I've got a small collection of family photos, probably several hundred pictures, including some taken over 100 years ago (although they might be copies of the originals, I don't know). All prints, no negatives. I want to digitize them, organize, add tags, document, share with family, etc. But the first part is digitization.

Myself I have a secondhand Epson Stylus DX5050 which I use as a scanner, and it works OK-ish, but for this task I'd like to do it good and proper. I put it to some tests, and the results are... discouraging:

  1. When scanning at 1200dpi (maximum advertised) there are "tears" in the picture. I remember reading about this somewhere, but I forget the name of this defect. It disappears at lower dpi settings though and even on 1200dpi you need to zoom in to see it. Here's an example from scanning an old postcard that was lying nearby. You can see the individual ink dots from the original printer, and then - a sharp edge precisely on a pixel boundary. (This picture is zoomed in)
  2. I tried scanning in a white page and the white color was uneven. The entire left half of the picture was just a little bit darker, but then around the middle it faded to a near-perfect white on the right half. I suspect this might be due to an aging CFL lamp. Again, I don't notice this when actually looking at scanned pictures, but it's pretty obvious when looking at a "blank" scan. (Sorry, I don't have a picture to show this time)

So, what I'm wondering is...

  • Is this normal?
  • Am I overthinking this and these "defects" are actually unimportant? Considering that the photos themselves aren't exactly award-winning (decades old black and white photos, mostly blury because of the poor cameras of the day).
  • Would getting a new scanner be better?
  • Would a more expensive scanner be better than a cheap one or are they mostly the same in this regard? (Or perhaps the increase in quality comes at an unreasonably high price jump?)
  • Should I be worried about color-calibrating my scanner?
  • Defect #1 could be due to jerks of the scanning head. Maybe the guide rods need some lubrication. – xenoid May 1 at 0:34
  • I wonder if there is some other issue, like noisy power lines affecting the motors, that could be causing the problem. If the glitches are intermittent and don't affect every scan, you can rescan affected photos later. – xiota May 1 at 3:01
  • The light to dark issue can be fixed using something akin to flat-field correction, such as used to correct unwanted vignetting. – xiota May 1 at 3:03
  • Does the glitching defect occur at lower resolutions? If not, you can scan at 300-600 dpi. Recall reading long ago that prints usually don't contain much more than 200dpi of detail. – xiota May 1 at 3:06

Is this normal?

It might be "normal" in the sense that your hardware isn't broken, but you'll very likely get a better result with better equipment.

Am I overthinking this and these "defects" are actually unimportant?

That depends on how much the photos and the scans mean to you. If the photos are fairly stable now and you feel like you'll be able to scan them again if you ever need a better result, then that obviously decreases the importance of getting the absolute best possible scan now. If the photos are starting to fall apart, or if you definitely don't want to go back and re-scan later, then it makes sense to do what it takes to get it right this time around.

Would getting a new scanner be better?

Yes. Based on what you said about the inconsistent illumination, and also the 1200dpi max resolution of the scanner, you can surely get better hardware without spending a ton. Just looking quickly at what Amazon offers, I see the Epson Perfection V550 has 6400dpi optical resolution, ability to scan negatives (I know that's not a priority for your collection), and software that'll help you restore faded colors, with a price around $160. If you want to spend less, there's a Canon CanoScan LIDE 400 with 4800dpi optical resolution and fewer features for around $90, and that'd still be a big improvement over what you've got. I don't mean to recommend these specifically -- just to give a sense of what's available at very reasonable prices. You can of course also spend more and get more.

Would a more expensive scanner be better than a cheap one or are they mostly the same in this regard?

See above. You can get a much better scanner than you currently have without spending a lot, but you can also get incrementally better hardware at higher prices. Does the difference in image quality and/or features between the $800 Epson V800 and the $1000 V850 justify a price difference that would more than pay for the V500, which has the same optical resolution as either of them? You have to read the specs, read the reviews, maybe visit a dealer, and ultimately decide for yourself. It's clearly worthwhile to somebody, else the V850 wouldn't survive in the market, but you very well might not be the target audience.

Should I be worried about color-calibrating my scanner?

Maybe. Are you going to print these photos? Do you want the prints to closely match the photos in their current state? Are you going to display the photos on several screens?

Color calibration of the scanner won't make a whole lot of difference if you don't also calibrate your monitor(s) and printer(s). Since your old photos have probably faded and will need some sort of color adjustment, you could argue that it's much more important to calibrate your monitor(s) and printer(s). Even if the scanner shifts the colors this way or that, you can fix it after scanning and then know what you'll get when you print. On the other hand, if you're going to go to the trouble of learning about color calibration and then calibrating your monitor and printer, it probably makes sense to calibrate your scanner too, so that the images you scan will look like the originals right off the bat.

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    Generally agree. However, the resolution available in prints isn't anywhere near 4800 or 6400 dpi, so there's limited usefulness in getting the most advanced scanner possible. – xiota May 1 at 2:58
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    @xiota That's an important point -- the high resolution is really there for scanning film, not prints. As I said, I'm not recommending any specific model, just giving a quick look at what's available. Even so, I'd bet that a new 2400dpi scanner will produce a better 600dpi photo scan than an old 1200dpi all-in-one printer-scanner-copier-fax. – Caleb May 1 at 3:38

I can not recommend any scanner. It has been some time since I use one.

But one thing to keep an eye on would be dynamic range. This will give you the ability to see details on the shadows and avoid blowing the light areas.


  • So how do you suggest digitizing old prints? I've read about the camera-on-a-tripod method, but I suspect it probably requires a VERY good camera and aligning the print will be no doubt difficult... Are the results really so much better? – Vilx- May 1 at 10:03

You've too many questions to answer easily, but generally speaking, I'd have to say YES to all of them. I think Caleb had the best approach. I have been scanning for many different types of jobs, and they all needed something "special" - the client needed it special! Go to Ebay, and find a new or used scanner that has high specs (scan ratios, variable output, OCR is nice, but that is not needed for your job. Look for bang per buck. You can get a new scanner everywhere for not much money, but higher $ than an ink-jet printer. From Ebay get the $3 warranty deal. It works. Scanner out of the way, now you need some good software. The best scanner software I have run across (and affordable) is VueScan. It will run any scanner even if you don't have the drivers for your outdated machine or OS. Look them up. It can open up things in your scanner you would not know about by looking at the manufacturer's information. Most recent scanners can scan in IR, and I didn't know that until I got VueScan. I too am refurbishing old photos, some as old as 100 years. The VS software has done more to get these photos restored than my other scanner that was twice the cost. Linkedin has two or three courses (for members)on restoring old photos. It helped me. You might check out Udemy also for a course on restoring. I sure hope I have not muddied the waters here. All the above answers were correct for some aspect of your endeavors, but all we can do is point you where we have been. Good luck to ya.

  • Thanks! :) I won't be doing any restoration (I'm a programmer and no good with visual stuff) and IMO the photos aren't THAT far gone that they would need it. But used scanners... yeah, I hadn't considered that. For electronics I almost always buy new so the thought didn't cross my mind. – Vilx- May 4 at 10:00
  • Btw - what are the great features of VueScan? The name comes up again and again, but the only noteworthy feature that I can find in their webpage is support of old scanners. Nice, but a rather niche feature which I doubt I'll need. What else does it offer that is difficult to do otherwise? – Vilx- May 4 at 21:30
  • Check out www.hamrick.com. That will explain and should answer your questions. If the answers are not there, you might be asking the wrong question. :) Cheers. – Edward May 5 at 19:46
  • I probably am. :) As I said, I read their webpage, but didn't see anything more interesting than the old scanner support. Since I don't know what I'm missing - could you perhaps enlighten me? :) – Vilx- May 5 at 20:51

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