ScanCafe Can Save Your Old Photos Before It’s Too Late

If you’re a younger member of Generation Y,  chances are the first camera you held in your hand was digital… but everybody else, please stop and think for a minute: when was the last time you checked your old photos printed on Kodak, Fuji, Agfa,  you-name-it paper a long time ago?   It’s nice to have them in an album, collecting dust.  Well, they do something else: they fade.

This formerly black-and-white photo of yours truly turned brownish, but that may just be acceptable over 4 decades… but I was shocked to see some of my student-back-packer-trip color prints turn in the same shade, even though they were only 20 or so years old. (Must have picked a cheap lab back then).

I’ve long been thinking of digitizing them, but all my flare-ups ended with the quick realization that scanning in thousands of photos – prints, negatives and slides – would take me years, and even then the result would be of questionable quality.  So I was really happy to read raving reviews of ScanCafe, a two-year old service, that takes care of it all at reasonable prices.

Anyone can buy a bunch of scanners and start a digitizing business, but ScanCafe brought a twist to the process: they perform all processing in India, (their own employees and facility, not outsourced), which allows them to be the price-leader, yet add a level of human post-processing that ensures the best quality.

You initiate the ordering process online, where you get abundant information on the process, packaging requirements..etc, then, after paying half the estimated price you print a UPS label.

Your package first goes to ScanCafe HQ in California, where it’s examined, re-packaged and shipped off to India. You can track progress every step of the way.  A few weeks later you can review the low-res scans online.  Here comes the good part: you can discard up to 50% of what they already scanned in. This is a life – OK, just budget – saver, when you consider how difficult it is to pick good pictures especially from negatives. Chances are you – like me- won’t bother, just throw the whole bundle in an envelope, and would waste a lot of money paying for all of them.

Next you wait… and wait.   Another few weeks later you receive a package with your hi-res pix on DVD and all your originals back.  This was when I got the real surprise: I was hoping for good quality, but was amazed at just how good it really is.  Prints are scanned at 3000 dpi,  negatives at 600 dpi, unless you pay for pro level,  Kodak Digital ICE™  is used for scratch removal, color correction is applied ..etc…etc,  but I suspect what really makes the difference is the 2-3 minutes of pro-level touch-up processing they perform on every image.  The results: great looking photos, I’d even risk saying several images they scanned from negative beat the quality of the average photo I take with my digital camera nowadays.

So, as far as quality is concerned, I am extremely happy – happy, despite the fact that there was a glitch with my first order.  One of two DVD’s had a read problem, they had to send me a replacement.  That was a bummer, but they were courteous, and at least I got to know Customer Service.

After my first 1,400 pix, another 2000 or so are now on their way to ScanCafe.  About the only reason to complain may be the slowness of the process: when the service started, they claimed 4-5 weeks, then 8, and in reality turnaround is 8-10 weeks.  Very, very slow, but does it really matter?  We’re talking about salvaging photos that have been sitting on some shelf for decades, what difference do 2-3 months make?

In return for your patience you get the lowest prices on the market, in fact less than half the industry average – see this Money Magazine article for comparison.

Color negatives 19c
Slides 24c
Prints 27c

That’s just the basics, of course there are a number of add-on scanning and restoration services.

If pricing was the good news, it’s now becoming somewhat of a bad news, too: having been successful for almost two years ScanCafe is about to increase prices. Starting July 14th negatives will go from 19c to 24c, slides from 24c to 29c – still a bargain, but for someone like me with thousands of scans it makes a difference.   Oh, and they pull a somewhat questionable marketing trick: what used to be standard pricing is now re-dressed as Spring Promotion, and the price-hike disguised as the end of the promotion.  No need to have done it guys, you’re still the price leader, why not be straight about the hike?

That said, I found ScanCafe a great deal, and I’m glad my old photos no longer just collect dust.

Remember, you have a week left before the price increase.   But wait, here’s a price-saving tip (Gee, I feel like a Sunday morning TV infomercialsmile_wink).   There are two discount codes floating around the Web:  SMUG20 and SMUG15.  When I tried them, SMUG20 no longer worked, but SMUG15 was still valid, giving you 15% off at the time of checkout.

Update: With perfect timing, by Larry Dignan @ ZDNet: Study: Offshore outsourcing dings customer satisfaction; Taking back office offshore ok.

ScanCafe’s competitors were labeling their India-based processing risky.   First of all, what ScanCafe does is not outsourcing, they are operating their own Imaging Center in Bangalore, right next to GE and SAP, amongst others.

Second, what they perform there is classic “back office”, non-customer-facing operations.  When I needed Customer Service (see above), all my interactions were with the Burlingame, CA based stuff.   Just like the Study says.

Update (7/23):  Pixily does the same for your paper documents.


  1. Nice service, but you know this post made me laugh a bit.
    As it happens I read from top to bottom in my feed reader, so first I read this post
    “after paying half the estimated price you print a UPS label.”

    and then this

    UPS: Tracking and Customer Service Failure

    It just was too funny, sorry 🙂

  2. Good catch 🙂

  3. Never tried ScanSafe looks like a great service. I will be sure to check it out. As an alternative I use SmugMug. Also a great service. Find my review at

  4. Christian,

    I don’t think SmugMug is an alternative, rather a complementary service, a very good one, indeed. They are all about storage and sharing, but they don’t offer scanning – do they? You need digital pix (native or digitized from paper) to use SmugMug.

    In fact I discovered the SMUG15 code somewhere on a SmugMug blog, and the ScanCafe Community page is powered by SmugMug:

  5. Love it Zoli! I have tons of albums dating back to my childhood. This is phenomenal.

  6. Chris,

    I found (and had digitized) some all the way from my parent’s childhood:-) And a bunch that were trapped in big bulky slide carousels, a continent away from me. I’d never be able to get several suitcases full of slides, the only chance was digitize them.

    I’m now overwhelmed sorting / tagging them in Picasa 🙂

  7. Wow, I run a similar business in Canada, but never even though of doing the scanning in India! I hope none of the shipments ever get lost, as I’m sure theres hundreds of thousands of photos that go over at a time. Well, they obviously know what they are doing!

  8. So, the thousands of original pictures came back. And a terrific DVD. Wonderful. Now, what do you do with all of those great old original photos?? Do you just throw them out because you’ve now got digital images? I scanned in a bunch myself at home, but even after scanning, I’ve got this folder of unsorted, unlabeled pictures that I just don’t know what to do with. Any suggestions from anyone else?

  9. George,

    It really depends how you normally use your photos – and I don’t mean the old ones that only existed on paper. New, digital ones: do you still print them an sort them in a photo album? If yes, you should hold onto the old prints, too.

    If not, i.e. you only look at your photos on-screen (like I do), then take a deep breath, throw the old prints away. They take up space, collect dust and deteriate. Just make sure you have backups of your digital albums (local an online).

    • just would be so tough to throw away some of these old photos. many date from World War II era. thank you so much for your comments!


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