I think I know what I'll be doing over Thanksgiving weekend: hauling boxes and boxes of photographs I've saved since fourth grade out of the attic and turning them into digital images, thanks to the PhotoScan app by Google. I've been playing with the app for the past day, and it's better than any other free method I know of for turning my old prints into digital images.

This is how the PhotoScan app works:

  • Download the free app for iOS or Android.
  • Open the app and it's ready to take a photo. Position the camera over the photo, with the circle that pops up on your screen in the center of the photo. Make sure the entire photo is in the frame. It's OK if it doesn't fit exactly; the app will crop out anything outside the photo for you.
  • Shoot the photo, but before you hear the shutter sound, four circles will appear in the corners of the screen.
  • Move your phone so that the circle that was in the center goes on top of one of the corner circles. It will take another photo. You will know it's done when a blue line runs completely around the circle. Repeat with the three remaining corner circles.
  • The app will then combine the five photos it just took. That's how it removes any glare. It can take several seconds to finish the image.
  • You can then export the photo to Google Photos (if you have it downloaded on your mobile device) or into the photo app that comes with your phone.

If my instructions aren't clear enough, you can see Google PhotoScan at work in the video below:

I've thought about buying a Groupon deal to send away hundreds of photos to be scanned, but that's scary. What if something happens to my photos and I never get them back? I've never been willing to take that risk.

I have a scanner on my printer, but it doesn't do photos very well. Plus, it takes several minutes to scan a single photo. (The video is pretty spot-on when it talks about the hassle of scanning print photos at home.)

After giving Google PhotoScan a try, I'm impressed.

Take a look at this photo from the 1970s of my dog, Toto, in my parent's groovy yellow kitchen with flowered wall paper. I turned it into three digital images using the scanner on my HP OfficeJet Pro, the regular camera feature on my iPhone and the PhotoScan app on my iPhone.

toto-digital-image-scanned This is the image I created using my HP Officejet Pro. It's not a very good quality image and it's a smaller size than the other photos. (Photo: Robin Shreeves)

toto-digital-image-camera This image was created using the standard camera app on my iPhone. It's better than the one created by using my Officejet Pro, but it has some glare. It also needs to be cropped. (Photo: Robin Shreeves)

toto-digital-image-photoscan This image was created using Google's PhotoScan. It's automatically cropped so that just the photo is in the image and there's no glare. (Photo: Robin Shreeves)

I found that using the app in a room filled with natural light worked best. The image of my dog created using PhotoScan looks darker than the other images, but it's truest to the original print. GoogleScan does not make changes to the digital image. You can do that yourself using photo editing software. With a few tweaks, the black and white of Toto's fur can look sharper.

I imagine a professional-quality scanner made specifically for photos would do an even better job, but that takes money and time. The app is free, and while it will definitely take a lot of time to go through all my photos, the ease of using my phone makes it more likely I'll get it done.

And hey, if I make my sons download the app onto their phones and help me, it will go even faster. That's another advantage to this method of scanning prints: You can have as many scanners in the house as you have mobile devices that support the app.

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.