Dear Lifehacker, My mother passed away recently. I have hundreds of our old family photos, many well over 100 years old from overseas, and would like to scan them and make a secure cloud gallery that is searchable for my extended family by subject or name.
I have a decent scanner; what software should I use for the cloud gallery? Thanks, Joel
First off, I’m sorry for your loss, Joel. I think it’s great that you’re creating an incredible archive of your many family photos. While this might take you some time to set up and process, I think you (and future generations) will be thrilled to have it—especially if anyone can easily access it with a simple hyperlink, and especially if it’s searchable. I wish my family thought of that, as I feel like I only really have scraps and pieces of our history in text, which isn’t nearly as impactful.
I know you didn’t ask about the scanning process, but I wanted to check in and see what you were doing to actually get digital copies of these photos? I feel as if this is a “you get one shot at it” kind of a deal, because you probably aren’t going to want to have to go through the trouble of re-scanning hundreds of photos if things don’t go perfectly the first time.
I would recommend not using any kind of “scan photos” app or feature on a smartphone or tablet—the quality is inconsistent for what you’re trying to do, and it’s going to take forever to take pictures of your pictures (not to mention cropping anything you have to crop, making sure your lighting is just right, adjusting the photo when the colours look off, et cetera).
Given that you’re likely interested in acquiring the highest-quality digitised images you can get, I’d consider exploring your local area for a photo or scanning shop that can process your images for a reasonable fee. There are also plenty of online services that can also help you out, if you don’t mind parting with your images for a bit. (The two I linked are Wirecutter’s top recommendations, after evaluating the speed and quality of scans you’d get from a litany of different services.)
If you want to go big, you can also pick up a dedicated photo scanner and do it all yourself. Wirecutter loves the Epson FastFoto FF-680W, which is expensive AF, but worth it if this is the kind of project you see yourself doing over and over—especially if family members are impressed by your first archiving session and want you to help them get some of their other old photos online.
As for the cloud gallery part of your question, I’d start by thinking about how you’re planning to preserve the original versions of these digital scans. Resist the urge to keep them on a single laptop or desktop computer, even if that means you can use a third-party service like BackBlaze to protect them should your hardware go kaput.
Instead, consider some kind of network-attached storage with redundancy (e.g. one hard drive that automatically mirrors the contents of a second, or a more complex RAID array with parity, et cetera). Though, honestly, you can also probably get away with just putting your files on multiple external drives (a primary and a backup, at minimum).
That’s going to be a bit expensive, though, and still doesn’t protect in you in case of theft or some other household calamity that could affect the physical drives themselves. I suggest that you look to store the original versions of these files elsewhere—Amazon Glacier, for example, which costs very little for cloud storage (on a per-gigabyte basis). Depending on the size of your photo archive, you might even be able to get away with a free cloud storage solution. (Google Drive, with 15 free gigabytes, might be your best bet.)
Like a physical backup, I’d recommend storing up the original scans of your photos in multiple (free) locations if possible, which gives you some peace of mind should one ever mysteriously disappear. If your archive is too big for that, just pay for a single trusted service and be done with it—don’t break the bank on this task, especially if you can double up and store your photo archive offline as well.
Depending on what you decide on, you can then take all of your photos and re-upload them to a more shareable, searchable, user-friendly gallery. The first recommendation that comes to mind is good ol’ Google Photos, because it’s easy to use and you get unlimited storage for photos up to 16MP in size (4920-by-3264 pixels).
(This is also why I recommend that you back up your originals elsewhere; if your photos are larger than 16MP, you don’t want Google to “help you out” by shrinking them down.)
You can arrange the photos you upload to Google Photos into albums, and I’ve always loved the service’s facial recognition capabilities—which will help you organise your pictures and quickly find people in them. You can even edit where and when the original photos were taken, if you happen to know that information.
It’s easy to create albums on Google Photos and share them with whomever, especially if you’ve already set up a family on your Google account.) The security aspect is simple, too. If you invite a Gmail user into an album, only they can see it. (If you invite a non-Gmail user, they’ll get a sharing link that they could theoretically copy to anyone, but who would do that?)
Another option is Amazon’s cloud. If you’re an Amazon Prime user, you get free unlimited photo storage on their service for as long as you’re a subscriber. You won’t have any limits on file or picture size, but your digital archive will go away if you ever get rid of Prime. It’s a reasonable option if you think you’re going to stick with Amazon for a long time, but I’d go with a service that’s always going to be free and unlimited—at least, unless Google makes some massive change.
If you need fancier features—like more tagging and organizational capabilities, for example—you might want to opt for a simple Lightroom subscription. It’s not free, but you get access to a killer application for managing giant batches of images. As part of the subscription, you’ll also get 1TB of cloud storage on Adobe’s servers.
Same caveat as before, though; you’ll have to pay to maintain that, so if you’re looking to create an archive that your family can view whenever it wants (in perpetuity), a free service like Google Photos might be best.