How to Digitize Your Printed Photos for Free: Step-By-Step


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While having your photos stored in old frames, scrapbooks, and albums is a great way to pay tribute to loved ones and past memories, it’s not always very secure or efficient. When you digitize your photos, or make them digital, you feel confident they’ll be around for a long time. Not only do you not have to worry about damaging your photos, but you also have greater access to them.

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Once you’ve digitized your photos, you have a lot of options for displaying them more uniquely. From creating a memorial collage to a printed family tree, digitizing your photos is a great way to protect them for the future. 

If you’re looking to start creating your own digital legacy with secure, digital photos, follow these step-by-step instructions below. 

Post-planning tip: If you are the executor for a deceased loved one, handling the details of their unfinished business such as digitizing old photos can be overwhelming without a way to organize your process. We have a post-loss checklist that will help you ensure that your loved one's family, estate, and other affairs are taken care of.

Why Digitize Printed Photos?

First, let’s talk about why it’s so essential to digitize any printed photos you might already have. There are a number of reasons, some of which we lightly touched on already, to save your photos digitally. While printed photos might be fun to look at and display, they have a lot of limitations: 

  • They’re easily damaged - Physical photos are easily damaged, discolored, and torn. A single accident or emergency could destroy your treasured photos forever, and there’s no way to get them back. 
  • They take up a lot of space - If you’ve ever stored photos in boxes, albums, and books, you know how much space they take up. A digital copy, however, takes no space at all. 
  • The quality isn’t changeable - Sometimes family photos discolor over time. Editing physical photos is a challenge, and you can’t affect things like brightness, contrast, and so on. This is only done digitally. 
  • They’re hard to share - If you want to share your digital photos with friends and family, it’s as simple as clicking a single button. Sharing physical photos is a lot trickier. 

Even if you don’t choose to digitize all of your photos, you should take some steps to scan at least some of your oldest photos. This is a time-consuming process, but it’s also an opportunity to fully explore your photo collection and take a trip down memory lane. If you’re ready to start, follow the steps below. 

When you digitize photos, you recognize the importance of your legacy. These photos are part of the story you tell your loved ones, and they'll exist after you're gone. It's common to use digital photos in virtual funerals with GatheringUs or to share them in family albums as precious heirlooms. What story do your photos tell?

» MORE: Grief can be lonely. Create space for your community to share memories and tributes with a free online memorial from Cake.

1. Collect Your Photos

Once you’ve decided to digitize, it’s time to collect your photos. It’s helpful to stay organized from the start, especially if you’re dealing with a large number of photos. How do you plan to organize them within your computer? How will files be named? Here are the most common organizational methods:

  • Chronologically (by date or estimated date)
  • By family line 
  • By person

Separate your photos by the year before you even begin scanning. This makes it easier to keep track of everything once you start the process. 

If possible, write important information on the back of each photo in a permanent pen. Writing the names, dates, locations, and so on is a huge help once you start digitizing. 

2. Use a Scanner or a Scanning App

Next, it’s time to start scanning. You have two main options for this process: use a scanner or an app. When you use a scanner, you use a device designed specifically for scanning.

This might be something you already have in your home, or it might be a part of your printer. There are also handheld scanners available nowadays that cost very little and take up no space. 

A flatbed scanner is the best option when it comes to old photos since they’re much more gentle. Other scanners might be too rough, but this shouldn't be an issue if you’re not handling older photographs.

When you scan each photo, save it with a file name you’ll remember. Organizing each group of images into a related folder is also a good option. 

If you don’t have access to a scanner, another option is a scanning app. Mostly everyone nowadays has a smartphone or smart device. A scanning app makes it simple to use your device camera to snap scans of your images. Note that while this is a quicker process, the quality likely won’t be as high as with a real scanner. It’s still an effective, free option. 

Ultimately, whether you choose to scan with a scanner or an app, plan some time specifically for this task. Scanning is time-consuming, but you want to give each picture the attention it deserves for safekeeping.

Spending a few hours over a couple of afternoons should be enough, and it could go faster if you get friends involved. Why not make a fun get-together out of it?

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3. Organize Your Digital Photos

Once your photos are all saved to your computer, it’s time to organize them. While you might think it’s enough to dump them into one giant folder, this won’t help you keep track of them. Instead, organize them by those different categories we discussed earlier. 

When organizing your images, use as many folders as you need. For instance, you might have one large folder for family events, then divide it into specific events and even years. There’s no such thing as being too organized. Consider how a family member would feel if they received your images. Would they be able to find what they’re looking for quickly? 

4. Consider Your Images’ Safety

Another important question that comes along with digital storage is whether it’s secure. While we’ve already talked about how digital photos are safer from damage than physical photos, that doesn’t mean they’re 100% safe on your local hard drive alone. Any number of things could happen:

  • A hacker could corrupt your computer
  • You might lose access to your device
  • Your computer breaks or is no longer usable
  • You delete the photos by mistake

While these are all unlikely, they do happen. It’s best to choose a long-term digital storage solution that’s more secure than your local drive. Here, there are two main options: cloud storage and external storage. 

A cloud storage solution is something like Google Drive or Dropbox. These are cloud storage options that are secure, private, and customizable. You can easily upload your images (in their folders) to the cloud, and then you don’t have to worry about what happens to your computer. 

The advantage of using cloud storage is your photos are also easy to share with friends and family. You can easily print from Google Photos as well. Overall, cloud storage is easy and inexpensive (or free). 

Your second option is to invest in an external hard drive. An external hard drive is a small storage device similar to a flash drive. Storing your photos to this device ensures you have a backup just in case. While nobody wants to think of something happening to their photos, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

» MORE: An online memorial is a perfect ending to honor and celebrate someone's life. Create one for free.

5. Use Your Photos

Now that your photos are secure and safe, it’s time to put them to use. You’re now free to clear out some space in your home, whether that means giving your physical photos to friends or family members, recycling them, or crafting them. 

There’s a world of possibilities open to your new digital photos. Share them on social media, make a slideshow, or send copies to friends and family. They’re saved forever, so you can now breathe a sigh of relief. 

Digitizing Photos: Frequently Asked Questions

Digitizing your photos is a big process. You’ll likely encounter a few questions along the way, and we’re here to help. 

Are there services that can digitize your photos for you? 

There are a number of services that will do this entire digitization for you. This is the easiest way to get the job done, though it comes at a cost.

Most of these services are easily found online, and they charge per printed photo. Local photography services often offer this service, so check around you to see what’s available. 

How much does it cost to digitize a photo?

If you already have a scanner or access to a scanning app, you could potentially transform all of your photos for free. 

If you choose to go with a service, expect to pay around $0.35 per physical photo. If you had 100 photos to digitize, it would likely cost around $100. 

Is there a trick to digitizing large photos?

To digitize a large photo, you’ll need a large scanner. This is where using a professional service or photographer comes in handy. These professionals have the best equipment available, so large photos aren’t a problem. 

If you’re digitizing your own large photo, using a scanning app and getting high above the photo is your best choice. 

Can I use my phone camera to digitize photos?

You can use your own phone camera to digitize your photos. This is especially easy with a scanning app. However, you can also use your phone camera to simply snap a photo of the image. Scanning apps are a better choice since they make lighting and size adjustments automatically. 

How do you digitize photos to use for embroidery projects?

If you’re planning to digitize your photos for an embroidery project, you’ll need to follow the scanning steps above. From there, you can create an embroidery print yourself or use a conversion tool online to do it automatically. 

Save Your Photo Memories Forever

Converting your physical photos into digital form is an important way to keep your memories safe from damage. You don’t have to give up your photo albums or scrapbooks to get started. As long as you have patience and the right tools, you’re fully ready to digitize your entire photo collection.

Once you've saved your photos, consider your digital legacy. This might even be something to include in your will. To make on online will in seconds, you can use a tool like Trust & Will to determine who gets your digital photos when you pass. 

Saving your memories might get you thinking about the future. To put these thoughts in order, start end-of-life planning. It’s easy to digitize your end-of-life plan as well as your favorite photos. Weave together the story of your life, not just in words but also in images. 

Looking for more on organizing your pictures? Read our guides on how to organize digital photos on your computer and how to organize your old family photos.

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