeder that doesn’t bend the originals and comes with great software. I’ve also used it to archive reams of documents. It’s compact, and comes with great software. It was pricy, but I still consider it money well spent and still use it often.

        Also, my backup strategy is to have at least two local copies (one on my laptop and one on a local backup external drive) and one offsite cloud solution. I use Crashplan and it’s great. I’ve had hard disks fail as well, so knowing my backup has a backup is great peace of mind.

  6. George July 17, 2015 at 7:49 am #

    Possibly the best backup would be asking a reliable friend or family member to long term store the paper photos in a closet or other out of the way place in their home. Hey, it’s only 3 boxes. Just seal them and mark them with your name and indicate they should not be thrown out when they’re stumbled upon 15 years from now.

  7. Gayle July 22, 2015 at 8:56 am #

    Thanks for the original post and to all of you who commented. So much excellent information!

  8. Barbara September 14, 2015 at 2:47 am #

    For under $60 a year, Carbonite will AUTOMATICALLY backup your entire computer, with unlimited storage, and you can download the files to any computer. A neighbor recently lost her home and all contents to a fire, but could have restored her files easily if she’d had it, including a decade of family geneology records. I LOVE Carbonite! I don’t have to lift a finger to back up everything. Worth $5 a month? OH, yeah!

    • Gabriella September 16, 2015 at 8:46 pm #

      Thanks for the tip Barbara!!

  9. Melissa September 17, 2015 at 5:21 am #

    Thanks for sharing. My question is what do you do after you’ve scanned them? I want a system where I can tag the photos by who’s in it or where it was taken or what the occasion was and then be able to do a search for those photos. Any idea as to software that can do this? Thanks.

    • /bob September 17, 2015 at 7:31 am #

      I use the file name for that information. When you scan a photo you should be able to provide the file name before saving it. I include the date and who or what it is in the file name. Works best when you decide on a consistent format for the name and stick to it. Then I can search using any file search feature on any computer. If you put the date first in the format of year-month-day (all numerals such as 20150917- bob.jpg or 2015-09-15 bob.jpg) then you can sort by name and all the photos will sort by that in order, or if you put the primary person or event first in the name the list will sort that way. For the date you decide if you want the date scanned or the date the photo was taken if known (this makes more sense). If you don’t know the day then simply leave that part out. I sort all my dated files this way (starting with the date) including receipts or statements and any other dated files. I further sort dated files into folders for the year or month, like a folder name of “2015-09 Sept” for this month.

  10. How to unblock adobe flash player November 24, 2018 at 2:44 am #

    It’s easy to damage physical photos. Water damage, discoloration, and accidental tears are all legitimate concerns that could ruin your treasured photos forever. Digital photos allow you to correct blemishes, adjust white balance or lighting, or crop out things as needed.

Leave a Reply