DIY Digitizing A Photo Album

The photo above was taken while traveling in Athens, 1988 before a Greek Isles cruise. This photo of a mobile pillbox shows the quality (or lack of it) when taking a digital photo of an old-style physical album page.

If you think that this picture looks “mediocre”, consider this: that is what it looked like in my photo album and those photos were not going to look better with time. Many may have been rotten snapshots and were only getting worse. Chemicals darkening or lightening, and exposed to the risk of damage or destruction. The photo albums were heavy and dusty so I didn’t look at them that often.

Notice how there is a square at the upper right of the photo? That’s where I had overlaid another photo. I decided not to open the clear plastic and fix that. The album was good enough with the “bite” out the picture before and good enough now.

Why Digitize?

I think we will look at the pictures more in a digital tablet than in the heavy albums. I already enjoyed looking at them again while taking the pictures and pulling just a few out before throwing the albums away. Besides some of the 40-50 year old photos are about “shot”. I already lost some albums to water damage …the photo emulsions ran. Sad I cried.

Is your “pad” filling up with stuff? We surround ourselves with junk. And take out storage units to put it in. But time and again the thing that disaster survivors miss most are their family photos. Digitizing them gives you the chance to have a back-up, in the “cloud”. Then you can throw out your albums and you are free to downsize your “pad” to an iPad. With a sense of adventure, you could move somewhere new. And smaller.

When we were about to move again and I thought that there has to be a better way than boxing up heavy, deteriorating photo albums. What if we just took a digital photo of each page?

The upcoming move is motivating me to finish taking photos of the remaining album pages. How will I motivate myself to do the added step, retouching? By promising myself an iPad when done and no sooner.

Since we had already decided not to ship a container to our new country (itself costing many thousands of dollars) and air freight for numerous heavy boxes would be very expensive, the dozen or so hours (during a few evenings in a week) I put into this was like getting a $100-200 per hour job.

But what if this is too much work for you? I suggest you try finding a company locally first (saving on shipping) that can digitize your photo album pages or if no one seems reasonably priced or trustworthy, consider a company like …I don’t have any experience with them having just found them on line via Google. They say they give a money-back guarantee. Use them as a starting point so you can compare their cost (with shipping) to that of a local option. The digitizer company will give you CDs or DVDs but you should back-up your iPad or computer to the “cloud” too like via an annual subscription to Carbonite. Important: an iPad has no CD/DVD reader so this will require moving the photos via iTunes and your computer as an intermediary.

Note: From the poor quality of the above pillbox shot, you can see that this is a snapshot of mostly bad snapshots. How good you want the photos to look with depend on how much work you want to put into it. I decided to do a quick and dirty job. So it took me about 20-30 minutes per album to take the pictures and then about 45-60 minutes to “retouch”.

Here’s what I did

So having decided to digitize old albums before they turned to yellowed, molded, faded yuck, I used using an ordinary digital camera, tripod and a photo program, in my case, Adobe Photoshop but a lesser software would probably work. The program just needs 2 common features: auto-color and crop (especially if  the crop can fix “keystone”)

I did this with a camera on its last legs. Using a smart phone’s camera comes with its own issues I have not thought through: like how most phones do not have a memory card and so all retouching would either have to be done in the phone (which might be awkward with its a tiny screen and fat fingers) or the digital image files would need to be easily transferred to your computer. The computer may be much more convenient to do the retouching.

So after testing my process whole process with a few pages, we decided to take pictures of each page of the photo album.

Ideally the photos would be individually scanned on flat-bed scanner, but I figured if photographing all my album pages is a 40 hour project (to do all my albums) then using a scanner would be, at least, a 160 hour project. This is not counting the retouching. And getting them out of those sticky pages would be difficult or in some cases prone to damaging the photos. Incidentally, buying a scanner big enough for typical album pages is quite expensive (thousands of dollars). Most inexpensive scanners’ maximum scanning area is 8.5×14″ but most photo album pages are bigger than that plus the extra time. Maybe this approach would work for you. It saves having to fix the keystone issue mentioned next.

Two ways to avoid or fix “keystoning”

It’s very difficult to get the camera exactly perpendicular to the photo. If not quite right you end up with what’s called a keystone effect: the photo below, at left, is normal (what I call “square”) and at right, the camera was at an angle when the photo was taken. So the one at right likes like an inverted “keystone”.


Avoiding Keystone: Are you handyman/inventor type? I was not a good enough carpenter to build a “rig” to hold the camera perpendicular to the photo album page. If you can make such an overhead rig, it could save you some “retouching” hours later by avoiding the crop/keystone repair.

Since I couldn’t figure out how rig and secure the camera right over the page or tilt the album to match the camera angle, I thought that the photos would just have to have the “keystone” effect: wider at the bottom, narrower at the top. And I was okay with that, after all, when you hold a photo album, it’s at an angle.

Fixing Keystone: But then I stumbled on a relatively easy fix using the crop tool in Photoshop. (Much easier than the program’s “correct perspective” process.)

UPDATE 21JUN2020: If you have Adobe Photoshop, it has a new tool called Perspective Crop Tool that is easier than the DIY steps below for the ordinary Crop tool (in Step #4 below). You can find a Help page by clicking here. Move down to the section called Transform perspective while cropping.

DIY Steps

The first 2 steps are about taking the actual digital photos …the last 5 steps are done in a computer using a photo re-touching program. I would take photos for 1-3 albums at a time, take the photos and then pull the memory card and put it in the computer to upload all the pictures in the computer, a folder for each album. I’d look at a few of the images to make sure the process is working okay. I figured it would be frustrating if I took a dozen albums’ of photos and then noticed a glitch. Besides the physical strain and tedium required a break.

Camera shake ruins a lot of photos. That’s why you should use a tripod. But even pressing the shutter button could shake the camera. If your camera has a remote shutter release cable (I think iPhone’s headphones have a “volume up” button will take a photo) then that will help you avoid shaking the camera.

  1. When taking the pictures, very important: watch for glare on the shiny album pages, what you see is what you get. You may have to move lights around or turn off overhead light(s).
  2. Try to square the top and/or bottom* in the shot. This is a manual “nudging” process from behind the camera while look in the back-display. I only looked to see that it was “square and no glare”. But if out of square, that can be fixed later; glare cannot be fixed.
  3. Place the photos for a given album (or subject) in a clearly identified folder on your hard drive, perhaps starting with the year taken. Photo image files usually have very generic filenames like IMG1234.jpg so it would be hard to know where one album ended and another began. If you labeled your photo album cover or spine, start the series of photos by taking that label first.
  4. Open the digital picture of the page** in an image retouching program (like Photoshop) select the Crop tool and drag the opposite/diagonal corners to the edge of either side of the page (or photos’ edges if you want to fill the page more). Important note: make sure that the check box Perspective is selected. Otherwise dragging the corner handles will maintain 90° square.
  5. Click on one of the other opposite/diagonal corners that is outside the page margin and drag it over to follow the edge of the page …repeat for the opposite diagonal corner.
  6. The crop will not be square/rectangular anymore, and you will likely end up with a wedge-shaped selection (an inverted keystone). If not, see important note above in #3.
  7. Click on the OK and like magic the program will pull the top to the edges making the photo squared up.
  8. The only other retouching I do is apply the program’s Auto-Color command to fix the yellowing and typically too-dark or sometime too-light shots. Even if it isn’t perfect, it usually improves the look 100%. But if it makes the colors worse, then Undo (ctrl Z or cmd Z on Mac). If you have yellowing on the album page, the Auto-Color may eliminate some of it but the page will still have some dirty backgrounds. I just figured that’s not worth correcting.  These are snapshots after all. Many looked much better after Auto-Color was applied.How much resolution? I looked up the Retina iPad and its resolution is 2048×1533 @264 pixels/inch. So I took my photos at 2560×1920 so that I could crop it down some and allow for a bit of enlargement. The JPG files start out 2.4 MB but after cropping most are about 425 KB when saving at an image quality of “High/8”.

Why not a higher resolution? You are taking snapshots of mere snapshots. So a lot of the higher resolution is wasted. Worst of all bigger image files just take up more room, take longer to work with and displaying on screen when viewing later will have a delay.

*If you didn’t square the top and botom, you can do the usual rotate with the Crop tool to square at least the bottom or the top. Even if you have bad angles, you can fine tune all 4 corners if you want, the program manages to force fit the photo back into a rectangular format.

**After doing a whole album for practice and to determine the time it would take to do all my albums, I have NOT done all the retouching yet. That can come after I finish photographing all the albums. There’s no hurry on the retouching. The images can sit in my computer and are backed up by Carbonite.

Example, Red Numbers

  1. I took this album’s page sideways.
  2. So my first step in the software was to Rotate CCW (Counter Clock Wise)
  3. Then I cropped (see the “handles”?) placing just the opposite corners, white circled numbers 1 & 4 at the correct corners of the subject. Corners 2 & 3 don’t matter yet and are left out away from the subject.
  4. Then I clicked on the white circled corners 2 & 3 and brought them into the subject’s actual corners. This is all done with the Crop tool selected (white circle 5) and once it’s selected the Perspective box (white circle 6) should be checked. You may need to one or all of the 4 corners a bit to crop tighter or more loosely.
  5. Click Enter and the subject gets squared up removing he extraneous borders, 3-ring binder etc.
  6. Since the doors (top photo of the 3) were sideways in the album, I cropped them and Rotated CW (Clock Wise) so they would be a separate item.


I hope this helps you get clicking.

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