Memory Digitizing Guide

Wise consumers insure their homes and cars, but it's impossible to replace your one-of-a-kind photos and video.  These original treasures require a robust copy to prevent a total loss.  Making digital copies of physical media, or digitizing, is the best method to preserve your priceless memories.
How does this guide apply to me?

Many people have valuable memories saved on only one physical medium, like a Polaroid print or a VHS cassette.  Some households have a mixture of media, with the old "analog" memories saved to a paper or plastic medium, and the new memories saved as some type of digital file.  Even if you were born after the widespread adoption of digital device like the iPhone, you may still require digitizing to safeguard boxes of old photos and videotapes inherited from older family members?  The bottom line, it's very likely you or someone you love has one-of-a-kind memories that are vulnerable to a total loss.  This Memory Digitizing Guide asks relevant questions to help you decide how best to digitize your family's precious memories and enjoy them forever.

Which memories need digitizing?

Before making any decision, it's best to take an inventory of your physical media.  As you search for this in your home, sort these memories into four broad categories of media as follows:  Photos, Video, Audio, and Documents.  The items in each category all need digitizing because they are easily damaged by temperature, humidity, and time.  Disasters like fires, floods, and storms can lead to a total loss.


Photographic Negatives
Photo Negatives at HeirloomPhotographic images developed onto plastic film with reverse, or "negative" light. Used to produce photographic "positive" prints by casting the images onto light sensitive paper during the enlargement process.  Many film developing companies would return the film negatives in addition to the positive prints.  Recommend scanning negatives to a portable JPG, PNG, or TIFF file at 3000 dpi for best viewing.


Photographic Prints
Loose Photos at HeirloomPrints are the most popular product of analog photography.  This is the "positive" paper photo produced from a "negative".  Many families store prints in photo albums where they sometimes form a near permanent bond with the adhesive pages. Recommend scanning prints to a portable JPG, PNG, or TIFF file at 600 dpi for best viewing.


Photographic Slides

Photo Slides at HeirloomThis was a wildly popular method of photography storage in the 1960s and 1970s.  These developed film "positives" have light passed though them from a slide projector, casting the image on a wall or screen for the whole family to enjoy. Recommend scanning slides to a portable JPG, PNG, or TIFF file at 3000 dpi for best viewing.



Video Reels
Video Reels at HeirloomThis vintage video medium was popular in the 1950s to early 1980s, with Super8 as the most common.  Standard 8mm and 16mm are also other reeled video formats.  Most are silent, but some contain an audio band that corresponds to the video. Recommend converting video reels, to include any audio, to a portable MP4 file at a 720 x 480 display for best viewing.


Video Cassettes
Video Cassettes at HeirloomVideo cassettes became popular after the birth of the Videocassette Recorder (VCR).  The Video Home System (VHS) cassette is the most common, as is the smaller variety, VHS-C.  Others include Betamax, Hi8, and the Digital Video (DV) tape.  Recommend converting video cassettes to a portable MP4 file at a 1080 x 720 display for best viewing.



Vinyl Records
Vinyl Records at HeirloomVinyl records have audio on both sides.  The 78 rpm and the smaller 45 rpm variety often contained classic music never recorded to other mediums.  Requires a turntable to play the audio.  Recommend conversion to a portable MP3 or FLAC audio file at 64 kbps.


Audio Reels
Audio Reels at HeirloomThis vintage audio medium was popular in the 1960s, and sometimes used for home recordings.  Requires a reel-to-reel player to hear the audio. Recommend conversion to a portable MP3 or FLAC audio file at 64 kbps.


Audio Cassettes
Audio Cassettes at HeirloomAudio cassettes were wildly popular for music and home recordings during the 1970s until the advent of digital recording devices.  The micro-cassette was often used in dicta-phones and telephone answering systems.  Recommend conversion to a portable MP3 or FLAC audio file at 64 kbps.



Paper Memories
Manual Documents at HeirloomNewspaper clippings, scrapbooks, handwritten letters, ancestry records, certificates, family recipe cards, gravestone rubbings, and children's artwork are all paper documents that need scanning to digital.  Oversize and delicate items require manual scanning by a large format flatbed scanner, while others can be scanned automatically at lower cost.  Recommend conversion to Portable Document Format (PDF) with Optical Character Recognition (OCR) at 600 dpi.

What if I don't digitize my memories?

There's nothing quite like an old time photo slide show, watching reeled video from a projector, or paging through old photo albums.  However, the physical media will go bad, so it's incredibly risky to use that as your only means of enjoying old memories.  Beyond the likelihood of total loss, memories on physical media is incredibly inconvenient.

  1. Single Viewer:  Impossible to share outside of your home.
  2. Proprietary EquipmentDevices no longer produced or serviced.
  3. Bulky Storage:  Over 200 VHS cassettes can be placed on a single thumb drive.
  4. Cluttered Organization:  Shoe boxes, cases, albums, bins, and labels peeling off.
  5. Cumbersome Access:  Difficult to sort and search for specific events.

How can I digitize my memories?

Do it yourself (DIY) digitization might be a good option.  With only a few old Polaroids, you can make reasonable digital reproductions simply by taking a digital picture.  If you have many, or demand more consistent quality, consider purchasing digital scanners for your documents, photos, and slides.  If you still have working audio and video equipment, it's not too expensive to purchase interfaces to feed this into your computer.  Keep in mind, your audio and video will be recorded to digital in real time.  This means it will take at least two hours to digitize each 120-minute VHS cassette.  DIY might be a great option if you have lots of time on your hands, a small budget for equipment, and the patience to learn about digital formats, resolutions, and storage options.

What should I know about digitizing services?

Many people hire a digitizing service to save the DIY frustration.  There are a myriad of companies that scan photos and convert VHS to DVD.  You may even find a local photo shop that provides this service?  Some chain stores offer limited digitizing services by sending off to another company for processing.  A professional digitizing service in not inexpensive, so make sure you know exactly how pricing works.  Even better, choose a company that provides a binding quote for your specific order.  Recommend finding a digitizing company that provides samples of your digital media before making payment for the service.

How can I trust a digitizing service with my memories?

Make sure your digitizing company completes the work in your in the country where you reside.  Do some online research to places other than the company's website.  The wisdom of the crowd can be helpful, so check out third party reviews and the company's interactions on social media.  Be sure the company and their brands have no unresolved complaints with the Better Business Bureau.  Make sure the company's website uses Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) with a padlock displayed in the address bar.    Bottom line, a little research will help you find a company that can be trusted with your precious memories.

How can I securely ship my memories?

Your memories are safer in the hands of a reputable shipping company than in the average American home.  Delivery timing is sometimes an issue, but few can dispute the security protocols of companies like the United States Postal Service, Federal Express, and the United Parcel Service.  Most delays, damage, or loss are attributed to poor packaging and porch pirates.  For this reason, make sure your digitizing company ships with signature confirmation, has an audited chain of custody, and never leaves your shipment unattended.  Use corrugated cardboard shipping containers, and make sure to put documentation in the box in case the shipping label should become unreadable.  

Which digital format is best?

The best choice of format depends upon the intended use.  This is different for photos, videos, audio, and documents.  It also matters if you're intending to watch a video on a small mobile device, or you intend to display it at cinema size.  However, there are some considerations that apply to all digital formats.

  1. Be sure to select a portable format that's recognized by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).
  2. Check that the file type can be played by software on common computer operating systems like Windows, Macintosh, Android, and iOS.
  3. Ensure you're not selecting a proprietary format that limits sharing, like video on DVD.

What should I know about resolutions?

Higher resolution allows for a higher quality file.  It will also increase the size of the file, the time to produce, and the cost to store.  For scanning small images and documents, 300 dpi is sufficient, but consider 600 dpi if you'd like the ability to enlarge the photo onto a larger display.  You can later change a high resolution file to a lower resolution, but you cannot increase the resolution of a file once scanned.  For voice audio, 64 kbps is sufficient, but consider 128 kbps and higher to preserve the original quality of most music.  Video is commonly converted to digital at 30 frames per second (fps), but there are other considerations that make this tricky.  Make sure you select a popular codec and a frame size that replicates the quality of the original physical medium.

How should I store my digital memories?

Years ago, consumers upgraded their 8mm video reels by transferring to more convenient VHS.  Next, consumers found greater utility in converting VHS to digital and storing that video and other digital files on plastic digital video discs (DVD).  Now, consumers wish to enjoy all their memories from every internet connected device.  The cloud provides that solution.  It's always on, never runs out of space, and allows the secure means for sharing your memories with anyone else with an internet connection.  Make sure your digitizing company will put your files on the cloud.  If you DIY, backup all your digital files to a removable drive, then upload copies of all to a commercial cloud provider.  The cloud is more resilient than any single hard drive, but use it as the convenient working copy of all your newly digitized memories.

Anything else?

Digitizing your memories can be a bit of a process.  Give yourself time to do this right.  Getting a consistent, usable, and high quality digital product should not be rushed.  You may have spent decades acquiring these memories, so it will be well worth your time to make wise decisions before acting.  Call around to professional digitizing companies and ask questions.  Reputable firms are excited to help you preserve your priceless memories whether you choose their services or decide to DIY.