How to Digitize Old Photos with Your Smartphone

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We all have old photos that are important to us. Vacations, family members who are no longer with us, good times in our lives—you know, important stuff. The thing is, pictures fade. The best way to keep these precious memories safe is by digitizing them, and what was once a lengthy process can now be done—with pretty exceptional results—directly from your phone.

Obviously, the best way to scan your photos is with a dedicated scanner with the right settings—or maybe by using a photo scanning service like Memories Renewed or DiJiFi. But Google has an app called PhotoScan, available for both iOS and Android, that works remarkably well with almost no work on your part. If you don’t want to spend a lot of money or time, this will do a good job.

The app works identically on both iOS and Android. I’ll be using a Pixel XL for this tutorial, but you should be able to follow along regardless. For a detailed, yet concise look at how PhotoScan does its thing, check out this video from Google employees Nat and Lo:

Pretty awesome, right? Download and install the app, then go ahead and fire it up. It’s give a quick overview of how to use the app and what it does—after the animation is over, tap the “Start Scanning” button to get the ball rolling.

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You’ll have to first grant the app permission to access your camera, which it obviously requires in order to scan your photos.

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With that out of the way, it’ll jump straight into camera mode so you can start scanning. Before we get into how to do that, however, a few pointers are necessary:

  • Unlike with normal photos, lighting doesn’t matter as much with PhotoScan. Obviously this isn’t something you’ll want to do in a dark room, but you don’t have to look for the “perfect” spot since it uses your phone’s flash to get more consistent lighting. It’s worth noting, however, that various lighting environments, can affect how the color of the image turns out. See the gallery screenshot below for an example.
  • Get as close to the image as possible—try to line the borders of the picture up just inside PhotoScan frame.
  • Try to remain as steady as possible. If you move around a lot, the dots will get off-center, which can cause some distortion or skewing in the end result.

That’s really all there is to it—it’s very easy to use.

Go ahead and line your image up within PhotoScan’s borders, then tap the shutter button. Four dots will appear near the corners of the image—move the center circle to one of the dots and wait while the circle “scans” that section of the image. Do this for all four, preferably in some sort of order.

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Once it’s finished scanning all four sections, it will process the image—basically, it combines all four images to get all the angles, then removes any glare that was caused by the flash. It’s pretty brilliant and completely automated.

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From there, it will throw you into the app’s gallery, where you can further edit the image by tapping on it.

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Once the image is open, you can rotate it, adjust the corners, or delete it by using the button on the bottom row. Once you’re happy with the result, tap the back button.

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At this point, if you have multiple scans, you’re going to want to delete the ones you don’t want to keep. Again, do this by tapping the image, then the trash can icon in the bottom row.

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After you have the scan (or scans) you want to keep, just tap the “Save All” button at the top. The app will request access to your phone’s storage so it can save the file, so just tap “Allow.” After that, it will let you know where to find the scans: Google Photos on Android, and Camera Roll on iOS.

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Here’s the end result of our test scan:

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Man, that’s a good-looking kid.

While it may not be quite as good as a specialized photo scanner or third-part digitizing service, PhotoScan does a very impressive job of turning your old photos into digital images, especially for a simple phone app. And while the final product looks pretty good, you can always fix up the color in your favorite image editor once it’s on your computer, for the best looking photo possible.

Cameron Summerson is a die-hard Android fan, Chicago Bulls fanatic, metalhead, and cyclist. When he's not pounding keys here at HTG, you can find him spending time with his wife and kids, spinning legs on the bike, chugging away on the 6-string, or being disappointed in the Bulls.