If you want to share old photos online, or enjoy your LPs on your iPod, digitisation is the way forward. Dave Stevenson shows you how it’s done.
Today’s cameras and camcorders record digitally – but most of us still have plenty of older analogue media, both stuff we’ve recorded ourselves and movies and records we bought back in the days of VHS and vinyl. From albums full of photographs and slides, to cupboards packed with LPs, important memories are gathering dust and, in some cases, literally fading away.
Here, we’ll show you how to convert old photographs, records and video, often for free, into formats that will last, and can be shared easily for all to see – which, after all, is why you pressed the shutter in the first place.
Most all-in-one printers can scan photo prints with a level of quality that’s perfectly satisfactory for sharing on Facebook and the like. Such hardware can be slow, however: scanning a few hundred prints is likely to be a good day’s work. If you have a very large number of photos, it makes sense to use a professional scanning service: expect to pay around 50c per print. Slides can cost up to 90c.
Alternatively, consider investing in more capable hardware. We currently recommend the HP Officejet Pro 8500A Plus all-in-one for its fast and very high-quality photographic scanning ($375). Epson makes a series of well-regarded photographic scanners, too, ranging from the $150 Perfection V33 to the $829 Perfection V750 Pro.
Unless your original prints are of unusually high quality, a scan resolution of 300dpi will probably capture all the detail that’s there; if your prints are in the common 10 x 15cm format, this will give you the equivalent of a 2.1-megapixel image. Feel free to experiment with higher resolutions if you have very large or sharp originals. For the best quality results, consider scanning the negatives your prints were made from: this will require a specialist scanner capable of very high resolutions (see Slides and negatives, opposite).
Digitising doesn’t only make it easy to share your photos: it also gives you an opportunity to improve them. After scanning your images, you can use a variety of photo-editing packages to correct colour casts and bump up the saturation to compensate for fading. You may also be able to improve overexposed or underexposed images, but don’t expect to work miracles: unlike photos taken with a digital camera, scanned-in prints contain no extra hidden detail in the dark or light areas, so all you can do is adjust the overall balance.
Editing tools can also remove blemishes such as red-eye or spots on prints. You can crop out unwanted details, and with a bit of care even large defects such as rips or creases can be fixed. Popular editing tools include Adobe Photoshop Elements and the free Paint.NET: if you’re more ambitious you can invest in professional photo-editing software such as Adobe Photoshop Lightroom or the full Adobe Photoshop.
When it comes to archiving your scans, a good working format is 24-bit PNG: this produces larger files than the popular JPEG format, but it isn’t “lossy” like JPEG, so image quality won’t degrade each time you save the file. Lightroom doesn’t support PNG files, so in this case the TIFF format is a good alternative, though it takes up even more disk space. Expect a 2.1-megapixel PNG to occupy around 2.5MB of space; a TIFF might be twice that size.
If you thought scanning still images was a chore, brace yourself. Capturing video often needs to be done in real time, so digitising an hour of footage may tie up your PC for an hour, plus setup time. This is worth doing sooner rather than later, though: magnetic tape is a volatile medium, and VHS tapes have a shelf life of around 20 years. Your kids’ school plays and sports days may already be on their way out.
The technical process of getting video onto your PC will differ, depending on the type of camcorder you have. With recent hard disk-based and solid-state camcorders, your recordings are already stored as digital files, which you can simply copy across to your PC over a USB link. If your camcorder didn’t come with any editing software, you can use the free VirtualDub application to make edits (www.virtualdub.org) – or treat yourself to our recommended video editor, Sony Vegas Movie Studio HD Platinum 11.
With MiniDV camcorders, the process is more complicated. The data is recorded digitally, but the cassettes can only play it back in real-time, so transfers are slow. Many such camcorders transfer video over FireWire, so you’ll need a PC with a compatible port, or an add-on FireWire PCI Express or ExpressCard adapter. You’ll also need DV-specific capture software: one free option is WinDV, which you can download from http://windv.mourek.cz.
If you want to capture video from an older tape format such as Hi8 or VHS-C, you’ll need dedicated video-capture hardware to convert the camcorder’s video output to a digital stream. If you don’t still have the camcorder, or you don’t want to make the time investment, you can send your tapes off to be commercially digitised: services such as www.photoq.com.au will digitise all sorts of formats. They’ll even process VHS videos, although for copyright reasons they won’t accept Hollywood blockbusters or sitcoms taped off the TV – it’s your own footage only.
If you prefer to buy your own hardware, good quality capture devices can be bought online at reasonable prices: the Elgato Video Capture device costs $180 and connects an S-Video or composite source to any USB port, recording the incoming video and audio signal as a 640 x 480 H.264 video file. That should capture all the detail in a video cassette, but if you have the option, consider capturing at the higher DVD resolution (720 x 576 pixels in PAL regions such as Australia). This way, you can later archive your footage to DVD without any further transcoding.
It’s best practice to store the full-quality captured video somewhere safe on your hard disk. If you want to make edits or apply colour corrections, work on copies and export them in the appropriate format. It may be tempting to archive your originals to DVD, but be warned: it’s been estimated that optical discs could become unreadable after only a few decades.
One post-processing question you may encounter is whether or not to de-interlace the captured media. By default, camcorders that record in standard-definition television formats will produce interlaced 50Hz footage. This means that the first frame recorded (lasting 1/50 of a second) contains the odd-numbered horizontal lines of the image, and the second contains even-numbered lines. When interlaced frames are shown at full speed, full-resolution 25fps video is produced.
If you’re going to send out your video on DVD to non-tech savvy relatives, de-interlacing will be done automatically by the TV or DVD player, so there’s no need to do it yourself. If you’re uploading video to YouTube or Facebook, though, de-interlacing the footage will ensure it displays correctly.