Scanning Photographs in 2022

photograph collage

The Inspiration

On the latest episode of one of my favorite podcasts, Reconcilable Differences, John Siracusa explained his latest project where he was scanning old photographs. He recently acquired a new multi-function printer and while testing the quality of the scanner stumbled upon an in-depth project. That got me thinking, ”this sounds like something I might want to do.” John goes on to detail his process and all the drawbacks up to the point of questioning why he is even undertaking this large task.

What’s My Purpose

As a once professional and hobbyist photographer I’ve been taking digital photos since 2002 and have amassed an iCloud Photo Library in excess of 50,000 images. That being said, I do posses some non-digital photographs that I’d like to preserve longer than I feel that I can take care of printed images. For a graduation present, my mother made me a scrapbook of my life thus far through photographs. This is a priceless keepsake that unfortunetly uses original photographs. Again for my 30th birthday she flexed her creative muscles again by making a photo board of more pictures from my first 30 years. She used about 30 original photos on this board and I’ve kept the board around since, because I wanted to keep the photographs it contained. This board was the perfect starting point to test drive a scanning project similar to John’s.

Dots & Inches

Unlike Mr. Siracusa, I no longer had a multi-function printer with a scanner in my house. I took to the internet to find a scanner that would meet my needs as well as not take up a ton of room. I didn’t need an all-in-one scanner/printer/copier as I was already using an inkjet and laser printer for my needs. There’s a market for portable and small document scanners that a lot of people use for receipts, documents, and business cards. This was my focus as the footprint felt right to me. Because I wanted to do this once and not again when the technology gets better, I wanted to get a scanner with the best image quality. Most scanners available today feature a 300dpi scanner which is good, but not the great quality that I wanted. My aim was for 1200dpi to make the photos look well on the high density displays I have. I settled on the Brother MDS-1200 top feed document scanner. It features a 1200dpi (interpolated) scanning sensor and was just at the price point I was willing to spend.

Brother ADS-1200

Ordering from Amazon, I had it within a couple days. Setup was easy and I was scanning photos moments later. I started with some of the photos off the 30th birthday board I had in my basement. Carefully peeling the photos off the cardboard backing I had to clean up some of them so they fed through the scanner without issue. Originally I intended to use my iMac’s built-in software called Image Capture, but I quickly found that it would not allow me to use all the features of my scanner. Going to the Brother downloads site, I was able to get a driver for the scanner and then be directed to the Mac App Store to download their iPrint&Scan application. Suprisingly this application was modern and reliable for a printing/scanning app. I started scanning photographs at 1200dpi in the size of 5×7. Most of my photos were trimmed for creative purposes so they didn’t fit a certain size. Using 5×7 as opposed to 8.5×11 reduced the amount of cropping I had to do later.

Photographs in a Flash

After scanning a photo the Brother software asks what you would like to do with it. My final destitation for these is going to be my iCloud Photo Library so the software allowed me to ”Open in” Photos.app on my Mac. This process imported the scanned photo into my photo library and then backed it up to the cloud. After the import I was able to crop the excess off, color correct, mark the date and time, and geotag the photo if applicable. Start to finish, I could have a photo scanned and edited in about two minutes. This made the process really easy and fun to do. After about 10 photo scans I discovered a feature of the Brother software that will allow me to build a workflow where I wouldn’t have to set the same settings each scan and tell it to open in Photos. This cut the entire process in half. I was now able to essentially scan my photos directly into the Photos app, then go back and edit them after. Compared to a multi-function printer scanner, the Brother MDS-1200 was much faster and is advertised at 25 scanned pages per minute, and I believe it.

Quirks & Features

Of course no process is perfect so there were some quirks and accetable flaws I’m dealing with.

  • The printer has no networking capability, so it needs to stay attached to my computer via USB.
  • Tiny sized photos (less than 2in x 2in) aren’t detected by the scanner and thus won’t be fed through. Attaching several tiny photos to a piece of paper was an easy fix for this.
  • If your source material (the physical photograph) is not good quality, the scan won’t be of good quality.
  • Sometimes the scanner can skip and create a digital ripple in the scan. This didn’t happen very often, but I learned to check for it and re-feed if necessary.
  • Because I chose a feeder-based scanner, it can add scracthes to the photo if there are any particles on the print. This in turn can create scratches on the scanned image. I had a bunch of these but they don’t necessarily detract from the image and if I care that much can be removed quickly in Photoshop.

It’s not all negatives, there are a lot of positives too!

  • This scanner is fast. It’s faster than any high dpi scanner I’ve used before. There’s no waiting for the scanning light to rewind like on a flatbed scanner.
  • It’s quiet too. No loud motor mechanism like you hear on some flatbed scanners.
  • Easy setup, no driver issues, and reliable USB connection.
  • Easily adjustable guides to feed different sized images and paper straight into the scanner.
  • Tiny footprint. It’s taking up less room on my desk than my pen holders.

The Photographs App

As a photographer, I have experience with importing a bunch of photos into Lightroom, reject the bad ones, edit them, apply presets, then export. I could have done all of that, but I wanted to see how quick and easy I could make this process. Plus the added benefit of importing directly into my iCloud while applying geotags and date information compelled me. One pain point with Photos I had that I quickly fixed was having to reach up to the menubar and select Image > Adjust Date and Time… as there is no default keyboard shortcut for that. I added a custom keyboard shortcut to make this easier and not have to leave the photos area.

Here’s my workflow in Photos after import, with the keyboard shortcuts I used:

  1. C
    enter crop mode, adjust crop
  2. return
    exit crop/edit mode
  3. ⌘+E
    Auto-enhance
  4. ⌥+D
    Adjust Date and Time…
  5. ⌘+I
    bring up info pane
    1. Add Location (if applicable)
Scanned photograph taken in the late-80s

What’s Next

Now that my birthday board is complete and some other random photos, I’ve done about 55 individual scans. The next phase will be my graduation scrapbook. Additionally my wife has hundreds of photographs from her childhood that will be getting the same treatment. With that collection we’ll be selecting the best photos to scan and not painstakingly scan each and every photograph.

The added bonus of having a capable document scanner around is that tax time becomes a little easier. I won’t have to use my iPhone to take simulated scans of any forms I need to digitize. Additionally, I can use this new device to aid in my quest to be paperless by scanning in receipts, documentation, or letters I wish to keep. You could say that I’m helping the environment in many ways by undertaking a project like this. I’ll try not to strain myself while I pat myself on the back.