Advice on Scanning Old Black & White Prints

by Heather Lindsay

If you have black and white photographs that you would like to digitize, there are a few things to consider for the best results. Most importantly, how fragile are the photographs and are you going to have them available to you in the future to scan again if needed? If they are fragile or access is limited, you will want to get the best quality scans you can so that you have the ability to reproduce them as accurately as possible in the future.


It is important to clean and organize the photographs before scanning. Clean the photographs with a soft lint-free brush and an air puffer. Canned air or blowing with your mouth can cause problems because moisture damages the surface of the photograph. As you are cleaning the photographs, organize them into the best order for your planned filing system. Do you want them grouped chronologically, by person, subject or size? There are many options and it is a matter of personal preference to choose the method by which you will best be able to locate the files in the future. It is also a good idea to think about how much space you have available for storing the digital images. Higher quality scans will require more storage space. While the cost of storage space has dropped considerably in the past few years, it may still be a concern. For the absolute best results, you will want to scan the images in color even though they are black and white, and color scans produce a larger file size. Once you have saved the original scans, the color can be dropped out using an image editing program such as Adobe Photoshop. Also consider that less handling and exposure to the bright scanner light is better for the long-term preservation of the photographs, so scanning once at high quality is usually the best option.


Before you start scanning, make sure the scanner is also free of dust and fingerprints. Scanners usually come with their own scanning software but you can also use Adobe Photoshop. The exact terminology may differ somewhat by scanner. For the best quality scans, set the scanning resolution at 600 dpi/ppi and scan the image in color or RGB at a target size of 8x10 or larger, set at 24 bits of data per pixel. If you want to scan in black and white for a smaller file size, it is still recommended to scan at 600dpi/ppi and at least 8 bit grayscale, with a target size of 8x10 or larger. You can always reduce the size later for other applications, but you cannot add data that was never captured. If space is a concern, scan at 300dpi/ppi at a target size of about 8x10 inches. If you scan at 100 percent of the photograph size, you may end up with a 300dpi image that is 3 inches by 4 inches and that is the largest size at which you will ever be able to print it out without loss of resolution.


The best format to save digital scans for long-term preservation is TIF or TIFF, which stands for Tagged Image File Format. This also results in the largest file size. The next best option is JPG or JPEG, a standard created by the Joint Photographic Experts Group. This is the format most often used as it is a fairly good compromise between file size and image quality. There are other formats that result in fairly small file sizes and lower quality images; these include GIF, PNG and BMP. They are not recommended for photographs unless you are editing the original file and saving them as a different file for use on the Internet.

About the Author

Heather Lindsay is a stained glass artist who holds a master's degree in library science, a bachelor's degree in anthropology with a minor in art, and has enjoyed working in special libraries with photograph collections.

Photo Credits

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