Scanning Old Memories A Shoe Box At A Time A lot of people have a treasure trove of old photos stuffed in shoe boxes in a basement or closet. There are a growing number of companies that scan them into digital form, but it can be expensive. At least one company has managed to make it affordable.
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Scanning Old Memories A Shoe Box At A Time

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Scanning Old Memories A Shoe Box At A Time

Scanning Old Memories A Shoe Box At A Time

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


I'm Robert Siegel. And it's time now for ALL TECH CONSIDERED.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: This week, we visit the world of low-tech photography and bring it up-to-date. A lot of us still have a treasure trove of old photos, negatives, slides stuffed in shoe boxes or in albums, in a basement or a closet. Now, there are companies that will scan them into digital form, though often at a hefty price.

NPR's Laura Sydell has a profile of one company that's managed to make preserving those old memories, a more affordable proposition.

LAURA SYDELL: How many pictures are in shoe boxes? Sam Allen, CEO of ScanCafe, actually commissioned a study to find out.

Mr. SAM ALLEN (CEO, ScanCafe): In the U.S. right now, there are about 550 billion analog photographs.

SYDELL: That's 550 billion. That's a lot of photos. Allen says most people don't realize that they're taking a risk by letting them sit around.

Mr. ALLEN: These images are dying everyday. And they die a little bit more. And they fade away and people don't understand that.

SYDELL: For less than $300, anyone can buy a scanner. But to scan all those photos, Allen tries to do the math.

Mr. ALLEN: And so, if you want to scan, you know, a thousand photographs, at four minutes per scan time, plus another five in post-scan processing, then you're talking thousands of minutes of your time.

SYDELL: And there's where he saw a business opportunity. People send their photos to ScanCafe, and pay the company to put them in digital form. And it will also Photoshop out the flaws. The company's Wade Lagrone holds up a photo of a customer's grandfather back in Eastern Europe. Judging by his black hat and long sidelocks, he's a Jew. But it's hard to see the details of his features because of cracks and fading in the picture.

Mr. WADE LAGRONE (Vice-President, Marketing, ScanCafe): Just a massive amount of dust and noise and tiny little scratches that make it look as if this photo were taken in a snowstorm.

SYDELL: Lagrone then shows me what the same photo looks like after their technicians process it. It looks great.

Mr. LAGRONE: And that photograph if you've gotten it, you would never know it'd ever been damaged.

SYDELL: Damaged old pictures were on Chrissy Knudsen's mind last year, when she realized that her family photos were at risk. Her mother was asked to evacuate her house during last year's fires in Southern California.

Ms. CHRISSY KNUDSEN: I said, mom, just please don't lose these pictures.

SYDELL: Knudsen's mother put them in storage.

Ms. KNUDSEN: So they're just in these boxes and albums and loose and all that stuff. I just - I'm taking like kind of a box at a time, every time I see her.

SYDELL: Knudsen has been taking them, sorting them and sending them to ScanCafe. Each photo and color negative costs 29 cents a piece, that's nearly half the price of the largest competitor, ScanDigital. The catch is, Knudsen has to send all her photos to the ScanCafe plant in Bangalore, India, and it can take as long as six weeks before she sees them again.

Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

SIEGEL: And to talk about how you can better preserve your personal photo archive, we're joined now, as we are most Mondays, by Omar Gallaga, who covers technology culture for the Austin American-Statesman and for All Tech Considered. Welcome, Omar.

OMAR GALLAGA: Hi, Robert. Good to be here.

SIEGEL: And we heard in Laura's piece about the pricing for ScanCafe services -29 cents a piece. I imagine that's why they're scanning in Bangalore?

GALLAGA: Yeah. I actually spoke to Sam Allen, the CEO of the company previously. And he told me that he believes that ScanCafe has the largest scanning facility in the world, with hundreds of workers trained in photo restoration and scanning.

SIEGEL: But is this really such a labor intensive proposition that you have to seek out a cheaper labor market to do it?

GALLAGA: For basic scanning, it's something most people can handle on their own, but the very deep photo restoration that they talk about in the piece, most people wouldn't know how to do that, even if they have a copy of Photoshop. And it's so complex that a lot of it requires really a human touch. There is software that can do some auto-correction to photos, but for the real fine tuning, for fixing up a tear in a photo or the kind of snow that we talked about in the picture…

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

GALLAGA: …you really need to have some skills to be able to do that. It's very complicated.

SIEGEL: Well, for people who own such photos and balk at the notion of sending them off to Bangalore for a month and a half, are there any scanners available that are faster than the traditional flatbed ones that some people already have?

GALLAGA: Yeah, there is a category of scanner called a sheet-fed scanner that can handle multiple documents at once. They're usually a little bit more expensive than flatbed scanners and you still have to process the photos, you still have to, you know, bring them into the software and save the file and set the size and all that. But for very fragile photos, like I said, you'd really want to be careful about running them through any kind of sheet-feeder. I mean, it's a really good way to destroy a photo and tear it even further if it's something that's very old and fragile.

SIEGEL: I mean, one of the reasons that we would want to do this to our old photos is the fear that they'll continue to fade and eventually we might not be able to see anything on the pictures. So let's say they're turned in to digital files, are they permanently restored? Where do they reside once they're digital files?

GALLAGA: Well anyone that's ever had a hard drive crash knows that digital data is definitely not permanent or safe unless you take precautions. You know, backing up all those important documents to an external hard drive, that's become pretty common, we see a lot of that now. But there are lot of devices from flash drives to off-site storage services that are other alternatives. The real big issue that I found that people are worried about now is what happens if there's a fire or flood or theft, you know, you lose your data even if you have it protected somewhere in your home.

In my home I used it what's called a Drobo, that's a short for data robotics. It's a small black box that contains multiple hard drives. So, if one hard drive goes bad, you still have the data intact, everything is still there, you just swap out the drive and you're good to go. But, like I said, that doesn't help you if you have a fire, flood or theft. So off-site services are becoming more and more popular. You - that stuff lives on the cloud. You can access it from anywhere and you have the security of letting someone else manage your data instead of having it be in danger in your home.

SIEGEL: Omar, so far we've been talking about old photos, what about old videos or old 16 millimeter films, old Super 8 films for that matter?

GALLAGA: Well, there are lot of gadgets and software to transfer your old movies to your computer, a lot of them for under $50. The problem is with a lot of the older devices, a lot of the 16 millimeter and Hi8, it may not have the right kind of connection to interface with those devices and plug into your computer. But if you do have, say, VHS or beta or something that does connect, once you've got those digital files, there are online services that allow you to share those files or even edit your videos online. One just debuted this month, it's called And it features online editing of your digital videos and the ability to get those videos burned to a DVD or to share them online with family and friends. Now, if you don't have the tools to interface with your computer, they will actually do it for you. You can just mail in your tapes or filmstrips and they will digitize them, they'll be available online for you to edit and watch or share with friends. We will actually be linking to and a lot of the other resources we've been talking about on the All Tech Considered blog at

SIEGEL: And while we are on the subject of, we'd like to announce the opening of our first ever All Tech Considered photography exhibition, featuring the work of none other than you, our listeners. We asked you to send us your favorite summer images and over the past two months we've received hundreds of submissions. Our multimedia team has complied some of these images into a very impressive gallery.

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SIEGEL: And we invite you to visit and peruse. Thanks to all of you who sent us your photographs. It's all at the new Thank you, Omar.

GALLAGA: Always a pleasure, thanks.

SIEGEL: Omar Gallaga, who covers technology culture for the Austin American-Statesman and for All Tech Considered.

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