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As a conservative estimate, let's say you've been shooting four rolls of film (100 photos) per year for thirty years. Having used film, you printed all the shots, and you've got 3000 prints in albums, frames and boxes. Hopefully, you've been reasonably diligent about dating and labeling the prints, because you won't remember what some of them are without the labels.
If you're still reading, you buy in to the idea that your descendants will benefit from any work you do today to provide information to future generations. Paper albums are tangible, but not accessible; it's hard to know what's in an album or box without opening it up and looking at every piece. Digitization will make the materials more accessible through description files and thumbnail listings.
The tasks are:
Equipment you'll need:
Before you start scanning, get an idea of the originals at hand. Record dates and names of people. It helps a bit to organize your originals by date or event. You don't need to be perfect, but if you scan 50 prints in a row from 20 events in some arbitrary order, it's hard to stay focused; you're constantly looking for a different hard drive folder. The important issue here is that no one will know what you know, a hundred years from now. They won't know that Uncle Joe is frowning because Aunt Flo just scratched his new car, even though it was the most important family event of the 20th century.
There are many businesses or private contractors who will scan your photos and hand you a disk, but the task is tedious and they charge by the piece or by the hour. It would cost hundreds of dollars to have your 3000 prints scanned, and you'd still have to categorize and label the images. For less money, you could buy a scanner and a second hard drive and some extra memory, and do it yourself. The added benefit of doing it yourself is that you'd come in contact once again with all those memories, and you might be able to enlist family members to help.
I am not a Mac or Linux guy, but there are general considerations for computer abilities. You'll need a supported operating system, so if you're still using Win 98, it's time to upgrade to XP or Vista. For 3000 prints at 200 DPI, figure on at least 10 gigabytes of disk space, including space to make temporary copies while burning CDs, etc. You can't have too much disk space or RAM. For Windows XP, a gigabyte of RAM will help your scanner and imaging software perform well, but technically, they'll work with less. For Vista, 1 GB is the bare minimum. RAM is easy to install and should cost less than $100 for 1 GB. Internal disk drives require a bit more work, but external drives are available, and should cost under $100 for a couple hundred GB.
Scanning 3000 photos is not something you're going to do at the local coffee shop. If you already own a laptop as your primary computer, that's fine, but if you're buying new, mobility just isn't a consideration, so save some money and get a desktop.
Scanners come in different forms. A scanner senses the images on paper and turns them into electronic data. Once in your computer, images can be viewed on a screen, printed, or sent to other users and photo labs. You'll need something that can handle different sizes of photographic prints. Typically, you won't be able to feed a print through a document feeder. I use a flatbed scanner; this has a cover that flips up to reveal an 8.5x14 glass platen. I can place five 4x6 prints on the glass at once. Some scanners can also scan negatives and slides. If you'll be doing a lot of scanning, eventually you'll need to scan a negative or slide. Don't get the cheapest scanner you can find. I own a low-end Microtek scanner; the first unit shipped was broken; that was replaced, but I have had to reinstall the software drivers a couple times because of strange errors. Overall, it works and I do a lot of scanning with it, but I am a power user and I can make it work. Buy a notch or two above the low-end models and you'll be happier in the end.
Your imaging software "interfaces" with your scanner. The scanner sends images over the wires into your computer and onto your screen. Often, devices like scanners and printers and disk drives come with basic versions of relevant software, and your scanner might come with a photo editing package. The basic version will be fine. I use an older version of PaintShop Pro, now owned by Corel. The most important feature will be the interface to your scanner. Typically, scanners provide a TWAIN interface, and the most basic editing packages support TWAIN. So, this is almost a non-issue, but it's something to check for. If your software talks to your hardware, it doesn't matter if it's TWAIN or some other protocol.
In general, you'll turn on your scanner and start your editing package. You'll plop a few photos onto the scanner and tell the software to digitize those prints. After a few seconds, the images will appear on the screen in your editing window. This is not the only possible method, but it's typical. The resulting image will probably not be exactly the right size, and you'll need to crop out borders. You might scan more than one photo at a time, and you'll need to select each photo and copy it into a separate image. You might want to repair red-eye. Your photos will come in a few forms: black and white and color prints, glossy and non-glossy prints, magazine or newspaper prints, postcards, etc. Each of these forms looks slightly different to the scanner due to the texture of the media. Modern scanners often have settings that let you warn the scanner of special conditions, and the scanner will automatically adjust the result to account for your warning. Editing software can also perform these tasks. You may need to rotate your images, brighten or darken them, or reduce or enlarge them.
The scanner software will allow you to choose the resolution of the resulting image data. The resolution represents the size of the dots that comprise the image. In the US, we refer to dots (or pixels) per inch (DPI, PPI). Your computer screen probably displays at around 75 DPI, while a film negative is much sharper, possibly thousands of DPI. A color photographic print on paper is in between. In general, the higher the resolution, the easier it will be to print and edit the image with good results. For example, if you scan in a print today and your ancestors have better red-eye reduction tools in the future, they'll have better luck editing a 200 DPI image than a 75 DPI image. There is an effective limit. Your results, no matter what your purpose, will peak at about 200 DPI. This means you don't need to choose the 4800 DPI setting; that will simply run slower and use more disk space. Stick with 200 DPI and you'll be able to fit as many as 10000 4"x6" prints on one of today's DVDs, and prints of the same size as the scanned original will look similarly sharp.
Think about how you'll organize image files on your hard drive. Most of us have a few pictures from many, many events. I have a separate folder for each year, and then sub-folders for events or dates within the year. I try to include the date in the file name for most photos and folders. For dates, use YYYYMMDD format. For example, June 27, 1958 would be typed as 19580627. When you have a bunch of files in one folder and sort by name, they'll be in chronological order, and that's usually a good thing. If you don't know the exact date, and for events that run for more than one day, just make something up. For example, 20070700 is some date in July, 2007.
Record as much detail as you can stand to record. In many cases, you'll need to write notes into a text file that can be saved with your images. Your descendants won't know the names of all the people in your photos. Unless you're writing long narratives, it will help your descendants to save "plain text" files (such as created by Notepad), rather than Microsoft Word or other specially formatted files.
Save your images as JPG files. For the moment, this is a widely supported file format. With minimal compression (highest quality), your 4x6 scanned color photos will use under 500K per photo. A standard DVD disk holds 4.6 gigabytes of data, or 9200 500K files. In other words, unless you're incredibly prolific, all your scanned photos will fit on one disk.
To save files on a DVD or CD disk, you'll need a disk-writing drive. These are very common in modern PCs. Writing a data disk is easier than writing an audio or video disk. Your disk drive probably came with basic disk writing software.