Scanning Old Photos with ScanCafe

Scanning Old Photos with ScanCafe

It’s hard to believe but my 20th high school reunion is only a few months away. I was an avid photographer starting in junior high, and in fact, sitting on one of my bookshelves is a bunch of albums filled with pictures from the 1980s — literally, a veritable hot tub time machine.
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Photo by Allen Murabayashi. circa 1989. Camp counselor training at Punahou School.
A few things got me thinking about scanning them. First, I’ve seen a lot of ads on the Internet for ScanCafe, you know, the ones with Pulitzer Prize Winner David Hume Kennerly. Secondly, the ubiquity of Facebook now means that I can really share these images with my classmates. The networking effect on Facebook is pretty stunning — you tag an image with your friends, who might be friends with a few other people in your photos, and all of a sudden everyone is identified and situations are revealed. It’s strange to think that even five years ago, we didn’t have a tool like this available to us. Why, Facebook must have been thinking about my high school reunion.
Like most of the inexpensive scanning services, ScanCafe uses cheap labor in India. Gasp! Send your only negatives to India. Well, if it’s good enough for David Kennerly, then it must be ok for someone like me, right?
In truth, the process is pretty bulletproof. You send your images to ScanCafe’s California office, and they pack up all the orders for the week in a locked shipping container which is airlifted to their India facility. All the scanning for your order is processed by a single operator, and then the images are shipped back to the US in the same way. I guess it’s theoretically possible that the shipping container gets loaded onto oh, Oceanic Flight 815, but I was willing to take my chances.
The process starts when you create your ScanCafe account and estimate the number of images you’ll be scanning. The estimate is required because you need to put down a 50% deposit. Could you grossly underestimate the number of images, and put down a small deposit? Sure, but there’s really no benefit in doing this because you’re only charged for each scan you select.
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It’s a bit of a gimmick to only charge you $0.29/scan for the images you want. I can send them 1,000 crappy images and only select 100 of them after they’ve been scanned. But in reality, if you’re scanning in volume, you’ll probably dispense with the arduous online review process and just have them ship you a DVD. 
Here’s the technical nitty gritty:
  • Scanner: Nikon Coolscan 5000 ED
  • 3000dpi at 8-bit in the Nikon sRGB colorspace
  • The resulting file is approximately 10 megapixels
Enter your billing info and pay your 50% deposit.
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Once you ship off your images, you can track the status of your order.
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The process is slow. Almost painfully so compared to most things in our instant gratification culture. But let’s be honest. In the month that it takes ScanCafe to process hundreds of your images, you probably would have gotten around to scanning zero. Scanning is a crappy job, and thank god someone else will do it. 
You receive a notification via email when the images are available online. You can review your “albums” and select the ones you want. 
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Here’s a single image:
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I started to review images online, but the process is slow, and I figured if I had waited a month, I could wait another week for them to burn me a DVD and ship it back to New York.
My images were returned in a cardboard box, which looked like it had seen better days. And now the unboxing.
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Nice DVD case….
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And what of the quality? Here is one of the images I had scanned. It’s Mr. Brown, my 8th grade social studies teacher circa 1985. 
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A 100% crop
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The scans look pretty good to me. Old pictures tend to look old because of degradation of colors, etc. For purposes of nostalgia, the image quality certain was more than adequate. Could I use the scan a commercial setting? Perhaps, but there are more professional options with better quality equipment (at correspondingly higher prices).
I uploaded the images to Facebook, tagged a few, and for the next few days, there was a tidal wave of activity with some very heartfelt recollections. The process underscored the emotional connections we create to images, and how important a photo can be to our memory. I was so pleased with the results, that I sent off another 1000 images to be scanned.
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There are 2 comments for this article
  1. Douglas at 12:00 am

    I used ScanCafe and was likewise pleased. I bit the bullet after hearing positive reviews and sent like 1000 of mine. All turned out great. I paid extra for the higher res. Your Mr. Brown shot is simply excellent for anything other than perhaps a professional scan. Not only is it terribly sharp for any reasonably monitor, it has a warmth that is lacking in digital-shot photos.

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