Photo Preservation at Home: Scanning Photos With Your Phone

Photo of photo

I often come across old family photos that I want to share or scan. I’ll snap a picture with my phone, but there’s always a glare or funky reflections or wonky angles, even if my phone camera is a vast improvement over the 1997 disposable camera that captured the original photo.

In this tutorial, HMRC’s Photo Archivist Joel Draut takes us step by step through using stuff you have at home to "scan” your photos and avoid common pitfalls. With just a few steps, you can reduce reflections and shadows, and make vast improvements in the quality of your copies. Happy scanning!

- Alex Gazzolo, HMRC Programming and Outreach Coordinator

The greatest challenge to at home scanning is getting even lighting over the surface of the photo while minimizing, if not completely eliminating, unwanted reflections or shadows.

What you’ll need: one metal bookend, some refrigerator magnets or other ribbon magnets, and some black paper or thin cardboard. Optional: wear a long sleeved black shirt or blouse.


Let's begin!

1. Cut a hole in the paper or cardboard for the lens of your phone.

2. Tape the paper or cardboard to the back of your phone.

3. Set up the bookend on a table near a window, but not in direct sunlight. This will be your photo mount. The photo to be copied should not face the window.  It will be best if it is facing a darkened room.

4. Place the magnets to hold the photo to be copied against the upright part of the bookend.  Depending on the height, you may want to stick a book or some CDs underneath the bookend to prop it up.

5. A glossy photograph is highly reflective. The light that illuminates it for the copy work should come from an oblique angle. This is where the dark or black clothing comes in.  You will be facing the photo and dark clothing will reduce the amount of reflections you will put in the copy. Finding the correct angle away from the window may take a little experimentation.  But, hey, there's no film cost here, just keep shooting until you are happy with the results.

6. Ideally, the face of the phone and the front of the camera should be parallel planes. You will be able to see the distortion on the back of the phone by tilting and/or swiveling the camera or even moving the camera's position slightly you can make sure your copy image has right-angle corners.

TIP! The photographs you will copy all have four square corners. The copies should also have four square corners. If they don’t, you've been the victim of the keystone effect. This happens when the camera is not parallel to the photo. This may sound complex, but is pretty easily eliminated before you push the button. If the lens on your phone is centered on the photo to be copied (as it should be), it may be tilted slightly to the right, left,  up or down or a combination of these. The photos above—shot with some exaggeration—illustrate how a photo is distorted by being off axis, and how to control the effect.

7. Play around with your lighting! Joel found the best success by shooting in the evening. He added lamp at a fairly oblique angle and propped up a piece of white styrofoam on the side opposite the lamp. This setup evened out the light across the photo. He taped a piece of black paper on the lamp to shade himself and the wall behind.  Those, plus the window, were the sources of most of the reflections on the earlier copy shots.

8. Snap away! Check out what a difference this setup makes in shooting a glossy photo!

We hope this is helpful! If you need any assistance, you can reach out to HMRC at

Blog and Photos by Joel Draut, Houston Metropolitan Research Center Photo Archivist.

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