Should You Bother Scanning Your Duplicate Photos?

by | Last updated May 17, 2017 | Organizing Originals, Scanning Photos | 12 comments

I've read the average family photo collection, made up of prints, slides and negatives, is about 3,000 photos. And of all of those photographs, there's a good chance a portion of them are duplicates.


Two identical prints. So which one should I scan?

Back when we created paper prints from our developed rolls of film, it was common to pay a little bit more to have some extra copies, or at least a duplicate set. These were either stored away as a backup, or most likely, shared with someone else in the family.

And now, as you are going through your collection of prints, getting them ready to scan or send off to be scanned, you will find yourself faced with this important question:


Is there a good reason why I should consider scanning my duplicate photographs?


Some people feel you can be very selective about which photos in your collection you scan. For example, Ed Hamrick, founder of Hamrick Software that makes the scanning software Vuescan said in a blog post called Batch Scanning Tips:

The first and most important step in scanning a collection of photos or slides is to make the hard decisions about what you want to scan. A good rule of thumb is that you should only scan one out of five pictures from a roll of film. Most people can go through a set of 36 photos or slides and quickly see the 7 or 8 that they would like to scan.

Of course, if these are the only existing photos of your parent's wedding, then you probably want to scan them all. Otherwise, be discriminating – nobody needs to scan out of focus pictures of a cousin's friend's back garden from 10 years ago.

And for anyone who feels you are allowed to be this selective and only concern yourself with scanning 20% of much of your collection, I can only assume you would also feel that duplicates would probably fall into that other 80% pile.


Simply put, when it comes down to it, you really have three options when you come upon duplicates:


  1. None — You don't scan any duplicate photographs.
  2. All — You scan every photograph you come across.
  3. Select  — You pick and choose which duplicates to scan.


“Why would I even want to scan my duplicate photographs — aren't they all exactly the same?”


That is the big question here. And if you're still asking yourself this, let me try and answer it for you by explaining the thought process I had when deciding what I was going to do with my own duplicates.


How I Chose to Handle My Own Duplicates

First, let's get this pink elephant out of the way. Scanning your duplicates might seem absolutely asinine to you.


As•i•nine  |ˈasəˌnīn| – adjective 
extremely stupid or foolish.


See, I just looked that fun word up for you, just to make your point look even more… eh let's say… effective.

And hey, that's a fair statement. I can take it.

If you agree with this, I'm sure you feel there are far too many books to read, destinations to visit, buckets to list, friends to meet and movies to watch to spend extra time scanning something you feel you already have.

Life's short.


All that being as it may, after a fair amount of “mental debating,” I still decided it was in my collection's best interest to actually scan most of my duplicates — paper prints as well as slides (if I ever came across any).


You know, I can actually hear you screaming at me through the internet.

“Are you kidding me Curtis !????”


And well, just for the sake of putting up a decent fight, here is my reasoning — if you still care to know. This isn't meant to convince everyone to do the same. But, it's possible you just might discover an important point you hadn't thought of that applies to your own collection.


Is Your Photo Collection Unorganized?

In order to avoid scanning any duplicates, you will first have to establish which of your photographs have duplicates.

Think about that for a second. And for many, this is much easier said than done. This requires an extreme amount of organization in the pre-scanning stage.


The problem with my family's collection is it's almost entirely unsorted — there is almost no logic at all as to why some photos are with other photos.

Through the years, a lot of duplicate prints of treasured snapshots were made and given to family members to enjoy. As these family members passed, many of these duplicates were returned to us and were then randomly mixed in with all of the others.

And as I explained in Is Organization Preventing You From Starting to Scan Your Photo Collection?, my family's entire photo collection has not been in one location while I've been working with it. Even though I know we have roughly 9,000 photos total (because we counted them), I really didn't have a firm grasp when I started the scanning process what specific photographs we had — like a company would have with a master list of their current inventory.

So, even if I wanted to, I couldn't easily go through them all to even determine what duplicates I had.

United States map with another photo of a stack of photo albums over california and a photo with bin of photo albums over Kentucky

(Left) A small portion of my photo collection that I currently have to scan at my house. (Right) A bin full of albums I haven't scanned yet stowed away with my parents in Kentucky.


If you are trying to decide whether you want to scan duplicate copy A, B or C of a given photograph, you would first need to know that you have 3 copies to begin with.

And then, it would also be helpful if you actually knew where A, B, and C was!


Because I am not organizing and ordering my prints before I scan them, that means I will not know I have a duplicate of a given photo until I come across one in a later batch to scan and possibly realize it looks strangely familiar.

I might think, “Didn't I just scan that the other day?” And then I could go looking through my image manager and after some time, I might find an image that looks just like it.

But then what? If was trying my best to avoid maintaining duplicates in my digital collection, I would then have to make that decision whether or not to scan the duplicate I just found and delete the first digital master, or just stay with the copy I already scanned.

It can get really messy.


Is It Hard For You to Decide Which Copy to Scan?

In theory, if you decide not to scan any of your duplicate photos, I hope you would at least prefer to scan whichever copy is the “best” one. Right?


If you are holding 2 copies of a print, and one is faded and ripped a bit (because it was kept inside a wallet for 25 years), and the other copy is in pristine condition, almost brand new, then it would of course be an easy decision which of the two you should scan.

But, not all copies are this clearly differentiated. If two or more copies look similar in quality — and trust me, many of them will be when you try and compare them — you will have to make that tough decision which one is the most worthy of being scanned.


A less obvious example of condition would be when one copy of a photo may be perfectly flat, but it may have a nasty scratch or two across it that would be difficult or expensive to restore. And your other copy may not have any scratches, but the corners are really worn, even into the important center part of the image, and there's also a crease or two throughout it.

Which is the “better” candidate if you only allow yourself to scan one of them?


And here's something else to keep in mind in a situation like this. Like magic, a professional photo restorer could take both of those photos and extract and then blend the best parts from each of them to create a more superior master. But, this would only be possible if you could provide both versions.


What about more subtle differences, such as with their unique characteristics. Ask yourself, which copy physical holds the most amount of image detail or “information” on that piece of photo paper?

Who's to say each of the copies were created in the same way using the same technology.

Two prints you are holding could have been made from the exact same film negative but by different technicians, on different days using different equipment, in entirely different states or countries, printed on different types of photo paper stock, and stored through the years in completely different environments.

Any or all of these factors could produce multiple copies of a photo that may look similar at a quick glance, but upon careful and close inspection with a trained eye, will actually expose them as being fairly different.


If preserving the best image quality is important to you, are you currently qualified to decide which version of your photos holds the most and best “information” and should therefore be the one that gets to be scanned?



I think it's fair to say I am just scratching the surface here with reasons why you might want to scan all, many or at least some of your duplicates.

These reasons were certainly enough to convince me it was worth a little bit more of my own time in front of the scanner.


Know Your Own Goals

If you've read even just a few of my posts, you know I like to use the term “goals” when I discuss your photo collection. And this topic is no different.


As the goals for your collection get more and more advanced, the more advantages you will have by archiving more and more of your collection — even the duplicates.

But, if you know your goals are more basic, and you for sure want to rule out having any duplicates within your digital collection, just understand that you will have to be very organized from the beginning and have all of your photos sorted. This also means you should contact friends and relatives beforehand who may have photos you want to be a part of your digital collection. And then after that, you will have to make those tough decisions which of your duplicates you are going to exclusively scan.


If you aren't really sure where you fall — you feel you are somewhere in the middle here — you probably should find some kind of balance.

Maybe you just pick and choose duplicates of photos or a series of photos that are really important to you — like in Ed Hamrick's example of your parent's wedding. Or maybe you scan the ones where it's difficult to figure out which copies are the best quality and therefore the foremost candidate for being scanned.


And if you are still reading this looking for that one last reason that will push you over the edge to at least scan some of your duplicates, how about you just hand your faith over to the old proverb…

It's better to be safe than sorry.

The more you scan, the more information or “evidence” you will preserve. And the more you preserve, the more choices you will have later.

For me it's all about no regrets.


I would love to know how you feel about your collection after reading this. How are you, or how are you going to handle your duplicates photos? Let the community know in the comments below!

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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.

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Susan Farmer
Susan Farmer

And if the duplicates were printed at different times or different photofinishers or on different surfaced paper, the resulting scand and the color balance **WILL** be different. Once you can see them side-by-side, then you can decide which scan is the better one.


a related question: if one can digitalize the negative using, for example iconvert, will this usually result in a better image than a scan of a photo? or again, should I scan both?

Art Taylor
Coins: 45
Art Taylor

Hi Kathie,

As mentioned in previous posts, Curtis and I agree that if at all possible, scan the original negative if it’s available. If any print or prints from a particular negative have any writing on them, or a date printed by the processing lab, or rough borders, or are on textured paper, scanning the prints to capture that information may help in establishing at least a date range for when the image was made. Considering the low cost of digital storage these days, it’s probably worth the extra effort to scan the print/prints as well as the negatives. Another reason for scanning both negative and print would be if the print had any toning or dodging/burning or hand-tinting done by whoever did the printing, as many photographers did. Such treatments would not be evident in the negatives because they were strictly done to prints. Just be aware that you’ll need some method of actually scanning the original negative. You won’t gain anything useful by converting a positive digital image to a negative digital image.


I try to visit my Dad in the UK at least once a year , in fact I’m there now, and have just found a box of photos I’ve not seen before but luckily my Dad has a scanner and a massive iMac so it’s easy, he gave me a camera and light meter when I was nine, and started my love of photography With other sources it varies from having to wait to inherit photos, and, one side of the family who have lost theirs and maybe in a hot attic but have little to no interest in finding or seeing them again, which nearly gives me sleepless nights!. With photos from places i cant visit its just almost impossible if they are low tech and not very interested. In some instances the best I can get a close up with my iPad or DSLR, but it’s better than nothing.
My experience was completely because I posted a photo, and was recognised by an unknown distant relative in Australia who had the same photo of my Great Grandma in her possession and contacted me, which has been an amazing experience.
My next thing is obviously going to be the Dead Fred sites as I have ended up with several family albums with absolutely no names and would love to be able to reunite them for others to enjoy. Thanks for mentioning that Art.
I think than article about would be terrific Curtis, it could help a lot of people as a photo link on there opens up such an amazing world, I have recently discovered relatives photos dating back to 1860 on there , the little waving leaf icon is exciting but seeing the words ‘photo hint’ instead of ‘record hint’ when you log on is so much better!

Art Taylor
Coins: 45
Art Taylor

Hi Curtis,

Good idea to add some articles about to the blog. You might also work in information about sites like and Photos posted on these two sites can sometimes be identified by viewers. They can also help with genealogy searches.



Like you Curtis I have out of order photos and slides boxes of boxes of them and on different continents, I have no wish to waste time on duplicates, but, have found that its often worth just scanning and saving anyway as Art says ” better safe than sorry”. I have found several times that when seeing an image I thought I had it scanned and then later back home on a different continent that I don’t, I was just familiar with the image because I saw it on some relatives sideboard growing up. I’ve also found with some of the old studio portraits that there are subtle differences in pose and expression. I am so thankful for my collection of heritage pictures, because I shared one on and have discovered family in Australia and Canada, another reason to have a superb well organised photo collection too hand on your computer. Big thanks to Scan Your Entire Life for such great help.

Art Taylor
Coins: 45
Art Taylor

Another good, thought-provoking post, Curtis. In other posts, you’ve mentioned that storage space is inexpensive and the time required to scan a duplicate or suspected duplicate is likely to be FAR less significant than the time to go through an entire collection to locate other copies of any one or more images. I’m with you in suggesting you just go ahead and scan ALL images. If you do end up with duplicate digital copies, a good cataloging program like Lightroom (and probably Aperture), will show them, IF you’ve entered appropriate EXIF and IPTC data as you’ve added files. You then have the choice of deleting one or more copies of replicated images or keeping them all.

The example you give of the similar images, with different flaws, being difficult and expensive to combine using traditional techniques, is correct. However, with today’s software, like Photoshop Elements, it’s still somewhat time-consuming but relatively easy to combine scans of both images to maximize the quality while eliminating most or all of the flaws. This is another reason to scan and keep both images, such as those you mentioned in your example. Even if you don’t feel you have the necessary skill to do an effective restoration job at present, so long as you have the digital originals and work only on copies of them, you can always retrieve your original files anytime in the future when you’ve gained more skill in retouching images and likely come up with even better results. That option doesn’t exist if you decide to scan only one of the original images and ditch the other(s), so you’ll never know how successful a restoration attempt might have been.

Another point, ‘duplicate’ prints, in particular, may have been printed from the same negative but at different times, with different equipment, by different people, so the cropping might not be exactly the same. Color balance, (at least for color prints); exposure; and contrast may also be different, due to different chemistry batches, printing papers, machine settings, and operator variations. Unless you have ALL the similar images available for side-by-side comparison, with a magnifying glass and uniform light source, how will you be able to determine the ‘best’ one to scan? One copy might have the best color balance, another the best exposure, and a third the best cropping/composition. How do you decide which feature you most want to preserve and which features to discard? For the slight amount of time and extra storage space involved, why not just scan them all and be able to optimize the image quality of them later?

The point you make about acquiring photos from friends or relatives is also valid. Even though you might believe you’ve contacted everybody who might have relevant photos AND gained access to ALL of the photos they’re currently aware of, what happens when more photos turn up somewhere unexpectedly? Maybe a box is eventually discovered buried inside a larger box in somebody’s basement, closet, or attic and it has lots of family photos inside. Are you going to be organized enough to be able to decide on the spot which are duplicates of images you’ve already scanned? Are you going to be sure you’ve scanned the best example of each? Your quoted proverb is definitely true! “IT’S BETTER TO BE SAFE THAN SORRY”