Scanning DPI for Photos (For Best Results)

So far, I’ve scanned about 50,000 images for a collector who wants his entire photo collection digitized. It has taken me over a decade, and the job is nowhere near being done. In that time, I’ve learned a thing or two about scanning DPI for photos.

The truth of the matter is, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Or, as the Library of Congress said when trying to answer this question, “it depends.”

It depends because of two factors: 1) What the original photo is like (this includes sharpness, details, and age) and 2) How the image file will be used.

Let’s say you’re scanning a box of your old family photographs for archival purposes. The resolution you need is different than if it’s for your website or a paper/print.

This article will give you the optimal DPI settings for each. In addition, you’ll learn a few best practices for photo scanning so you can get the highest-quality images possible.

What Is the Best DPI for Scanning Photos?

The best scanning DPI for photos and artwork is 72 DPI for websites, 300 DPI for print, and 300 or above for archiving.

Scanning DPI chart for websites, print, and archiving

Website

If scanning old photos for a website, change your scanner settings to 72 DPI.

In actuality, 72 DPI is a legacy term that originated in the 1980s. Pixel dimensions are the actual measuring stick for how images display on-screen.

Some say 72 DPI is a myth.

That said, you still need to scan your physical photos at a decent enough resolution for them to display correctly.

Once the digital photos are uploaded to a website, the monitor won’t read the resolution, only the pixel dimensions. 

That’s why for web use, you should keep it at 72 DPI.

Anything greater than 72 DPI will only make the image size bigger (and slow your site speed down). It will not make the image appear any clearer or crisper.

Therefore, pay attention to the pixel dimensions (width and height) for the best quality. 

Print

If scanning old photos for paper/print, your scanner settings should be set to 300 DPI.

300 DPI is the industry standard for what is considered to be a high-resolution image. 

Does it have to be exact? It depends. 

For an online photo book, you could probably get away with printing in the 250—300 DPI range without a noticeable loss of quality. 

On the other hand, if you’re making a larger print to frame and hang on your wall, you probably shouldn’t go below 300 DPI. 

I say “probably” because it also depends on the image. Is it a clean photo? Is it in focus? Does it have dust and scratches? If so, more resolution could bring out the flaws even more.

To simplify things, just think of 300 DPI as the sweet spot for the best print quality. 

However, another thing to keep in mind is how large the image will appear.

If you scan a 4×6-inch printed photo at 300 DPI but then print the image at 8×12 inches, your effective DPI will be 150.

Therefore, it’s essential to know the reproduction size and set your width and height accordingly. 

That way, you can keep that golden 300 DPI scan resolution.

Archiving

If you’re scanning for archiving purposes, you should set your default resolution to 300 DPI at the bare minimum. 

For me, it depends on the image’s original size.

For example, if it’s a 2×3-inch color photo, I will increase the resolution to 600 DPI. I do this in case future generations want to display it at a larger size. 

The LOC says in its Personal Digital Archiving Series, “Photographs you intend to enlarge to 8×10 or greater can be scanned at 400 or 600 DPI. Anything above 600 may be unnecessary.”

I agree: For most use cases, including family photograph collections or general business purposes, anything above 600 DPI is probably excessive. 

This is strictly for paper photographs—not film negatives or 35mm color slides. 

Storage is cheap these days, but even with plenty of disk space, larger file sizes can be cumbersome to deal with. 

Higher optical resolutions also increase your scan time, so that is something to consider as well.

To recap, start with 300 DPI for archival images, and increase the scanning resolution based on the factors above.

How Does DPI Affect Image Quality?

The higher DPI you have, the better your image quality. However, bigger is not always better. That’s because:

  • With older photos, more DPI makes dust and scratches more pronounced.
  • High DPI creates large file sizes even with a compressed format like JPG.
  • High-quality images take extra time to scan.
  • Anything above 300 DPI is often a waste unless you plan to enlarge it.

That said, there are many good reasons why you may want a higher DPI: 

  • You can crop in on the photo and retain high image quality.
  • More DPI future-proofs your images by covering all potential use cases.
  • You won’t have to scan it ever again. Scaling down is easy.
  • Storage is cheap.

As a rule of thumb, evaluating each photo individually is best.

If there’s a lot of nuance in the image, maybe it’s worth scanning at a higher resolution to capture some of that extra detail. 

Remember that scanning at higher resolutions will not make an out-of-focus image appear sharp. Even the best flatbed scanners can only capture what is in the photograph.

Scanning DPI visual reference

Conclusion

If you know what the digital file will be used for, picking the proper scanning DPI for photos is easy.

If in doubt, just go with 300 DPI. You can always reduce the resolution if needed. 

FAQ

What is DPI?

DPI stands for dots per inch and is used to describe image resolution. It refers to the number of dots within one inch of a printed image.

DPI is often used interchangeably with PPI, though they mean slightly different things.

Whereas DPI refers to dots per inch, PPI refers to pixels per inch.

PPI is the number of pixels within one inch of a digital image displayed on-screen.

Therefore, both DPI and PPI describe image resolution but refer to different media.

Should I scan photos at 1,200 DPI?

Scanning photos at 1,200 DPI is unnecessary unless you are scanning slides or film negatives. Here’s why:

A slide mount is 2×2 inches, but the film is 24×36 millimeters. Due to the small scannable area, you need more resolution to get a high-quality digital image file.

Film negatives need higher scanning resolutions if they are the source of print photos. Quality diminishes with each generation, so you want to start with a higher DPI.

For most print photos, 300–600 DPI is a more reasonable range. 

Is 4,800 DPI good for photos?

4,800 DPI is an excessive resolution for most photos.

In theory, more dots per inch equals better image quality. Still, after a certain threshold, you start to get diminishing returns with the amount of detail the human eye can detect.

Unless you are scanning highly detailed film negatives, the amount of time it takes to digitally capture a photo at 4,800 DPI is probably not worth it. 

What resolution should I scan 4×6-inch photos?

Between 300–600 DPI is a good resolution for most 4×6-inch photos.

If you plan to enlarge or crop in on the photograph, you should pick a DPI closer to 600. Otherwise, 300 DPI should be sufficient. 

Further Reading

After you finish scanning, photo management software is recommended to help you organize the original images properly.