DIY, Genealogy, Photography

Easy Step by Step: How to Scan and Store Old Photos

If you haven’t noticed, photos are kind of my thing. I love taking photos, I love editing photos, and I love going through old photos and remembering good times. What I don’t love, however, is having that vague idea that you have this photo somewhere but you don’t know where you put it. I also don’t like realizing that older photos are getting faded and bent because they’ve been living in boxes with labels like, “Carly – giant pile of photos I haven’t gotten around to looking at”.

I know that the idea of scanning photos and storing them somewhere as digital files is a little overwhelming, which is why companies that digitize things like photos, sides, and home movies have become so popular. However, those services can be expensive and it makes me nervous to think about boxing up irreplaceable photos and shipping them out of state to strangers.

Scanning photos to digital copies is overwhelming at first but it’s not that hard and I promise you will be so happy that you finally got all of that stuff scanned. So, I’m here to walk you through it in excruciating detail:

(1) You need a computer, a scanner, and an external hard drive. You also need a Google Photos account (my preference) or another online photo storage account like Flickr.

You can pick your own gear out, but here are my affiliate links for the ones that I use and recommend. I’ll explain more about them in the steps below.

  • Scanner: CanoScan LiDE 220
  • External Hard Drive: Seagate 2TB Hard Drive
  • Photo Organizer Case (optional – for storing photos safely after scanning): Scrapbooking 1,600 Photo Case
  • Fireproof/Waterproof box (optional – for storing larger photos or other important photos, documents, and/or paper memorabilia): SentrySafe
  • Computer: MacBook Air (Recommended mainly because it’s lightweight and portable – good for scanning at relative’s houses or research centers. However, your current computer is likely compatible with the scanner above.)

*Little note here – some of this gear is a little pricey but I believe it’s worth the investment so you don’t lose your photos. You can quickly spend the same amount if you outsource and have someone else scan them for you. Plus, this way you retain control over your property and avoid any “lost in the mail” disasters. 

** Second little note – if you have slides to scan, these instructions won’t work. Scanning slides requires a special kind of scanner that actually beams light through the slide as it scans so that the picture is visible. If you a slide collection that you’d like to turn into digital files, check out my post about scanning slides before you continue with this one because that type of scanner is more expensive but it will work for both slides and photos whereas the one below is cheaper, easier to use, but only does photos and documents. 

Scan your family photos

The scanner I always recommend is the CanoScan LiDE 210 from Canon (affiliate link) because it’s very easy to use and it only needs to plug into your USB port for power so you don’t have to worry about finding another plug. It’s also light and thin enough to be portable and it’s easy for me to take my CanoScan and my MacBook Air to the library or to a relative’s house to make a few quick scans of something I can’t bring home.

For external hard drives, I’m not wildly picky but I usually go for ones that are 1 to 2 TB in size. Larger than that and the hard drives get bulky, smaller than that and I find myself with lots of hard drives all over my house. I would also recommend having one exclusively for photos, just because you don’t want to lose scanned photos in between work files and music files. Photos also tend to be the things that people ask you for (at least in my experience) so it makes it easier to have them all in one place when you’re hunting around.

How to scan your photos for storage

(2) Start with your overwhelming pile of photos that are all different sizes.

How to scan your own photos

(3) Take a small handful – just enough to fit on the scanning screen.

Easy guide to scanning family photos

(4) Arrange them so that the edges aren’t touching and they aren’t too close to any of the edges of the screen. Don’t worry about whether or not they are upside down – that’s easy to fix on your computer when you open the file.

Scan your photos and store them as digital files on your computer

(5) Plug the scanner into the USB port on your computer. Push the “scan” button on your scanner to start the process. If you haven’t downloaded the software yet, be sure to do that so your computer knows to open Image Capture when the scan button is pushed.

You only have to push the scan button the first time, to turn the scanner on. It will warm up and then do a preliminary scan (an Overview). The rest of the time, you’ll want to start by selecting Overview from the menu. This will let the scanner do a quick pass to show you what it will be scanning.

Be sure that your settings are set (and if they aren’t, just fix them and do a new Overview scan). You can mess around with the settings to fit what you’re doing, but my preferences are “Colors: Millions” “Resolution: 1,200” and “Auto Selection: Detect Separate Items”. The last setting is my favorite because it lets you scan multiple photos at the same time.

Preserve family photos by scanning them

Store family photos by scanning them to your computer

(6) After the Overview scan, the program will show dotted lines at the edges of each image to show you where it thinks you want it to scan. Most of the time it gets it right, but images with borders or white backgrounds are a little tricky so drag the lines until it captures the images you want.

Scan your photos to your computer to save them

(7) Once the lines are correct, hit Scan. The scanner will warm up and scan each image individually.

Safely scan and store old family photos

Once scanned, the photos will show up wherever you directed them. I put them on my desktop so I can find them easily.

How to scan a huge amount of family photos at once

(8) At this point, your files are digitized and ready to go. Unfortunately, if you’re doing a ton of them you probably won’t want to leave them on the computer because they’ll pile up and slow things down. So, you’ll want to move them to storage and I would say choose at least two different methods so you don’t lose it all if something fails.

First, move your files to Google Photos (or you can use a different online photo service, but if you do you might want to skip down a bit). To upload them, just open your Google Photos account and drag your files onto the screen. Google automatically adds them.

Processed with VSCOcam with a6 preset Organize scan and store your old family photos

Get old family photos organized by scanning them

You then have the option of creating an album or making a new one. I prefer to put all of the photos into one album with the date that I scanned them and then sort them out later. The great thing about Google Photos is that you can reorganize them easily and you can also add comments to say where the photos was taken and who is in it, etc. Plus, it’s the easiest way to share them.

Scan all of your old family photos

DIY guide to scanning your old family photos

(9) After you’ve uploaded the photos to an online photo storage system, move on to putting them on your external hard drive. Locate it and set up a folder for the photos. Again, I like to use the date just because it’s easiest.

Scan your old family photos easily in your own home Scan your photos to save them from getting damaged

I do usually have two folders because there are occasionally photos that won’t upload to Google Photos because they’re too big. You probably won’t have to do this, but I did tell you I’d show you in excruciating detail.

Store a ton of family photos by scanning them to a hard drive

Drag the photos to that folder and you’re done! If you get an error that you already have a file with that name, you can usually use the option to Keep Both and Apply to All. If it just says Skip (and not Keep Both) try selecting and moving a smaller number of files. Sometimes it gets picky if you’re moving more than two or three.

Save your family photos to a hard drive by scanning

Once the files are in there, you’re set! You can drag the files off of your desktop (or wherever they originally scanned to on your computer) and put them in the trash so they don’t take up storage space. You now have them saved online and to your dedicated photos external hard drive.

Obviously, the perks of having digitized photos are many, but I mostly love that I can share them easily and that I can blow up super small photos and turn them into larger prints for gifts. I also use Photoshop to fix things like scratches and rips or to color correct faded photos before using online album services to make photo books.

Another way to share family photos is to set up a profile on, which allows you to assign photos to certain people and make them searchable. I always get excited when I find photos other people have uploaded that I’ve never seen before, so I like to contribute to that service.

Scan old photos and documents for family history and genealogy

You can also share them on Facebook, although if you have a ton I would recommend either setting up an album and sharing them all at once or setting up a private group and only adding people who would be interested. I’ve had my feed clogged before by someone who has hit a sudden genealogy bend and I have to admit that other people’s family photos can get a little tiresome if you’re just skimming your Timeline.

Plus, family Facebook groups are helpful if you don’t know who everyone in the photos is!

Start a Facebook group to identify old family photos for genealogy after you scan them

Feeling inspired yet? I hope so! It’s such a rewarding project and a really nice thing to take on for relatives who don’t want to dig all their old photo books out. Let me know if you have any questions!

If you’re interested in scanning slides or venturing farther into tracking your family history, check out some of my genealogy posts below:

/// Scanning Slides at Home
/// 8 Family History Gift Ideas for Mother’s Day
/// Case Study: How I Used DNA Evidence to Completely Dismantle a Family Story
/// Kids + Genealogy: Make a Photo Timeline for an Ancestor
/// Genealogy Kit: The Gear You Need to Archive Your Family Tree


How to scan and store your old family photos
Easy Step by Step - How to Scan and Store Old Photos
Share on
Previous Post Next Post

You may also like


  • Reply Kim

    What do you do with all the hard copies of the photos once got have them scanned and stored though? I have THOUSANDS in huge totes. It’s so out of hand. I don’t know what to do.

    January 5, 2017 at 3:41 pm
    • Reply Barb

      Can you share them? Give them to family members who might be willing to continue to pass them along, or keep them safe for you?

      March 2, 2017 at 12:19 pm
    • Reply Carly Morgan

      Sorry for my slow reply! For some reason, I didn’t see your comment. I actually still store a ton of hard copies of photos in my garage in tubs and, like you, I have thousands. The nice thing is that scanning allowed me to go through them and (A) store them in neater stacks and (B) toss out things like blurry pictures of someone’s Mother’s Day flowers from who knows when so I don’t store as many as I used to. I’m sure some people will tell you that once you’ve scanned them you can just toss them but I don’t have the heart so they live in my garage “just in case”.

      February 12, 2018 at 2:32 pm
  • Reply Donna

    What’s the best way to preserve old newspaper articles?

    August 16, 2017 at 4:44 pm
    • Reply Carly Morgan

      If they’re too large to be scanned, I usually lay them flat and then take photos of them if that lets me get the whole thing in one shot, before taking closer photos in order so I can “read” the articles in the digital photos later on for genealogy work. To actually keep physical newspaper articles after the fact, I store them in totes with tissue paper between them but even then the actual paper and ink continue to deteriorate. Newspaper is so tough!

      February 12, 2018 at 2:33 pm
  • Reply Lila

    Thanks for your article. I’ve been reading online as I’m getting ready to digitize photos. Your step by step instructions are just what I needed. Do you know how reliable Google Photos is?

    November 29, 2017 at 6:05 am
    • Reply Carly Morgan

      I don’t in the sense of not knowing what the future is for Google Photos but I’ve been using them for a couple of years and I’ve never had any problems with glitches or photos vanishing. Knock on wood!!!!!! I’m definitely not ready to get rid of my hard drives though just in case!

      February 12, 2018 at 2:34 pm
  • Reply Patricia

    Have you made Photo books from your scanned photos? I want to make sure resolution is high enough to do so before I take on this project…that’s my main motivation to digitize the photos.

    November 30, 2017 at 1:16 pm
    • Reply Carly Morgan

      Yes, if you follow my resolution settings recommendations you should be able to make photo books with no problems. Of course, like any image, you might get a warning on the photo book software if you “zoom in” too far with a scanned digital image but I don’t run in to that too often. For what it’s worth, my favorite photo book companies to use are Blurb and Shutterfly and they’ll both let you know if there are resolution problems before printing.

      February 12, 2018 at 2:39 pm
  • Reply Kathleen

    Just the advice I was looking for! Thanks!

    January 14, 2018 at 12:43 pm
    • Reply Carly Morgan

      I’m glad it was helpful!

      January 14, 2018 at 9:46 pm
  • Reply Phyllis Seelye

    I have gone through 350 old family pictures (various sizes) and have them in order I want to scan them. I, with my sister’s help, also have dates, names and other interesting facts about each picture. I just went into the “labels” in printshop and typed each description for each picture. I attached the text to the backs of the pictures by cutting each label up. Some pictures had info on back, most did not. Can I put these small bits of info in the bottom of the pictures and then scan them? I really am stumped as to go about this process. I will be putting them on a flash drive or something so several family can have them to enjoy. We only have one copy of most of the pictures. Please give me some guidance on how you would go about this since I have the text for the pictures. I can buy the scanner you suggested because I’m sure it’s faster than my scanner on my printer. Any help would be appreciated! Thanks!

    June 10, 2018 at 2:47 pm
    • Reply Carly Morgan

      I had the same problem with some of mine! I scanned a large stack of family photos that came from a recently deceased family member and I wanted to save all the little notes and such scribbled on the back because I didn’t know who most of the photos are. So, I either double scanned them (scanned one side and then the other) or I scanned them and uploaded them to Google Photos and then used the “add a description” box on each photo to type in whatever it said on the back. Google Photos is a lifesaver for me because I like to do genealogy and being able to have those photos online wherever I am is a big deal, but if you’re just storing them for yourself doing the double scan might actually be faster, assuming you can keep track of which backside is which photo. Hope that helped!

      June 10, 2018 at 3:29 pm
  • Reply Jeny

    Thank you for this information. I plan on scanning my old photos then sending those photos to a company that will make a book with those scanned pictures. This way I have a book or books instead of loose pictures in random boxes. I can also turn this into a Christmas project and send thise picture/books to my siblings.

    August 24, 2018 at 9:08 am
  • Leave a Reply

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.