While it’s not as easy as using a scanner, and the results won’t be as good, you can convert your old printed photos into digital images using a digital camera if that's all you have. The best lighting will be outdoors on a bright but overcast day.
To do this, attach your print to a vertical board and mount your camera on a tripod or table. Experiment with the zoom setting but you’ll probably find that zooming in will reduce distortion but at the expense of increasing camera shake if you’re not using a tripod.
If you’ve lots of prints to digitise or your camera doesn’t provide you with the quality you strive, the most cost-effective method is to use a scanner. When choosing one, decide first if you also want to be able to scan negatives, as not all scanners have this capability.
If you judge a scanner purely on its resolution then pretty much any model will be adequate for scanning prints. However, image quality also depends on the quality of the optics but this is harder to quantify so take a look at our reviews of scanners within your price range before coming to a decision.
Bear in mind that if you don't need to scan negatives or slides, you're probably better off buying a multi-function printer - a printer with a built-in scanner. Not only will you save money, but you'll also get a convenient copier which can make photocopies of documents and photos in colour. See: Group test - what's the best multifunction printer?
Unless your prints are in pristine condition it would be a good idea to clean them up as much as possible before photographing or scanning them. If they’ve been stored in a dusty environment remove as much of the dust as you can. Using a brush is recommended but only use a very soft one to avoid scratching. Better still use one of the brushes with a rubber bulb that allows you to blow air while you’re brushing. If there are any tears, repair your prints with tape but only apply it to the back of the print - not the front.
Scanning should be straightforward although it would make sense to scan at less that the scanner’s maximum resolution to keep file sizes down. It’s reasonable to assume that a photographic print will have a resolution of about 300 dpi (dots per inch) so selecting any greater scan resolution will increase the file size unnecessarily.
Finally bear in mind that if your print has lots of white (e.g. a snowy scene) or a lot of black the scanner’s automatic exposure might be fooled so you might have to override it. Finally, if your print had scratches, tears or dirt, you should consider repairing your scan using photo editing software.
Although scanning prints isn’t difficult, it can be time consuming. So, although it won’t be cheap, if you have a lot of prints to scan and time is limited, you could choose a professional scanning service. Quality will probably be better too since good companies will use top-notch scanners. Prices start at about 10p per scan.
You may also be interested in: Fix your photos for free