Could This Be the Most Ingenious Way to Scan the Backs of Your Photographs?

by | Last updated Apr 21, 2017 | Scanning Photos | 19 comments

Captions on the backs of two photos

When I started scanning my photo collection, I had no plans to scan the backs of my prints.

This is even considering that maybe 60% of my family's prints have handwriting on the other side. It's either a date when the photo was taken, the names of people in the photo, or sometimes — like in the photo above — a lengthy description.

All of this information is  very important to me.

But my idea was that after I finished scanning a group or envelope full of prints, I would then spend a little bit of extra time and type all of this information in the blank “description” or “caption” field in my photo manager.

If you aren't sure how to do this, you might be interested in the “how-to” article I wrote on adding captions to your photographs.

Why Even Scan the Backs of Photos?

Over the last several months, I've really been considering digitally capturing the back and archiving them away too.

A true list with all of the reasons why one might want to do this would be quite long. So here's just three reasons — enough to convince me.

Caption Deleted — What happens if you accidentally delete the caption in your photo manager one day? (Accidental keystrokes happen to the best of us) By the time you realize it's gone, will you still have a backup version that has it in there? And if you no longer have access to the original print, you are now completely out of luck!

Identification of Handwriting — It's hard to easily note in a caption field in your photo manager exactly who wrote the identifying information. And sometimes it could even be multiple people who contributed. It would be nice to be able to reference a copy of it later when in doubt.

Important Document — Much of this information is very personal and sentimental. This can be handwriting by your relatives that either aren't, or in fact someday will no longer be here with us. Now, I almost think these backs are as important as the fronts to preserve.

Common Ways To Scan The Backs of Your Photos

Flatbed Scanners

Scanning captions on back of photo

Scanning handwriting using the Epson Perfection V600 Photo

So sure, you could use your flatbed scanner to scan the backs too. You could even do it at the same time as you scan the fronts — just flip them over and do another pass while you already have them handy.

Or, you could set those prints aside and scan the backs at a later time. You might want to do this if you've decided to change your scanner settings when doing just the backs.

For example, if you want to scan the backs at a lower DPI than the front. Doing a lower DPI pass all at once could be less stressful for you than remembering to keep changing the setting back after each pass.

But, scanning with flatbeds is considered tedious by some. Just getting someone to do the front side is almost asking too much from some people right !??

So there must be other ways.

Portable Photo Scanners

A slightly less common option, and one that would presumably be quicker would be to use a relatively inexpensive portable scanner — like those made by Pandigital.

There is definitely a tradeoff with the image quality and also the “consistent image quality” with the portables scanners I've tested.

But, we're not talking about scanning your images where near perfect quality is often desired. In this case, it would be just for capturing handwriting.

And something else to keep in mind with these little guys.  The rollers inside are making contact with your photos as they push them through.

So without using one of their special transparent “sleeves” that most of them include to protect the photograph, there is a small but still possible chance you could damage one of your prints. I personally wouldn't put a delicate print through one of these!


Still, there must be another option. One for people who don't want to take the extra time with a flatbed, but also don't want the extra expense of buying a portable scanner. Some of them cost up to $150.

Capturing Handwriting Captions With Your Cell Phone Camera!

How about using your smartphone to capture the backs of your photos? With the right lighting, the quality of the latest cell phones are rivaling point and shoot cameras and a few DLR's.

Now, this isn't quite my ingenious idea — not exactly. So bear with me another second.

Why I like this idea is because for one, its a cheap. Many of us already own nice cell phones with good cameras, so it's not an added expense.

And secondly, because this method doesn't tie up your computer like scanning with a flatbed or a portable scanner does (unless you buy one that records to a memory card), you can be taking photos of the backs of prints you just scanned at the same time as you are scanning the fronts of the next few!


There is that period of time while you're waiting for the flatbed scanner to do it's scanning thing it does where you basically are doing nothing but prep the next photos and wait around. Why not use that extra time to your advantage.

Taking a photo of a the back of a print with a caption using Genius Scan App

Testing this theory out with my iPhone.

There is a problem with this method however — cropping.

If your camera shoots “rectangular” and your image just happens to be “rectangular”, then you can hold your cell phone close enough to get a tight perfect shot.

But often, because photographs come in all different sizes (ratios), the composition will typically leave lots of extra space around the image. The only way around this is to manually crop it out in software after you've taken the shot.

4x4 Shot of the back of a print with a caption

See all the excess space around this 3″ x 3″ print?

Now, it's possible you are the type of person where this won't bother you. Maybe you will think of it as just a “reference image” to file away. So who cares how it looks as long as you can read it.

If so, then you may have a perfect solution here!


Okay, so I think we are getting somewhere now. But, I think we can still take this even one step… better!

Here's the Possible Ingenious Twist

Capturing documents at extreme angles

These document scanning apps for smartphones even capture and adjust for automatically, documents taken at extreme angles!

It occurred to me the other day that software developers have really been pushing the envelope on what they can make a smart phone do.

And there are some applications out there now that are specially written to photograph documents on the go using the camera in our phones.

They are designed so that a special agent like James Bond 007 can be out on a mission, find a secret spy document, whip out his phone and take a special picture of it.

And arguably, the best reason to use one of these apps, and what sets them apart from just using your stock camera application, is they assist you by automatically finding the edges of the document.

To put it simply — they auto crop!

Couldn't we use this “secret spy” technology too?


Putting This Idea to the Test

I picked out two applications that would run on my Apple iPhone (iOS).

The first one appeared to be the best one available — the highest user reviews, slick looking user interface and a $7 (US) price. (It's currently only available for iOS)

The second still looked really good and is available for free. (This one is available on both iOS and Android)


I think it's worth bringing up that this isn't meant to be thorough application reviews. There are far too many features to critique them on that I didn't take the time to evaluate.

This is merely meant to introduce you to the main features available in this type of app. Think of it more as a “proof of concept” evaluation just to see if this type of application could even serve our purposes.


Scanner Pro Review

Scanner Pro iOS App IconFor $6.99 (US), Scanner Pro by Readdle does in fact give you a very slick looking user interface. Their short description is:

Scanner Pro transforms your iPhone and iPad into portable scanners. It allows you to scan receipts, whiteboards, paper notes, or any multipage document. Scanned documents can be emailed and printed, uploaded to Dropbox, Google Drive and Evernote, or simply saved on the iPhone/iPad.

I was very impressed with the nice textured background, the colors they chose for their design, and how easy it was to figure out how to operate.

And just as I had hoped, “scanning” something was a very simply process. Basically, you aim the camera, focus, shoot, make an adjustment (only if you want to), and save it.

framing print using Scanner Pro

Step 1 — Frame the print and snap the photo with the camera button.

Auto detection of corners using Scanner Pro

Step 2 — Shows you the corners it auto-detected. Adjust if you want. Hit “Next”.

Uncorrected image in Scanner Pro

Step 3 — Shows you the uncorrected image for your approval.

Making corrections in Scanning Pro

Step 4 — Make (optional) rotation, brightness, or contrast adjustments. Hit “Save”.

Finished image inside of Scanner Pro

Step 5 — Shows you the finished image.

For the sake of these tests, I didn't manually adjust any of the corners (Step 2) in either application.

I decided not to because this was more to me about how good can I get these to look, running as efficient a workflow as possible.

If I had to manually adjust every corner on hundreds or even thousands of images, I doubt I would even consider these apps as a viable option.


Scanner Pro, from my short experience running it, didn't really live up to my expectations for what I was trying to use it for. So to be fair, it's really probably meant to scan black and white documents. You know, like office paperwork, bills, and tax documents.

No matter how hard I tried, going through all of the settings, I couldn't get my test image to look like a “real photo”.

Instead, it just turned out looking like a facsimilie — a “photo copy”.

Final image of caption on the back of a print using Scanner Pro.

Here's how the finished image looked saved to the iOS “Camera Roll” using Scanner Pro. No manual cropping was performed.

Scanner Pro is really good at taking the image and altering the exposure so that the text or drawings etc. really “pop-out”. The handwriting in my image became ultra-contrasty between the black and white so it's really easy to read.

But, this is done at the expense of the colors around them. See how the bluish ink is now dark black? And the edge of the table that shows through hardly even resembles the same brown color.

And, like my un-cropped photo example above (using just a cell phone), if you are fine with this, then great!

Again, for some, the goal will be just to have a version to file away that is simply legible.

For others — myself included — the goal is probably to preserve a really good photographic replication.

Genius Scan Review

Genius Scan iOS/Android App Icon

For free, Genius Scan — PDF Scanner (iOS App Store) / (Google Play Android) by The Grizzly Labs is by no means an ugly looking user interface. And their short description is:

Genius Scan turns your iOS or Android device into a pocket scanner. It enables you to quickly scan documents on the go and email the scans as JPEG or PDF.

The app worked very similarly to Scanner Pro. Once you understand one, you pretty much understand the other.

Genius Scan Framing Image

Step 1 — Frame the image. Snap photo with the camera button.

Genius Scan Auto Cropping

Step 2 — Shows you auto-cropped area around the edges. Adjust if you want. Hit “Use”.

Genius Scan choose enhancements

Step 3 — Optionally, change the enhancement mode from your default.

Genius Scan preview finished image

Step 4 — Preview finished image.  Hit “Save”.

In my limited testing, the automatic “cropping” seemed to be a little bit more accurate in Genius Scan. Or maybe I was just swayed to the pretty shade of orange in their outline!

And I was very relieved to find that Genius Scan has an option to choose an “enhancement mode.” Let me tell you, this made all the difference!

As expected, in the “Black and White” enhancement mode, no color is left at all. Colors are made black and whites remain white.

In the “Color” option, text is made black and really contrasty, but colors around them appear to be left in.

But, when switched to the “no enhancement” setting, the entire image is left unprocessed and looks “raw” — like well, a real photograph.

Genius Scan App finished image

Here is the finished image saved to my iOS “Camera Roll”. This was made with the “no enhancement” setting. No manual cropping was performed.

This was perfect for my wishes!

Because if someone chose to write on the back of a photo in blue ink, I don't want the handwriting in my images to come out as black. At least that's how I feel about it.

For me, it's not just about recording the important information. It's about preserving how the information was recorded to begin with.


And let me add, if you are bothered by the advertisement at the bottom of select screens in Genius Scan, The Grizzly Labs currently also offers a $2.99 version called “Genius Scan+ PDF Scanner” that appears to be the same UI but with a few additional features and no ads.

Additional Features Worth Noting

Manual Cropping Adjustments

Scanner Pro corner magnification pop-up

Corner magnification “pop-up” while adjusting the top right corner in Scanner Pro.

Both applications were pretty good at automatically estimating where to crop at all four corners. Not perfect, but fairly close.

If you really want to get in closer to make it exact, each application lets you grab a corner with your finger, and drag it in or out until you are pleased.

And here's a time where that $6.99 for Scanner Pro really pays off.

As you grab a corner, covering it up with your finger, a magnified circle pops up and out of the way so you can see exactly where you are dragging the corner.

In Genius Scan (at least the free version), there is no magnified “pop-up”. Instead, you kind of have to guess where to move the corner because your finger is covering up the corner of the document where you want to be looking.

It's not as bad of a situation as it sounds. It just made me really appreciate that feature in Scanner Pro even more once I realized what was possible.


Separate Document or Continuous

In both applications, you can easily choose if you want to create a new “document” each time you snap a photo, or add it to a previous “document” to make it a multi-paged PDF file.

Multi-page view in Scanner Pro

Scanner Pro: view of 2 scans inside of a multi-page document.

Genius Scan Multi-document view

Genius Scan: view of 3 single documents in a list and one multiple with 3 separate scans inside.

Depending on how you want to store and use your images, a multi-paged PDF file could actually have advantages for you.

For example, if you have a 3,000 print photo collection, you could possibly make a 3,000 image PDF file “document” if you wanted — assuming the application doesn't have a limitation. Then you could have all of your images in just one file.

Here's How I Might Use a Multi-Paged PDF

The image manger I use, Apple's Aperture, does a cool thing. If you drag a PDF file on top of the application icon in the launch bar, it will give you special import options menu. From here you can tell it to turn this multiple-page PDF file into separate JPG's — one for each image inside.

This is probably what I would do if I went the route of using one of these document scanning apps. I would probably make a multi-page PDF file for every scanning session. So if I scanned 32 prints that day, I would make a PDF file in my app with 32 images.

Then when I was done scanning that day, I would import that .PDF file into Aperture and turn it into 32 separate images that I can store away with each “front image” it correlates to.

Rename Scans

Also worth noting is that each application allows you to rename the scan inside of the application itself.

So if you aren't content having the filename named generically using that day's time and date, you can click on the image name and rename it whatever you choose.



I think these two applications definitely proved to me that a portable scanning app could serve the purpose of recording the backs of our prints.

And we wouldn't have to just stop with prints. It could even be used to record the writing on the edges of our slide mounts too.

Really, anything you can think of that you don't want to use a flatbed or dedicated negative scanner for. Consider postcards, letters or newspaper clippings etc.


So, the only reason I may choose not to use an app like one of these would probably be because of the image quality or my workflow.

If it turns out that it takes longer than I think to line-up, tap-to-focus, shoot, save and get them into Aperture, then I might as well just take the time to scan them with a good scanner.

And knowing me, how particular I am, I still may decide to use a flatbed scanner or even a portable scanner just because the images would probably turn out on average, much sharper and of better quality.

But remember, I'm pickier than most people out there I bet!

I still just haven't made up my mind. (sigh)

Honestly, all three options — flatbed scanners, portable scanners, smartphone document scanners — are all great choices.

Polaroid icon

What about you? After reading this, do you think you might want to scan the backs of your prints? Which method might you choose to go with?

Let me know in the comments below.


Related Posts

Aiming for the Stars to Hit a Cowpie — My Enlightening Scanning Journey

Aiming for the Stars to Hit a Cowpie — My Enlightening Scanning Journey

As a Wyoming farm gal, I was raised with the phrase “It’s better to aim for the stars and miss than to aim for a cowpie and hit.” Well, that’s great advice … unless your goal actually is to hit the cowpie.

My scanning goal really was that simple, but for some reason, aiming at the cowpie just wasn’t working. So I changed strategies and aimed for the stars. The result? Read on to find out. And hopefully, by sharing my scanning journey, it will help you on your scanning journey.

Scanning All of Our Family Photos … What’s the Actual Point?

Scanning All of Our Family Photos … What’s the Actual Point?

For anyone with children, or with other family members such as nieces or nephews, the answer to whether or not we should scan our old family prints, slides and negatives may seem quite obvious.

But, when I received this email from Jennie, asking me why she should go through all the trouble of taking on such a big scanning and organizing project when she doesn’t have younger family to pass it on to, I was struck with the thought that many of you might be asking yourselves the same question. Maybe even for some of you who actually do have family to pass your scanned collections on to!

If you don’t have or know anyone that will truly cherish your scanned photo collection once you’ve passed, is there even a single reason to scan any of your old family photos?

A 70-Year-Old Silver Surfer Scans Her Entire Life!

A 70-Year-Old Silver Surfer Scans Her Entire Life!

Being a man of action as well as words, my son Mark bought me a slide scanner and taught me how to use it. I scanned in the slides of the Holy Land without much difficulty. I was delighted to be able to view them on my computer with the same ease as I could view the digital photographs that I had started taking in 1999.

The remainder of the slides came first. Then I started work on the prints in the photograph albums that I had lovingly curated over the decades. The physical albums had started to deteriorate to the extent that some of them were falling apart. Scanning the prints was an ideal way to remedy this. I also scanned in all the prints that had not made the cut for the photograph albums but I had kept nevertheless. I also spent several months scanning in approximately 4,000 negatives. All in all I must have scanned nearly ten thousand photographs in one form or another.

Leave a Comment Below — (Members: Login before commenting to display your profile)

  Subscribe by email to new comments without commenting  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Alex O
Alex O'Donnell

MS Office Lens – I don’t normally plug MS products, but this one I forgot about until reading this article. It’s for whiteboard and document scanning, but will auto trim and then flatten any image. You can adjust the trim/crop manually, and it will get you a nice flat, true/right image. Add to that an easy save to multiple locations such as your OneDrive, OneNotes, word doc, PDF or local phone camera roll.


What about saving the front and back images into a multi-page Tif file? Some scanning software will do this, but if yours won’t, there are freeware programs that can do it. Has anyone tried this?


Does anyone know if theres a program that will take the 2 images (front & back) and put them together digitally so you can flip them over like you would an actual print? that would be a cool app. It would be even cooler in a 3d environment like virtual reality to make it a more tactile experience, without endangering the originals.

Clif Hunt
Clif Hunt

If you use Lightroom and put all the backs with the fronts, you can “stack” each front with it’s respective back. If you want to look at the back, just dbl-click the photo and it unstacks the two so you can see the writing.

Art Taylor
Art Taylor

Hi oggo loggo,

From an archivist’s point of view, ideally, each image would be scanned WITH the border (if any) and again with the border cropped out. A border, especially a white one, can lead to inaccurate exposure of the scan because of the undetailed bright white portion of the image. Thus, it can be better to scan a second time to include just the actual image to get better exposure. HOWEVER, borders sometimes have dates (processing date, not necessarily related to actual date the image was made) printed on them. They might also have handwritten information written. The rough edges were very common on prints made in the 1950s, so they can help establish an approximate date for the print, which would often be within at least a few months of when the photo was taken. One way to ensure that such an edge is visible in the digital file is to place a piece of middle gray or black construction above the print but below the scanner’s white reflective surface. That will visually distinguish the white of the border from the white background of the scanner. Such rough borders were usually done by the processing lab, rather than somebody carefully taking special scissors and adding them later. Any border can also show that a print was not properly aligned parallel with the paper when it was printed, if the border has uneven widths around the image. That might indicate that the print was made by an amateur in a home darkroom instead of in a commercial lab. If the photographer is known, that might indicate that he/she was interested in film developing and printing as well as in taking pictures. Such information may be important to genealogists trying to learn about a particular individual.

oggo loggo
oggo loggo

I don’t know if you have covered this, but I’m how about whether to scan the white borders of prints or not?

I’m kinda embarrassed to admit that I scanned and kept them. It seems pointless, but then again as with almost duplicates, you could argue that it’s part of capturing how the family chose to have the pictures. Some of them were cut out with a scissor that makes the edge “curly” or what to call it.

It’s not actually any extra effort, so I guess it’s ok, but probably nobody is going to care.

Mary Gilbert
Mary Gilbert

I agree that scanning the information on the backs is important. I have been scanning backs since I started. Unfortunately the ones I scanned a long time ago never got matched up to the fronts. I have a folder of early scans with backs and fronts that have the file names given by the scanner. I probably intended to go back and match them up but got interrupted and never did. For most of them I can’t guess which backs go to which fronts. What you are doing if you scan the backs on a different device could create a similar situation unless you make sure to do your matching right away. You never know what will happen, a machine might break or something more urgent takes your time. By the time you come back you forgot exactly what you were doing when you quit, or have to spend time locating the photos to make sure everything gets paired up right.

What I am doing now is to use my flat bed scanner to scan the backs and fronts during the same scanning session. I will choose a manageable group of photos from the giant mountain and do the ones with writing first. I fill the table with fronts and usually scan at 600 dpi. Then I fill the table with backs and scan at 300 dpi. Before I start the next batch I rename each front with a number and the backs with a number and a letter. So image 1 is a front that goes with 1a that is the back. Sometimes I will add the name of the person if I know it and it is not on the back. I don’t try to capture the entire back, just the writing. Later I will figure out how to give the files better names. Right now my goal is preservation rather than organization. I am taking a paper pile and making a digital pile. If I don’t live long enough to get it organized then hopefully one of the kids will do it. At least I was able to capture that image before it deteriorates further.

Art Taylor
Art Taylor

Great article, Curtis.

I’m 100% in favor of scanning the back of any photo with any information written or printed on it. While any of the methods you mention will do for recording such information, even though it may be slower, the use of a flatbed scanner will probably yield the best results in terms of preserving any color, such as the ink color you mention, and most likely will have higher resolution. If the writing is faded or discolored, as it may well be on older prints, software such as EpsonScan or VueScan and the flatbed scanner will allow easy adjustment of brightness and contrast to make such writing more legible. If the writing is extremely small, it’s easy to scan at a higher resolution or to scale the scanned image at scan time to make it larger and possibly more legible.

So far as cropping is concerned, I’d be reluctant to crop any part of the image with any information on it. In the example you show, with the 7-7B at the lower left and 02235 at the lower right, these numbers possibly identify the negative frame number (7-7B) and either the film roll number or at least the processor’s envelope identification number. Both of these numbers can be used to relate the text to a specific print and negative if they don’t get cropped and lost when the text is scanned.

While I’d generally favor the flatbed approach, I can see valid use of the smartphone concept, especially if you’re trying to scan photos that belong to someone else and you can’t borrow them to take home to scan with your favorite scanner. The results might not be ideal, but they’d certainly be better than not getting any digital copies of such photos. The technique might also be helpful in a research library or newspaper morgue to document a microfiche or microfilm reader’s screen for your personal research purposes.

Returning to handwritten notes, in situations where the identity of the writer is uncertain or unknown, a high-quality scan could be printed and compared with any available handwriting samples, such as diaries, letters, or business forms, from identified individuals and perhaps the writer’s identity could be established. The same could be said where the writing on a photo can be identified but not the identity of other documents. In this case, the known identity from the photo might help identify the writer of the other document(s).

The color of ink and the texture of the writing could conceivably help date a photo if scanned at sufficient resolution and quality since a fountain pen’s ink and nib would be noticeably different from that of a ballpoint pen or a felt marker or pencil. Of course, from an archivist’s viewpoint, none of these implements, with the possible exception of a soft lead pencil, is recommended for writing on photos but many, many people in the past have been unaware of such concerns and may have used whatever writing implement was convenient when they decided to write on a photo. Handwriting styles changed over the years so the style of writing might prove helpful in dating a particular photo.

(As an aside, I’ve heard that at least in some school districts in Ontario, handwriting is no longer being taught at any grade level. Presumably this is because nearly everyone today either uses a computer keyboard or a touchscreen for text entry and has no particular use for handwriting. While this is likely the situation, if people no longer learn how to write, how long will they continue to learn to read handwriting? If they can’t read writing from previous generations, how are they going to be able to understand personal or family archive documents such as letters or diaries? This should be a matter of concern for anyone interested in preserving family history and archives. Maybe only a few people will be able to read such documents, much as only a relatively few today can read ancient Egyptian or other early letter-forms.)

If the ink is a particular color, such as turquoise, red, or green, rather than the more customary dark blue, perhaps a specific individual is known to have favored such a color of ink for general writing and thus the writer’s identity may be confirmed or at least considered to be highly likely. Just another argument in favor of preserving original colors, even on the backs of photos.

These are some of the arguments in favor of doing high-quality scans of both sides of photos when there’s any information available on the back.


oggo loggo
oggo loggo

Honestly, it’s just never going to be important enough to find out exactly who wrote it, to be worth this effort. We tend to imagine these very unlikely scenarios, where someone finds an interesting photo in this collection, and need all these details, but how likely is it to happen? How much extra time is spend getting such great extra detail? I doubt it will ever be justifiable to spend that time. It’s like we imagine our family will someday be investigated by someone. It’s not happening to that extend.

That said, I did scan the backs of all photos with writing on the backs. The half an hour, I took pictures, and wrote notes to remember where they belonged. Too much trouble. Then I started simply turning the picture over after scanning it, and scanning at a lower resolution (for speed), so a backside would always come right after the front side (pictures autonumbered by scanner software), so I could easily name it all properly after a batch/day.

One of my main reasons to scan the backsides, is that I can’t actually read a lot of the handwriting on there. I know my parents can read it, so I definitely should get them to read it, so I can also type it and put it in the file name.