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
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.
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.
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
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 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.
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”.
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 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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