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Guide to Scanning Old Family Photos

Guide to Scanning Old Family Photos

Family photos are arguably the most important source you can have of an ancestor. So preserving them digitally should be one of your highest priorities, and scanning them to the best possible standard is something that is often overlooked until it’s too late.

Most people use the default settings on their scanner which is usually preset to about 100DPI with the output set to JPEG, which is just not enough for photos. Ideally you want to be scanning at 600DPI and to the TIFF File format.



Anyone that has used a computer will be aware of the JPEG File type. It is the most common and widely used picture file type and whilst it offers much smaller file sizes it uses lossy compression which causes data to be lost when the file is compressed.

TIFF files on the other hand are uncompressed and are typically used within the printing business for large scale scanned items. The downside of using the TIFF Format is that the files tend to be much larger than those of other popular formats. A decade or two ago this might not have been within most people’s grasp due to storage restrictions however, hard drive technology has come a long way since the early 2000’s and you can easily get a massive external drive for under £80 that can hold thousands of TIFF Files or you could use a cloud service such as Dropbox or OneDrive to store everything online. I use a combination of the two just in case one fails.


Which Program To Use

It really doesn’t matter which program you use to scan photos be it paid or free, it’s all about preference. Personally I use Windows Fax and Scan as it comes free with every copy of Windows so I know that any windows computer I use is going to have it pre-installed which takes out the fuss of having to download an external program every time. It’s also really easy to use.

Step 1 – Clean Your Scanner! 

The very first thing you’ll want to do is clean your scanners glass surface with some glass or window cleaner and a dry cloth. This is because when you’re scanning at a large size even the dust, fingerprint smudges and tiny hairs on your scanners surface can show up in photos.

Step 2 –  Open Windows Fax and Scan

As pretty much every computer comes with Windows Fax and Scan you can simply search your PC for it (Just searching “fax” in your programs should bring it up).

If you don’t see it listed anywhere it might be turned of in Windows features. To fix this go Start > Control Panel > Programs > Turn Windows Features On or Off > Look for the Printing and Document Services then turn on Windows Fax and Scan.

Step 3 – Settings & Scan

Once you have Windows Fax and Scan open click on the “New Scan” button this will bring up a dialog box asking you how you would like your scan to be set up.

Windows Fax and Scan Settings

Under the profile dropdown menu there will be an option to “Create New Profile”. Select this and another popup window will appear. In this menu you can set the profile name and the quality and output of the scan. Type a name for the profile and choose the source of your particular scanner, mine is a flatbed scanner so I’ve chosen that. Then make sure you are scanning in colour even if it is a black and white photo as scanning in black ad white or greyscale can cause certain features to be lost. Under File Type choose “TIFF (TIFF Image)” then in the resolution choose 600DPI or 300DPI Depending on your storage and time constraints. If you have thousands of photos to scan 300DPI will do just fine but if you only have a few very special photos scan those at 600DPI (I scan all really old photos as 600DPI). Don’t touch the brightness or contrast, keep them at 0 and save the profile!


Once you’ve changed the settings and created a profile for future scanning hit scan and wait for the resulting photo. If you compare it to a regular 100DPI JPEG Scan you might not see big differences straight away but if you zoom in and try to look at it in more detail i.e a face in a crowd, it will be much more pixelated and often completely blurry compared with a high resolution scan. In the Photo’s below they might look almost identical side by side but when you take a closer look at the faces they are completely different. Hopefully this will help you to choose which resolution is right for you.

Full Size 100 Jpg vs 600 Tiff
Full Size Photo Comparison
Full Size 100 Jpg vs 600 Tiff Zoom 1
Zoomed Comparison 1
Full Size 100 Jpg vs 600 Tiff Zoom 1
Zoomed Comparison 2
300 TIFF vs 600 TIFF
Zoomed Comparison of TIFF Format at 300/600 DPI

Other Considerations

The amount of time you have to scan and the storage you have available can be constraints on what resolution you will want to scan at too. Scanning times depend on the model you are using to scan photos but as a general rule it will tend to double exponentially the time taken to scan for every 100-150 DPI increase. So if your JPG takes 10 seconds at 100 DPI it might take around 40 seconds at 300 DPI and a couple of minutes at 600 DPI.

Also bare in mind storage limitations. The photo I scanned above has the following file sizes at different resolutions and formats:

  • 100DPI JPEG = 156kb
  • 200DPI JPEG = 566kb
  • 300DPI TIFF = 2.6mb
  • 600DPI TIFF = 10.2mb

So if you don’t have much storage 300DPI TIFF’s should be the way you want to scan.

Once you’ve scanned your photos you’ll need to store them. I’ve written another post on Storing and preserving Old Photos and Documents.

How to Sort Ancestry Hints by Collection.

How to Sort Ancestry Hints by Collection.

One feature of Ancestry that puts it at the top of it’s field is it’s hint feature. However most users don’t know that you can actually sort these hints in to the collections that they are part of. Sorting by collection can be beneficial in a number of ways, I find that the most useful thing about it is that I am not distracted by other types of sources. I can search for one type of source and blitz through all of the hints in my tree and know that I have seen, for example all of the hints in the “England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1966” collection and no longer have to worry (as much) about that particular source.

This style of searching can be very beneficial if you are quite particular about the way in which you organise your documents, as the most common downfall in my experience when researching a Family Tree is not having a direction or goal in mind. When you first start researching you will go off in tangents and discover brand new ancestors but when you already have a reasonably well populated tree you might find that you spend hours looking at random people and sources and not really progressing at all. Setting small goals helps to make the most of your time. For example you could decide you want to research all of the descendants of a particular person, or you might want to find all of your ancestors that served in the military. Let’s do that latter!

Step 1: Find the unique number related to the tree you are searching.

Tree Address

This can be found by going to the tree view and looking in the address bar at the URL. Just after the “/tree/” part of the URL is where you can find this number. My tree is number 72266092.

Step 2: Find the record collection you want to search by.

There are a few ways you can find the collection you want, the easiest way is to go to the Card Catalog on Ancestry and use the search criteria to find the one you’re after.

Ancestry Card Catalogue

Another way is to go to a source you have already linked to your tree and click the link underneath the person’s name that it is linked to or you have searched for.

Ancestry Source Page

Step 3: Finding the Unique Database ID for the collection.

Once you have found the collection you are after you need to check the address bar again for the “dbid” This is the unique number that corresponds to it. This is what we use to narrow down the search to only those sources. You can find this at the end of the URL.

Collection URL

So for the above URL I have chosen the “British Army WWI Medal Rolls Index Cards, 1914-1920” collection which has the database ID of “1262”

Step 4: Finally use a template URL to stitch together the Unique identifiers to find all the hints for one Collection in a certain Tree.

Paste in this template Link in to your address bar (Note that this is a link, if you are using the .com or another ancestry site then change that too)

Change the country code to the site you use, the unique numbers to your own tree and record collection and hit enter!

You will then be presented with the “All Hints” page populated with only the hints tat relate to that collection.

Ancestry All Hints Page

And that’s all there is to it! A simple way to find all of the hints in a single collection on any Ancestry site.