These 3 handy apps put a photo scanner in your pocket

Scanning apps will let you turn a pile of photos into a useful digital archive. Photo: David Pierini/Cult of Mac

Scanning apps will let you turn a pile of photos into a useful digital archive. Photo: David Pierini/Cult of Mac

The 1940s hockey photos we found among my aunt’s possessions are a mystery she took to her grave. But with a little internet research and some sharing through social media, I figured I could put names to the players’ faces and stories that would bring the photos to life.

I needed a photo scanner. My smartphone and the right app puts one in my pocket.

For the hockey project, I tested three photo-scanning apps, each of which allowed me to digitize and share old photos without the need for computer equipment, Photoshop or the expense of a scanning service.

Organizing photos, whether physical prints or digital files, has always been a bit of a challenge. Adding a stack of vintage photographs into your deluge of digital pictures can make that process even more challenging. Apple’s working on streamlining the process with new photo tools in iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite.

Luckily, these scanning apps also offer tools for keeping track of the image files they create. Each one came in handy for different reasons as my brother and I went through our aunt’s boxes and boxes photos.

The best part, aside from preserving a little bit of hockey history? We didn’t need to fight over who got to keep any given image. What he wanted to keep, I was able to copy on the spot; if he wanted something I laid claim to, I could shoot it, send it to his inbox and quickly move on to the next box.

3 top photo-scanning apps

While you don’t need any special software to simply take a picture of a picture with your phone, these apps allow you to embed information with each image and make crops that correct compositions and skewed perspectives.

The quality of the scans from these apps might not be suitable for making large prints, but some smartphones, like the iPhone 4s, make it possible with an 8-megapixel camera that records images at 2,448 by 3,264 pixels. To do your copy work, fire up one of the recommended apps, find a spot with plenty of even, natural light, and try to avoid shadows and overhead light.

Shoebox by Ancestry.com

The internet has made filling out the family tree fun and easy. Ancestry.com touts itself as having the largest collection of genealogical data available online, with access to more than 2 million names from thousands of databases.

To use its photo scanner app, Shoebox (available for both Android and iPhone), you have to sign in on Ancestry.com, though you can opt out of uploading your scans to an Ancestry.com family tree.

Shoebox detects the edges of your photo and auto-corrects the perspective. Once you’ve saved your crop, you can add details like names (you can tag family members), places, dates and a caption. The app does not allow you to make adjustments for brightness or contrast. Nor does it offer special-effect filters.

For the best quality, use the photo saved to your Camera Roll. I learned this by sharing to my email and found that the file shared while in the Shoebox app was a lower resolution. The one from my Camera Roll was better but I could still see pixelated areas in the shadows and midtones. Picture No. 5 in the gallery above, the team picture with the clock in the background, turned out to be the best of the two Shoebox scans shown because it was of an 8-by-10-inch photo, whereas No. 6 was a 3-by-5-inch print.

CamScanner by Insig

I initially overlooked CamScanner during my research because it is known primarily as a document scanner. But Rachel LaCour Niesen, who curates @savefamilyphotos on Instagram and was recently profiled by Cult of Mac, recommended it to me for its simplicity.

Like Shoebox, CamScanner’s cropping tool allows you to correct crooked scans. Controls let you adjust contrast, brightness and midtones. There are some other basic tools to enhance black-and-white or color, but this is definitely not an app to create art. During my CamScanner tests, I initially did not notice some colors in the room that were reflecting onto the glossy surface of the print. The app’s “Gray Mode” made the reflection less noticeable.

CamScanner might be the best go-to tool for the genealogists because of what it can do for documents, like baptism certificates or marriage licenses, that they might encounter during research. Unfortunately, all scans are saved as PDFs. I wish CamScanner provided the option to save as a JPEG. To get one, you could convert your PDF or go to your Camera Roll, where the scan is saved as a JPEG.

Pic Scanner by App Initio

Pic Scanner offers a variety of tools and is deserving of the rave reviews it has received elsewhere. It is available for iPhone and iPads only.

If you use an iPad, you can scan up to three photos at a time. While this speeds up your scanning if you’re working through a stack of photos, I recommend doing one photo per scan so you don’t compromise resolution. You might want to make a print later.

After you make your copy, tap “Use” to give you a screen of editing controls. You can rotate the photo, tinker with brightness and contrast, and add effects like sepia, hue adjustment, vignetting and sharpening.

You can add names, dates and a description; create albums; and share images.

I found details held up the best in Pic Scanner, evident in the gallery’s first picture where you can see the worn tape on the sticks and the beaten surface of the goalie’s pads. This was an 8 x 10 print. The photo of the posed goalie was a 3 x 5 but that also scanned nicely in Pic Scanner and would probably hold up to enlargement.

I used Pic Scanner on an iPad mini with a 5-megapixel camera. You can download a trial version that gives you 10 scans. The app runs a reasonable $2.99 in iTunes.

Conclusion

With a steady hand, good light and a high-megapixel smartphone camera, you can make scans with any of these three apps that are ideal for posting online.

As for making prints, “scanning” with a handheld device is never going to provide the quality of a flatbed scanner or even copying with a digital SLR and macro lens.

I don’t want to lose fine details from enlarging a picture but I also don’t want to leave photographs in digital limbo, lost in the cloud. I’m going to make prints, even small ones, so I can fill my own shoeboxes and albums for generations to come.

  • digitaldumdum

    It’s not often I see a non-iPhone featured in a Cult of Mac article, especially if the article is about iPhone apps. If you need a photo of an iPhone, I can send one. :)

  • JerseyGuy

    You can save jpgs from CamScanner. Check out the download icon, there is something like “save to album”.

About the author

David PieriniDavid Pierini is an award-winning Chicago-based photojournalist who writes about photography, especially interesting work being done with mobile devices. Considered a luddite by most of his friends, they did not believe him when he broke the news that he would be contributing to a technology website. He is always on the lookout for a good Instagram feed. He can be reached at davidpierini@gmail.com. Read more posts by David Pierini

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