Genealogy Crime Series #1: Scanning Photos

by JL Beeken on 7-29-2013

People generally think that not citing your sources is the worst genealogical crime in existence. It isn’t. The worst crime, IMO, is scanning photos at their original size and saving them as JPG.

With source citations there’s always a chance you might get better at it. With photos it’s often a case of having only one chance because of distance or photo fungus or something else.

I see this photo scanning crime every single day and and I’m trying to learn to control my visceral reaction to it but without success.

I imagine in another 5 years or so, when people are more aware than they are now, there’s going to be a great global wailing. Tens of thousands will wake up at once and say, Oh MY GOD What did I DOOOO to the family photos? Why didn’t someone TELLLLL me?

Well, that’s me. I’m telling you.

Why Not JPG

JPG is useful for uploading to the web or was, back in the day, making photos small enough to send by email before there was such a thing as Dropbox, Google Drive and a million other ways to share photos besides email. Or small enough to cram into storage, back in the day when people were using 10GB hard-drives.

JPG uses ‘lossy’ compression which means every time you edit and re-save a photo the quality is diminished. The quality is already diminished just by the fact that it’s a JPG.

Most old photos need a touch-up if only a crop, straighten and one-click color correction. Some photos need hours of editing which means you’ll be saving and re-saving repeatedly.

A lot of people don’t seem to have a clue that editing of any kind is even a possibility but that’s OK. If you can scan them correctly, someone else will have an opportunity in the future.

Scan Large

Scan your photos larger than the original size. For the upteenth 4×6 of my nephew from 1983 I usually go for around 3,000 pixels wide so it, at least, fills my screen for viewing.

You can either change the Target Size:

Target Size, Scanning Photos

Or, you can change the Resolution.

Resolution, Scanning Photos

Or, you can change both. Without having to understand what all this means exactly, the point is BIGGER.

After I draw my cursor around the photo in the scanning preview, I look at the bottom of the Preview window.

Output Size, Scanning Photos

Let this be your guide. It’s telling you the output size of your scanned photo. This is Epson software but whatever you’re using should give you these basics.

I don’t scan anything less than 3,000 pixels wide. What you’re after here is pixels. You’ll probably have to scan a 1″x1″ original at 2400 dpi Resolution to get a decent size out of it. Or keep your Resolution lower (say, 300) and make your Target Size much larger.

Think pixels

You can’t cheat pixels. A pixel is a pixel. If you scan a photo 200 pixels wide, that’s what you’ve got. You can’t change it later. Think about pixels relative to the size of your monitor. How big is your monitor in pixels? Mine is 1280 x 1024. Your widescreen may be 1280 x 1422.

I’ve seen ancestor photos 30 pixels wide because someone scanned a 4×6 at original size and then cropped someone’s tiny head out of it. That’s it. The only photo of that person in existence and it’s 30 pixels wide.

How Not To Scan a Photo

It can’t be made any bigger without turning it into a blurry mess because there AREN’T ENOUGH PIXELS.

When I asked someone at Find A Grave the other day to please upload larger pictures, she told me I could make them larger after I download them. NO, I CAN’T.

Any photos you might want to reprint, scan them even bigger than 3,000 pixels. Photos print at much smaller size than what you see on your monitor.

Save as TIFF

Save them in a ‘loseless’ format, i.e. TIF or TIFF (same thing)

If you’re about to say that your scanner can only save as JPG, that means you’re using the cheap scanning software that came bundled with your scanner.

Don’t.

Go get XnView (for free), turn your scanner on, connect to your scanner using File/Import TWAIN source and choosing your scanner.

Import Scanner, XnView

Then carry on with the Acquire Into button. You can choose here where you want the scans to go, how you want them named and what file format to save them in.

Batch Scanning, XnView

In XnView you can choose virtually any file format. Choose TIF/TIFF and then No Compression under Options. It’s probably on by default anyway.

Do NOT edit your original scans. Make copies and work on those. You know, right-click a photo, copy and paste.

When you do want them as JPG for, say, email or the web, you can make JPG copies by simpy re-saving your TIFF files as JPG. That way you’ve got both for all purposes. And XnView can do that, too, in batch mode.

No excuses. Scan large. Save as TIFF.

Tips For Scanning Photos

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Geoff Coupe 8-09-2013 at 1:29 PM

JL, very useful post – thank you. I’ve just come across a blog post on the Library of Congress web site discussing the same issue: http://blogs.loc.gov/digitalpreservation/2013/07/you-say-you-want-a-resolution-how-many-dpippi-is-too-much/

I think I found your post easier to comprehend…

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