Preserving Your Old Photos (and other Genealogy Records)

Last month we explored the joys of old photographs and postcards as a way to enhance your genealogy efforts. There are three very critical aspects of this process: 1) scanning them correctly, 2) storing them properly, and 3) creating multiple digital back-ups. We talked about the second and third steps some last month. Three digital copies of each photograph; one on your computer (or iPhone), one on an external device stored in your home and one stored off-site. Put the originals you have in archival sleeves and store them in something that can be picked up quickly and tucked into your car if you have tohurricane-matthew-1769035_640 leave your home due to a pending disaster.  Also, a photo box can be stored inside a container or plastic bag (or both) and placed in a safe place if flooding is likely.  This ensures that you have protection from hard drive crashes, thefts, damaged devices, fire, floods, and hurricanes. If your photographs are precious to you then the time, effort and cost will be worth it. This month let’s talk about the process of scanning.

While I appreciate any photo sent to me, regardless of the quality, I really appreciate a photo that is flat, in focus and at a high enough resolution that it can be enlarged for a detailed look without going completely out of focus. If you take a photo with your iPhone and you were not directly over the photo and the photo isn’t at least 300 dpi (and preferably 600 or 1200 dpi) then you may wind up with a photo that is tiny and impossible to appreciate or see details that may be valuable clues. You certainly can take photos of photos but I would suggest the following: 1) lay the photo flat on a table, 2) stabilize your camera (or iPhone) with a tripod or by using your two arms to stabilize your device by steadying your arms on something that will keep your device still directly over the photo, 3) get directly over the photo so there is no distortion in the digital photo, 4) use defused light, not a flash or a direct light on the photo.

Having said all of that, if the photo is a large picture behind a curved glass frame, don’t take it out. Work to photograph it on the wall and make sure your flash doesn’t go off. Try to use natural light from a window that will brighten the picture without creating a glare on the glass. It can be done but you might have to take a few pictures to get one good one.  The two pictures above were taken years ago with a hand-held camera.  While not great photos they are priceless to me.  The first seems to have disappeared when both my grandparents passed away and the second is in a cousin’s house and this is the only mobile print of the photograph taken of them right after they married.

I used a term above that some of you may not recognize. The term dpi means dots per inch and references the quality of a digital image. The more dpi, the better the quality and the better the image can be enlarged without losing detail, in other words, it can be enlarged without getting so fuzzy you think the people in the photo have one large eye in the middle of their forehead. When scanning you should make sure you can do the following: 1) Scan at 1200 dpi, especially with older photographs. You can get by with 600 dpi but I wouldn’t recommend less unless you just don’t have the equipment to scan at a higher resolution. Check the manual for whatever you are using to scan, whether camera, phone or scanner. Newer equipment for all of these generally can take higher resolution images. 2) Scan your photographs in color, even the black and white photographs. You will retain more information in the photo and this will allow you to do some restoration in a photo manipulation software if you desire at some point.

Now that you’ve scanned the photo, what format should you save it in? The two most common universal formats are .jpgs (pronounced j-pegs) and .tiff. A .jpg file will be smaller in size than a .tiff file but it will lose a tiny amount of resolution each time it is saved. A .tiff file will not degrade when saved. But because .jpgs are smaller and take up less space on your storage device, they are much easier to share with other people whether by email or in social media. I keep my original copy in a .tiff format on a separate hard drive and a copy of the photo in a .jpg format on my two computers. The upside to this is it enhances my back-up system and makes the files easily accessed and shared.

If all of the above sounds like way more effort than you want to do, or you don’t want to buy the equipment you don’t think you’ll use after you finish organizing photos and paper, then consider sending your photos out to be scanned and saved in digital format by a professional company.  There are a few out there.  Do your homework, investigate how and what they do and ask to talk to some of their clients.  I’ve not used any of these services so I can’t recommend any in particular, but it is a possible way to get the work done.

messy deskThe nice thing about learning to manage your photographs better is that the techniques and equipment can easily be used to transfer all that paper you’ve accumulated over the years of doing your family history to a digital format. This is when a computer and scanner will really come in handy to get the ton of paper down to a manageable size of original documents and make all those tidbits of materials you’ve collected much more available. I hate knowing I have something and can’t find it in the multiple file folders I have for each family. I’ve started the herculean effort of getting all of my paper scanned and frankly it is like Christmas in June! I keep finding something I forgot I had and it adds a bit more detail to what I already know. And now I can attach the image to my genealogy software and when out at a library, I have a much better idea of what I already know or don’t know.

Putting the lives of our ancestors together is a worthy endeavor. Adding photographs of people and places to the names and dates adds a richness that is missing from the basic facts. And if you plan to write a short or long history of your family, pictures can make your stories come alive. Pictures can be worth a thousand words, and sometimes even more.

Until Next Time


  1. Archive Photography: How to Photograph Oversize Photos, Curled Documents and Heirloom Treasures by Gary W. Clark.
  2. Preserving Your Family Photographs by Maureen Taylor.
  3. Digital Restoration from Start to Finish by Ctein.
  5. Forever Storage (I’ve not used these services but they sound like a good option for online storage)
  6. Amazon’s Photo Storage

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