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Scanners and Scanning
by Halvor Moorshead, Editor of Family Chronicle Magazine
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Get Better Scans of Your Important Genealogical Documents
Scanners are cheaper than ever, and can be a great tool for storing and making copies of valuable family documents such as photos and official records. Learn how to get the best image while keeping your file size low.

Scanners are being added to home computers at a very rapid rate as their price goes down and their performance improves. Most genealogists are involved in sharing and caring for the past and have many uses for a scanner. Here are a few tips and tricks.

1. Think about file size

One thing you will learn quickly about scanned images is that they can take up a LOT of room on your hard drive. A fairly ordinary picture can take up 1.5 megabytes of disk space which is equivalent to about 180,000 words (a decent-sized novel). The old adage that "a picture is worth 1,000 words" is more than true with scanned images!

Most scanners for the home market now have a resolution of 600dpi (a general rule is to ignore all resolution specifications given for the scanners except the lowest). A 6" x 4" photo print scanned at 600dpi produces a 25 megabyte image! Scanning a small portion of a photo for later enlargement is one of the few occasions that you will need the highest resolution.

In a world of unlimited disk space, we would scan everything at the maximum possible resolution and save it at 100 percent of the original size. In the real world we need to be more practical. Learn to vary your scanning depending on the nature of the picture: if the subject is important to you, by all means devote the space you need. On the other hand you can save lots of file space by scanning only that portion of the image you need and/or saving as a smaller size.

2. Compressing images

When we received the images for our "Dating Old Photos" feature (Family Chronicle May/June 1998), few people seemed to be aware of image compression, yet this is simple. All images can be saved as JPEGs (said JAY-Pegs) which take up a fraction of the original file size. When you open up a JPEG image, it is automatically decompressed and displayed as normal. Some some programs give you no choice as to how far the image can be compressed while others allow you to make fine gradations.

You can't scan an image as a JPEG — the image will almost always be a TIFF file. However, instead of just naming the image before you save, go to Save As, scroll down to JPEG and then Save.

At this stage you may be offered a degree of compression, usually on a scale of 1-10 (1 is most compressed, 10 the least). Experiment to find the right degree for you. At the low (1-2) end, images lose a bit in quality. Until you are familiar with this feature, you may wish to try an 8.

JPEG files are considerably smaller than TIFF files — savings of 95 percent are common. JPEG compression should not be used on any file that is to be opened, modified and resaved; something that you are likely to do when restoring damaged or faded photographs. This is because while the quality loss using JPEG is minimal, the problems compound themselves at each saving of the file.

TIFF Image JPEG Image

The picture on the left is derived from a TIFF file. On the right it is shown as a JPEG image. There is no discernible quality loss.

3. Cut up text prior to using OCR

Almost all scanners come with Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software but this is usually a "lite" or stripped version of a full package that the software publisher wants to sell you. Although these packages lack some of the sophistication of full-fledged OCR programs, they are far simpler to use.

Simpler programs sometimes have problems with multiple columns of text or documents that include photos, logos, etc. There's an easy solution: photocopy the original and cut the columns into strips and remove the photographs.

Many people drop OCR as their first attempts are disappointing. If you have only limited need for OCR, don't bother to pursue this but if you have a need it really is worth using. Some scanners have a setting that allows you to scan for OCR: this will not always produce the best results - you can scan using Grayscale or Line Art settings.

There's also a common rumor that scanning an enlarged photocopied version improves OCR accuracy. This is a myth unless your scanner's resolution is below 300 dpi.

4. Manipulate AFTER scanning — usually

You usually have some control over the color, contrast, etc. while scanning — avoid using this. After scanning, the image is transferred automatically to the image manipulation program where you are offered much the same (but more involved) control over your image. The order should be: 1. Scan a basic image, 2. Save it, 3. Play with it.

Don't correct the image when scanning; do your manipulation in the main program. Two exceptions are when scanning as line-art or using descreening. Old engravings, and even text saved as an image, are best scanned as line art at 600 dpi (or twice the resolution of the output device) using the interpolation feature (which is automatic). These images are saved as bitmaps and, once scanned, can hardly be manipulated.

5. Descreen

Images in newspapers and magazines are reproduced quite differently from photographic prints. They are reduced to a series of small dots. When scanning these you can easily get an interference pattern between the dots on the original and the dots scanned. Some scanners allow you to "descreen" when scanning: blurring the dot pattern so it appears more like a photograph. This process is very effective and is far, far better than trying to overcome the screen or patterning in your photo enhancement software.

6. Learn to adjust contrast, brightness and sharpness

The idea of doing their own photo restoration scares many people. Certainly retouching damaged photos requires a considerable degree of skill but if the image is basically sound, you can improve it considerably by adjusting the brightness, contrast and sharpness — not unlike setting a good TV picture. Most of the photo enhancement programs feature an automatic facility (not always prominent in the manual). Try this — it will often (not always) improve your image, sometimes magically. If your changes do not show any improvement or look worse, simply Undo those changes and try again.

7. Save Black and White as Black and White

About 80 percent of the electronic images submitted for our "Dating Old Photos" article were submitted as color images even though the originals were almost all black and white. All you are doing here is to increase your file sizes threefold and possibly saving the distortion of sepia fading. There is no advantage at all in saving monochrome images as color.

8. What you see is not always what you get

Photographic images on a computer monitor can often look fabulous — but we are actually viewing them at low resolution, usually at 72 dpi (the resolution also used on the web). Photographs in most magazines — including Family Chronicle — are reproduced at 133 dpi and many color printers are 720 dpi or more. Be aware of this. You need different resolutions for different purposes.

9. Don't keep your images on your hard drive

Although computer hard disk space is now a fraction of the cost that it was a few years ago, it is a lousy place to keep your precious images. Just ask anyone who has been around computers for over a decade: you'll be lucky to find someone who has not lost a hard drive at some time (the author has lost hard drives four times in 15 years). The data can be recovered by specialists but the costs are horrendous.

If you have a reasonable number of black and white images and you take our recommendations to JPEG them, you can use 3-1/2 inch floppy disks. They are cheap and almost all computers can read and write to these (well, for the time being anyway).

Removable hard drives and other forms of mass storage offer a good solution — you can have as many 1 gigabyte backup disks as needed. These are fine but the disks are not inexpensive.

A CD-R — recordable CD — drive may be your best bet. Although they cost about 50 percent more than removable hard drives, the blank disks cost only $1.00-$3.00 each and will hold 650 megabytes of data. The author's entire (and extensive) photo archives all fit onto one CD. The inability to re-record is actually a plus as you can never erase your data in error.

10. Making Prints

It's all very well to scan and share your pictures electronically but let's face it, most of the time we want a traditional print for many occasions. Technology available to print out files at any decent quality has lagged on the electronic side. "Photo realism" kits for ink jet printers have been very disappointing — at least until recently. Color laser printers can produce excellent results but these are very expensive.

A new generation of color printers capable of producing almost-photographic images on special paper have now appeared. The developments in this field have been so dramatic that the whole picture (pun not intended) may have changed by the time you read this. Many photographic stores and "quick printers" now have facilities for producing quality output from your files.


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How-To Article: Using Photos in Your Research
How-To Article: Restoring Damaged Photographs
Online Lesson: Digital Photographs — Enhancing Y our Research

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