Scanning 4,419 family photos

In August, I shipped off a box of negatives from our family photo collection to ScanCafe, a photo scanning service. I was a little nervous shipping irreplaceable memories to people I didn’t know, but a couple of my colleagues had successfully used the service and I really wanted to get the photos digitized.

For those of you unfamiliar with the service, here’s the basic process:

  1. Place an order with ScanCafe.
  2. Ship box of photos to ScanCafe.
  3. ScanCafe scans your photos and ships the originals and files back to you.

There are plenty of reviews of the service already (mostly positive), and here I’ll talk about my experience.

Ordering and Packing

Estimating the number of negatives is tough. We had many envelopes stuffed with negatives from many rolls, so I couldn’t just multiply a number by 24 or other standard number of exposures. Fortunately, you don’t really need an exact count at all; you’re just supposed to enter in some number so that ScanCafe can provide an estimated cost, which you pay 50% of before shipping. I estimated about 3,000 photos and ScanCafe ended up scanning 4,400.

Because I was nervous about putting everything in one box which was eventually going to be shipped internationally, I randomly divided our photos in half and only sent one half in with the first order. With everything packed, I printed off the shipping label. The label had a weight mentioned on it (I guess determined by the number of photos), so I hoped that the package wasn’t too heavy, and fortunately UPS didn’t complain.


ScanCafe does a pretty good job of giving updates on the status of the order, which I expect and appreciate. You don’t get to see the scans come in live or anything, but you know when your package has arrived in at the facility, when scanning has started, etc.

Based on the status updates collected in my email archives, here’s the timeline of events for scanning 4,400 photos:

August 10th – ScanCafe received package in Burlingame, CA.
August 24th – Originals received at imaging center. Images expected to be available for review by September 19th.
August 31st – Scanning commences.
September 22nd – Scans available for review.
September 27th – Order completed.
October 13th – Received tracking number.
October 20th – Originals and DVDs delivered.

Image Review and Checkout

Until this point, everything with ScanCafe was as good as I expected it to be based on the reviews, except for it taking a little longer than I thought it would. To be fair, though, they did scan thousands of photos, and I’d much rather wait longer than see a compromise in quality.

One of the nice things about ScanCafe is that you can actually choose to not buy up to half of your scans (you’ll still get the originals back), so they let you preview them all online before placing your order. I wonder if anyone takes advantage of this feature, because the site is excruciatingly slow when loading images. Even loading thumbnails and album lists felt like being on dialup. I’m guessing that the servers are located in India, so it would be nice if they moved to U.S. hosting. The “express checkout” option looked very tempting from the start.

The lack of speed wasn’t what bothered me the most. The site is confusing at this point. There is an option to organize the photos, but I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to do. I’m also not sure about the free restoration that’s offered. I didn’t see it as an option, and wondered if it would be something that I chose after selecting which photos I wanted. I had no idea if this process was applied to my photos, as some images definitely looked unrestored in the gallery. Maybe it happens automatically after you choose your photos?

Even though it’s not required to organize your photos before you send them in, they will name the folders based on an labels or containers, which is helpful. I had a few labeled APS cartridges, but everything else was loose, so most of my folder names are things like “Bag 10.” They do label the physical bags/boxes if you didn’t. One funny thing I noticed is that whoever wrote my folder names wasn’t very familiar with the English language. For example, Christmas was written as Charstmas, Chartmas, Charestmas, and Chnstmer.


After checkout, things didn’t move as quickly as I thought they would. It took two weeks before I received a tracking number for the return package. I guess they batch up the shipments between India and the U.S., which could explain the delay. The photos arrived in good condition along with the DVDs in full-size DVD cases. The 4,400 photos came in the form of over 50 GB of JPEGs spread across 13 DVDs. I’m in the process of uploading them all to Picasa Web Albums, which fortunately just lowered its storage costs! It would be great if there was a way to directly transfer them from ScanCafe to PWA, though. That’s my feature request.

Unresolved confusion

In the final receipt, there was a line for the optional “pro resolution” service that I selected during the initial order. However, I’m not sure how to interpret this:

Actual  Deleted  Selected
4419    0        2962

I was charged for the “Selected” amount. Does this mean that some of my scans weren’t delivered at pro resolution? I sent an email to ScanCafe asking about this on November 27th, which was forwarded to the imaging center on December 1st, when I was promised an answer within 48 hours. I have not heard back.

Update on December 6th: ScanCafe wrote back and said that this is a glitch in the displayed image count. All of my photos were scanned a pro resolution. Phew.

Update on December 7th: They emailed me again to inform me that the bug has been fixed.

Overall impression

I obviously had some issues with the website, but overall I’m happy with the convenience of the service and the quality of the scans. A second order is on its way.

One more thing

It snowed today in Pennsylvania. I wasn’t there to experience it, but thanks to ScanCafe, I can still show you what I look like in a snowsuit:

Michael Wyszomierski in a snowsuit holding a shovel

4 thoughts on “Scanning 4,419 family photos”

  1. Nice post – this is something I’ve been wanting to do with my family photos for awhile. I might give it a shot in December when I’m home in St. Louis!

    Nice picture, by the way – looks like you got stuck shoveling.

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