Google has a new app to scan your old photos and it’s pretty awesome.
The quality won’t compare to that of a big, traditional, flatbed scanner, but in our tests over the weekend, Google’s new free PhotoScan app looks to be several steps above what most folks get now — taking pictures of old photos with their smartphone cameras. And there’s a big difference — the glare that’s usually evident is either gone altogether, or greatly reduced, by software.
Old family heirlooms, documents and the like are snapped every day on the camera that just happens to be in our pocket, the smartphone, with surprisingly decent results.
The big issue is the natural glare–i.e., light spots, that show up in the picture.
Google engineers dived in to solve that issue, by using software to help eliminate glare and have produced what promises to be a must-have app.
Many apps are available, mostly for a fee, to scan documents, receipts and even photos, like Tiny Scanner (free, $4.99 for pro) TurboScan ($4.99) and Photomyne ($3.99), but most are targeted towards paper scans, not photos.
Here’s how PhotoScan by Google Photos (the official name) works:
Open the app, line up the photo you want to copy and snap the shutter. Google then asks you to take the picture four times, by lining up four dots, which you do by moving the smartphone over them in an augmented reality like gesture.
The image is then processed. You can tweak it by adjusting corners or rotating the image.
When you’re done scanning, click “Save All,” and the images go directly to PhotoScan’s cousin, the Google Photos app.
You can scan the photo by placing it on a flat surface, or scan the family wall and take photos directly, right into the picture frames.
Scanning itself is a laborious process that many of us pre-digital photographers have gone to as a way of archiving our analog photos from the 20th century. The two main ways to do it are to use a flatbed scanner, and insert one photo at a time, and wait for it to arrive to your computer, or ship them to a paid service like Scanmyphotos.com or iMemories.com and let them do the heavy lifting.
David Lieb, the product lead for Google Photos, figures there are “trillions,” of “at risk” analog photos awaiting digitization that could be lost, damaged or “faded away to nothing.”
At Google, “we think we have a unique capability to solve this,” he says.
The processing power of recent phones have gotten so good, says Lieb, that Google’s software can work to detect and fix glare, automatically crop the image and adjust colors, within seconds.
In our tests, we took back to back scans of photos on a Google Pixel phone (with the PhotoScan app) as well as an iPhone 7 Plus, using just the native camera.
In some of the iPhone shots, you can see the photographer reflected in the frame glass, or light streaks on others, both of which were eliminated in PhotoScan.
While both of the Pixel photos looked good, they weren’t full-page magazine spread worthy. That said, they were totally presentable for social media and as a quick, easy backup.
In less than two years, Google has built a substantial following for its Photos app, boasting of “over” 200 million users. The app offers free photo, unlimited photo storage (at slightly lower resolution) for photos stored on smartphones and computers.
One of the big selling points of Google Photos is its facial recognition features, which can pick up often photographed faces, eliminating the need to search for “Sam” or “Mom,” because instead, a visual of their faces shows up in search.
(That’s the plan anyway–my scan of an old photo of my grandfather Stanley didn’t get recognized by Google’s facial feature. Oh well.)
One issue with scanning hundreds or thousands of photos is that they now get either a pre-generated scano1.jpg and scan02.jpg name, or you have to title each one. Good luck finding them after the scanning process.
So if the Google Photos facial features start to kick in, it could become really useful.
Google also announced some new editing features in the Google Photos app, offering the same sort of brightness, contrast and cropping tools found in Adobe Photoshop Lighting and other pro programs.
The downside to the app is giving up more of your life to Google. If you have privacy concerns and don’t like the idea of Google peering into your e-mail, calendar, music choices, search history and personal photos, you may not want to give up even more to Google.