Preserve the Awkwardness Forever: How to Affordably Digitize Your Family Photos

digitize photos
Kurtis Garbutt under Creative Commons

If you were born after 1990, you probably don’t have many photos of yourself. At least, not physical snapshots that you can hold and pass around at parties. All your photos are probably digital, and they’re probably online. (You have your own share of problems, but we won’t dwell on those right now.)

But if you arrived before the Millennials, you probably have boxes and boxes, or album upon album, of family photos. Maybe your parents always ordered doubles of rolls of film they snapped at events, to be able to share photos with family and friends. Maybe, like me, your dad was a serious photography hobbyist and used to make your sister and you pose in front of a backdrop for hours while he worked on lighting setups. (True story.)

The bottom line: Your family probably has a ton of photos hanging around. My family tends to pull out albums and home movies around the holidays, but your family might own thousands of photos you’ve never even seen.

Whenever I’ve been asked the question, “if your house was on fire, what would you take with you?” I’ve always answered quickly: photos, as many as I could carry. But albums and boxes are cumbersome, and photos don’t always withstand the test of time.

Is it Time to Digitize Your Photos?

If you’re starting to worry about preserving your family photos, it’s time to start moving them into digital formats using a photo scanning service. A variety of businesses can take the task off your hands, but you’ll notice their costs can quickly add up.

  • DigMyPics charges 49 cents per photo for high resolution, plus $8 to have those scanned photos stored on a DVD or CD. The company also offers SD card storage.
  • ScanCafe offers high-resolution scanning for photos, color negatives or color slides for 33 cents per image. They also offer video tape and film conversion. The company delivers files on a CD, but if you want them on a thumb drive, it’ll cost you $99.
  • ScanMyPhotos offers high-resolution photo scanning for 26 cents per print. A thumb drive will only cost you $12.95 per 3,000 photos. The company will also transfer slides, negatives and videos, and it offers photo restoration services for those favorites that haven’t held up so well over the years.
  • PeggyBank offers high-res scanning for $0.59 per photo. The company will store your scanned photos in a personal “PeggyVault,” or you can add on a physical storage unit like a disc or drive.

Remember, you have to mail your photos away for all these services — and photos are heavier than you might imagine. Many companies, like ScanCafe, offer a bulk pricing deal where they send you a box and a prepaid shipping label for you to mail in a set number of photos.

Is DIY Digitization Right for You?

If you have a scanner at home, digitizing family photos yourself can be the cheapest route. But scanning over and over can take a great deal of time. CNET recommends scanning photos four at a time to streamline the task. More importantly, CNET recommends choosing a filing and naming system before you start.

Have a scanner, but pressed for time? If a family member doesn’t want to help for the thrill of historical preservation, consider hiring a student to scan photos for a few hours each week. You can even pay by the photo.

Take Good Care of Your Memories

If you’re thinking about having your family photos scanned — or doing it yourself — here are a few tips:

Be Picky

Don’t blindly mail off boxes you found in your mom’s basement. Sort through photos to weed out doubles, blurry outtakes or pictures of ex-relatives. You may want to limit scanning vacation photos to those with people in them, rather than landscapes.

Invest in Secure Storage

When your photos are returned or the scanning task is complete, you’ll want to store the originals safely. Use a storage box that passes the Photographic Activity Test (PAT), which can cost around $30. When I started culling photos a few years ago, I asked for a few storage boxes for my birthday and Christmas.

Don’t Forget Your Files

You’re not done once you’re finished scanning! The Library of Congress recommends making sure that file names are descriptive; making two digital copies of the files and keeping them in separate places; checking your files each year to make sure you can open them; and making new copies of your photos every five years to keep your data up to date.

Take It to the Cloud

If you’re wondering where to store your tons of scanned photos in the cloud, think of the places that you already store documents. If you’re already using a service like Dropbox, consider upgrading to get more space. That $99 per year will be well worth it if you need to grab a photo in a hurry, or if you lose photos in an emergency. Check out this list of affordable cloud storage services for more options.

Remember when photo developing was expensive? So many families still made room in their budgets for a camera, film and developing costs. Now, we’re making the investment in digital storage to make sure we’ll be able to share memories for decades to come. Digitizing your photo albums isn’t cheap, but it’s worth taking time to consider what your family photos mean to you — and if it’s the right time for you to consider scanning them.

Your Turn: Have you digitized your family photos? How did you do it?

Lisa Rowan is a writer and editor in Washington, D.C. She also owns a vintage clothing shop, a business that grew out of her love of exploring thrift shops.