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30 Sep 2021

How to digitise your photos: four ways to bring new life to old memories

Deal with bulging photo albums covering decades worth of birthdays, holidays, weddings and baby photos

Flicking through stacks of your old photographs can be a joy, but although it's fun to reminisce, the process of moving around boxes full of snaps can be tedious to say the least.

Based on the sheer number of old photographs you might have, you couldn't be blamed for feeling a little daunted by the idea of trying to organise them all, figuring out which to keep, or even trying to remember what year or where they were taken. But that's exactly why digitising your pictures can help.

Keep scrolling as we explore the best way to scan your snaps, how to future-proof your newly digitised pictures by storing them in the cloud and what you might be able to make with them next.

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Why should I digitise my old photos?

Thanks to the ever-improving machine-learning features of cloud services such as Google Photos (below) and Apple Photos, platforms can now give you an extra helping hand when it comes to tracking down a certain picture.

Many of these platforms now feature face recognition, automatically grouping photos based on the names and faces you label. Some can search within your pictures, recognising landmarks, animals and even written text. If you think of a picture in your collection that you'd like to rediscover, typing in a keyword will instantly filter your selection and make it easier to spot.

Meanwhile, in-built editing features make it a breeze to significantly improve the look of your old pictures without changing them irreparably, and virtual albums make it easy to sort pictures and share them with friends and family.

Four ways to digitise your photos

1. Try scanning your photos from home

Flatbed scanners, like the ones included with most all-in-one printers, are ideal for digitising printed photos. They can typically scan in the ideal resolution for reprinting or digital screens, and any dust and glare is minimised thanks to the scanner's design.

ScanSpeeder for Windows has a comprehensive free version, allowing you to scan multiple pictures at once (as many as will fit on your scanner). The software can automatically crop the edges and straighten the images, so you can power through piles of albums in no time at all.

On a Mac, the in-built Photos app offers similar functionality, or you can download a third-party alternative such as Photo Scan by Photomyne from the Mac App Store.

After you scan your photos so you have digital copies, we suggest uploading them to a cloud storage servce. This means you can access your snaps wherever you are in the world, have a digital copy in case the original photo goes missing and access and share your photos from all kinds of different devices.

If you're shopping for a machine that can print, copy and scan, check in with our expert guide on the top five best all-in-one printers for 2021. Otherwise, browse our full selection of printer reviews.

2. Buy a specialist photo scanner

If you think you'll have a lot of pictures to scan, it might be worth investing in a specialist photo scanning device.

Shop around and you'll see that most models cost between £100 and £200 - it's a bit of an investment but will help ensure you digitise your images in the best possible quality. One example is the £179 Doxie Go SE (below), a nifty portable scanner that runs wirelessly and saves photos to an SD card.

When scanning your images, bear in mind that it's helpful to keep all of your image files in one place - consider making a folder on your desktop so they're easy to find after a scanning session. Then when you need to upload your pictures anywhere, you can select and upload them in one batch.

3. Use a photo scanning app on your smartphone

You might have heard about iPhone or Android apps that let you 'scan' old photos using your phone's camera. Unfortunately, no phone apps we looked at will really give you the same quality, colour balance and finish as a flatbed scanner - they simply can't, due to the nature of phone cameras - but they can be helpful in a pinch.

If you're looking around for a free mobile scanning app, consider the following:

  • Microsoft Office Lens (available on iOS and Android) - hold your phone lens over a picture and this app will automatically capture, crop, straighten and upload it to Microsoft OneDrive, ready for access from your computer or another device.
  • Google PhotoScan (available on iOS and Android) - the app will ask you to take a picture of each corner of the image (to stop any glare from showing) and will then composite them together into a single image.

Scanning your own photos manually can be a time-consuming process, and the results can vary significantly depending on the quality of your phone's camera, the stability when taking the picture, and the lighting you have available. If future-proofing your archive of pictures is your concern, flatbed or professional scanning will always offer the best results.

4. Send your snaps away

If you don't feel confident scanning images yourself (or don't have time to scan), you can send your photos to a specialist photo scanning lab. You can find plenty of these companies online, with examples including Digitize Media and Vintage Photo Lab. Most scan your pictures in very high quality and return them to you along with your digitised files on a memory stick.

However, opting to send your snaps to a professional can prove very expensive. In fact, you can expect to spend anywhere between £80 and £150 to scan 500 photos. If you're on a tight budget, check in with smaller, local photo labs to see if they're able to offer a competing service.

Sharing your pictures with friends and family

Once you've got your images uploaded, you can start creating all kinds of new gifts or memories with them: virtual 'albums' let you group your pictures together and easily share a link with friends and family, or make a slideshow with a single click.

If you have a smart device with a display, such as the Google Nest or an Amazon Echo Show, you can set them up so that photos you digitise to your cloud provider are shown in rotation on those screens, too. Plus, if you have a Chromecast or Apple TV, you can beam your photos to the big screen.

Alternatively, you can create something physical: web services such as Moonpig and Touchnote allow you to create personalised cards and gifts with photos you upload - or you could even come full circle and print photobooks or photocopies to share with loved ones.

We've examined several online photobook services to see which options are the easiest to use. Our guide on the best photo album books has more details.

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Additional reporting by Tom Morgan.