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ScanMyPhotos Helps Digitize Your Photos

A recipe for Toxic Photo Soup: Layer 1,000 photos in a large, watertight plastic storage tub. Place high on basement shelving unit. Fail to notice small, leaky basement window nearby. Marinate, unattended, three to four years. Open and serve.

Yield: 1,000 blank sheets of sopping photo paper and four gallons of black, stinky, toxic rainwater-chemical soup.

That’s a recipe for disaster. And it’s exactly what happened to the entire photographic record of my wife’s college and med school years. To this day, I have no idea what she looked like back then. For all I know, she could have had an eye patch and a mohawk.

The horrible discovery of her liquefied photo collection underlines two important points about photographic prints. First, they’re generally precious and one of a kind. You can easily lose them forever to fire, flood, misfiling, carelessness or divorce.

Second, most of them are sitting, at this moment, in boxes someplace where nobody ever looks at them. Is that really the proper fate for a photo?

Digital photos, of course, are another story. They can be instantly and inexpensively duplicated a million times, stored in lots of different places, stashed online, sent around to relatives. And the modern world of screen savers, slide show software, digital frames, DVD burners, photo books and other digital products make it infinitely easier to show your pictures — which, you could argue, is the whole point of having them.

So if you, like millions before you, have a collection of prints somewhere, it’s probably crossed your mind that they really ought to be scanned — converted into digital files, both for protection and for ease of displaying. In that case, you, like millions before you, have probably even decided when you’ll do all that scanning: someday.

Because let’s face it: scanning hundreds or thousands of photos yourself, one at a time, on a home scanner, is a time drain the size of the Grand Canyon.

You could send them away to a company that does the scanning, but that’s incredibly expensive; most charge 50 cents or even $1 a photo.

You’d be forgiven, then, for raising an eyebrow at the offer made by a California company called ScanMyPhotos.com. It says it will professionally scan 1,000 photos for you, the same day it receives them, and put them on a DVD for $50.

So what’s the catch?

Actually, no catch, but lots of fine print.

ScanMyPhotos relies on a certain commercial Kodak scanning machine, which processes hundreds of photos a minute. There’s no reason other companies couldn’t buy the same machine and set up similar services. Indeed, some have, although most charge 12 to 16 cents a photo, compared with the 5-cent ScanMyPhotos rate.

Because it must feed your photos through this machine, ScanMyPhotos has set some rules. Photo sizes can range from 3 by 3 inches (Polaroids) to 11 by 14.

The photos must be put into similar-size bundles (4-by-6 prints together, for example) with rubber bands. The only way to label the batches is to write on index cards, which are scanned along with the photos like title cards. If you want the bundles scanned in a certain sequence, you can number the index cards.

The photos can’t be in albums or scrapbooks. That’s understandable, but it can be heart-wrenching to have to dismantle photo albums that somebody once spent a lot of time and effort creating.

Your photos can’t be in envelopes, either. For my test, I submitted about 20 years’ worth of pictures. (I found out later that there were more than 1,800 in all. I had no idea it was that many; those bundles look deceptively small.) They came from dozens of drugstore envelopes, meaning that I had to separate them from their negatives, probably forever, given that matching 1,800 prints with their original envelopes would take the rest of my life. And my descendants’.

The Prep Work: Not Insubstantial

The photos are scanned exactly as you send them. If one is upside down or backward, that’s how it winds up on the DVD. Similarly, you’re supposed to ensure that all horizontal photos are upright, and all vertical photos are consistently rotated 90 degrees the same way.

Finally, you pack your bundles into a box, stuffing it carefully to avoid shifting.

The company’s Web site offers copious photos of the right and wrong ways to pack up your pictures. The bottom line is, ScanMyPhotos will do the scanning. But you have to do the prep work, and it’s not insubstantial.

Fortunately, the results are well worth it. The company ships your original photos back to you by Priority Mail (two or three days), complete with a nicely custom-labeled DVD. It contains standard 300-dots-per-inch JPEG photo files, ready for copying to your computer. There’s no option to get TIFF files instead, and the JPEG files are moderately compressed to fit the disc. In other words, these are not scans suitable for billboards.

Still, the scans look very good — not as sharp as digital photos, but pretty much what you’d expect of scanned ones (you can see samples at nytimes.com/personaltech).

ScanMyPhotos probably isn’t getting rich by charging only $50 for 1,000 photos. Clearly, the real money is in the optional services, some of which are ingenious and nearly irresistible.

For example, for $125, the company will send you a preaddressed shipping box that holds 1,600 photos (4 by 6); the price includes scanning and prepaid shipping both ways. If you buy two, you get a third box free, making the deal, when you consider postage, even better than the $50 offer.

ScanMyPhotos: The Results For $65 per thousand photos, the company will go through all your pictures and rotate them into the correct orientation. For $10, you can order a second copy of the DVD. For $20, the company will set up a custom Web site that displays your photos for 30 days. For $50, it will color-correct your photos, a process that works best on old, faded ones. For another $50 per thousand, it’ll scan the backs of your photos too, so you won’t lose your grandmother’s precious annotations.

And for $60 per thousand photos, you can order a hardbound, custom-printed book containing every single scanned picture; the company even rotates the vertical shots upright for you. The layout is not fancy — the pictures are small and numbered — but in my family, this book was a huge hit. (“Yes, children, it’s true. We had weird hair back then.”)

The company can also scan slides or negatives, scan at resolutions greater than 300 dpi, and even convert VHS tapes to DVDs. But there are plenty of other companies that can do these jobs; ScanMyPhotos’ price isn’t anything special. Nor is its Web site, by the way; its plentiful typos and clashing fonts may cause involuntary browser closing in some patients.

But don’t be dissuaded, and don’t underestimate the emotional component of this service. There’s the joy (or shock) of unearthing all those photos and showing them to people who’ve never seen them, and there’s the immense comfort of knowing that they’re all digitized and easily backed up.

There is also, however, the terror of sending away your valuable photographs. ScanMyPhotos asserts that it has scanned more than eight million customer photos, and has never lost or damaged a single one. But there’s always a first time; consider the fate of DigMyPics.com, a rival company. In May, a fire burned its headquarters to the ground, destroying almost everything inside — including some customers’ original photos.

Yet there’s a risk of doing nothing, too. Photos kept in a dry, cool and dark place don’t deteriorate nearly as quickly as audiotape, videotape and film reels. In fact, properly stored, they can last a century or more. But because photos are still susceptible to a wide variety of destructive or negligent forces, the ScanMyPhotos service could turn out to be the best $50, plus shipping and optional services, you’ll ever spend.

David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: pogue@nytimes.com.