This question was asked by a person on my Facebook page and I thought that it was so good that I am going to post it here so it doesn’t get deleted in time with Facebook.
I have many, many friends that are looking at the same problem, how do you go about getting digital files of old (pre digital) images?
Well first a couple things, don’t look at it as all one project as it will depress you to no end. Look at it as smaller projects. Say one month, or one album at a time. Second if at all possible do not digitize the prints, you see prints are actually second generation images. If you took them to a poor lab to get them printed you are digitizing the work they did, which a lot of times is a lot worse than the image could be printed. I have seen many images that were horrible (faded from poor chemicals when printed, too dark or light, or really bad color) and when we found the negatives the image was great, it looked so bad because of the lab that was used to print the images. If at all possible use the negatives. Second any images printed in the last 10 years were more than likely printed on a digital machine, what they did was to scan the negative and then print it using a laser writer. To the human eye as a 4×6 or 5×7 they look good, but when scanned and enlarged they look horrible. If you use the negative then you eliminate the scan lines.
So now what?
If you have prints (you cannot find the negatives so you are stuck with the prints) it is cheaper to go out and buy a good flat bed scanner and start scanning the prints yourself then to take them to anyone to do it – and yes I do this service but for a general photograph collection it is very expensive! A quick word of warning – scanner settings are very important, make sure before you do too many that you are doing them correctly and at a high enough resolution to be useful in the future! Scan large! It is no use to scan an entire collection then find out that you want to make 8×10’s but they are too low resolution to do that.
If you have negatives (and by this I mean 35mm as most odd size negatives are another problem altogether) you have a couple more options. First buy a negative scanner, problem here is that the good ones are very expensive so out of reach for many people. If you have a friend that has one see if you can rent it from them for a month or two to get started on scanning. Second you can take them and get them scanned at a lab. Many labs have high speed digital scanners that do a great job (if correctly operated) and the cost is not that bad if you spread it out over time. A few tips here, one don’t walk in with 500 negatives and expect to get them in a day or two as this is a lot of work if done correctly (blowing dust off the negatives, checking to make sure that they are not scanned backwards, etc). Secondly make sure that the lab you are using knows what they are doing. Finally I would NEVER send them away to have done, many things get lost when shipped and negatives are to valuable to risk!
Each way has pluses and minuses and will vary in cost. What I tell people is start with the more important pictures first, get them digitized and make a extra CD/DVD and store the copy away from the originals so if anything happens you have a copy. Then work your way through the other pictures when you have the time/ money. Most of all do something to get started as soon as possible, as I tell my students once history is lost it is gone forever!