ClickCease Scan photos in color - Blog

Top 3 Reasons to Scan Black and White Photos in Color

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Scan your black and white photos in color.  Scanning in color, even photos that are black and white, gives you a richer scan.  Consider this - scanner manufacturers focus on capturing the highest quality of image possible and there is usually a focus towards color.  Even black and white documents are recommended to be scanned in color.  The reason? You get the most data from scanning in color. 



Scan Black and White Photos in Color


1 - Shades of Gray are Created from Color

Gray is a mixture of the primary colors: red, green, and blue.  Grayscale is a term used to define a range of color seen as shades of gray.  Grayscale is a subset of the color setting on your scanner.  This means that the darkest shade is black and the lightest is white.  Intermediate shades of gray are equal brightness levels of red, green, and blue.  In other words, the shade of gray you see is created by mixing our primary colors.  When you select "grayscale" on your scanner, you are still scanning in color, but you are restricting your scanner's ability to capture all the color.  Therefore, you are telling your scanning to stop scanning beyond its predetermined "grayscale".  


Consider this - 16-bit grayscale  provides a range of 65,636 colors.   24-bit color provides 16,777,216 colors.  Therefore, 24-bit color (known as "true color") will capture more than 16 MILLION color variations. Recall that your "black and white photo" is so much more than just black and white; your old photo is many shades of gray and our scanners work best when they are not restricted in their ability to create it.   

  • Did you know the human eye can detect about 10 million colors? 
  • Why would you restrict your scan when scanning in 24-bit color is quick,  our computing power easily handles it, and our storage capacity is virtually limitless? 


2 - You Cannot Convert Back to Color

You can covert photos scanned in color (including black and white photos) to black and white after you scan them; however, if you scan in black and white you cannot convert back to color. The color data is forever lost.  So, any shade outside of the standard grayscale is lost if you don't scan in color.  Consider this...  Many old photos have hand-written comments in the border.  If you scan in color you also capture the shade of color of the pen ink.  For example, look at the black and white photo below that I scanned in color.  Notice the hand-written note by my Grandma?  She wrote it in blue in ink.  Capturing the "true color" of her pen ink, makes this photo.  


I actually didn't notice this till after I scanned in all my photos.  Thankfully I always scan using 24-bit color!

If you are curious how I scanned this photo's border with the image, please refer this article

If you want to learn how to tag the caption above to the scanned photo, making it "truly digital", please refer to this article


3 - Stop Worrying About Storage Space

Seriously...  Stop worrying about storage!  Storage space is dirt cheap now. Let's admit it - it is now very afforadable to get huge hard drives and well managed cloud storage.  There are countless options.  Suffice to say, all my digital photos - scanned and those taken with my phone or digital camera are saved to my hard drive and uploaded to the cloud.  These resources are not only affordable, but down right cheap!  I will write an article soon about storage.  Until then, know this... storage is cheap so don't sell yourself short by scanning low quality grayscale photos.  You cannot convert back to color.  Always scan in 24-bit color, and always use 600 DPI saving in BOTH TIFF and JPEG.  ScanSpeeder does this automatically for you.  One step saving to two different file types - to save you time.

Edit Dec 13, 2021: It's important to understand that storing large amounts of photo image data on the cloud has an environmental footprint and impact. We recommend you weigh your photo cloud storage needs against the environmental impact it may have.


So - What Scan Settings Should I Use?

Here is the optimal setting for scanning multiple photos - even black and white photos:

24-bit color, 600 DPI, and saving simultaneously in TIFF and JPEG.  

For example: This photo black and white photo was scanned with 24-bit color.


This photo is 50 years old and was just kept in a shoebox.  Its ink has begun to fade, yet 24-bit color scanned in all the detail.  The color scan also captured the true color of the blue ink my Grandma wrote on the bottom.   Why not higher color settings and higher DPI?  Your time is valuable.  Your time is limited.  So, optimize it.  Scanning photos above this setting and your project will be unbearably slow and the extra data unnecessary.  Remember, we are using ScanSpeeder to scan multiple photos which means we want to optimize quality and speed.  I am not saying to compromise quality.  24-bit color is "true color" and goes far beyond what our human eye can detect.  So, going beyond the recommendation is not only unnecessary but horribly time consuming for little result. 


For those that enjoy a bit more technical detail: 

  • Some scanners use other methods to scan grayscale that I do not mention here, like CMYK which is a four channel method of scanning that also uses color to create shades of gray.  Regardless of color method used by your scanner, the shade of gray we see on our digital screen is proportional to the brightness level of the primary color (whether using RGB or CMYK).  So, even when you are scanning in "grayscale", you are scanning in a subset of color.  The grayscale setting is usually using the RGB (red, green, and blue) color model and restricts the possible levels for each primary color two channels at 2^16 or 65,636 colors.  This restriction many argue is why you may see banding in the scan, referred to as a "banding artifact".  If you scan the same photo in 24-bit color, you will scan that photo with 3 channels at 2^24 or 16,777,216 colors.  24-bit color there includes the 65,636 possible in the restricted grayscale and includes the other more subtler variations of the primary colors that we see as shades of gray.  The end result of scanning ini 24-bit color  - you can pick up subtler tones of the monochome image.  16-bit Grayscale - 65 THOUSAND variations versus 24-bit Color - 16 MILLION variations. 


  •  24-bit color is referred to as "true color" or "millions of color".  It is thought to be the optimal setting for the human eye on a screen.  Leading experts say that the human eye can see about 10 million different colors.  A computer monitor set to 24-bit displays about 16 million different colors.  WOW! So, I argue why would I spend the time scanning beyond "true color" (16,777,216)  when the human eye cannot see beyond it?   No matter how high of quality we scan, we are limited by our vision - about 10 million  colors. 


  • Why does ScanSpeeder stop at 24-bit color?  The human eye can see 10 million colors.  24-bit color gives more than 16 MILLION colors.  More than we can see!  If your scanner provides a 48-bit option, it is beyond what most of us home users need.  If you're curious -- 48-bit color gives over 281 TRILLION colors (281,474,976,710,656 colors to be exact).   Not only unnecessary for the home user scanning in photos but also undetectable by the human eye (according to the leading experts).  Also, the very high scanning time for scanning at 48-bit color defeats the purpose of scanning multiple photos and most of us don't have the computing capacity to handle this unneeded level.  


  • TIFF is an archival quality of photo and is important for when you want to print your photo or enlarge it.  It is a kind of file we call "lossless".  TIFF is a HUGE file but essential.  JPEG is much smaller but "looses" data.  It is what we use to post on Social Media or email to friends.  Use the JPEG photo for all your digital communication, when band-width is used, and use the TIFF photo for your framing project, long term storage and preservation, and for major detail projects like Photoshop, etc.   With storage so cheap, save BOTH.


So, my recommendation - stick to true color (24-bit) because it is quick and it will give you more than 16 million colors.  

| Categories: Scanning Basics, How To | Tags: black and white photos, scan black and white | View Count: (34202) | Return


  • CJ
    I appreciate the info as I'm researching scanners with very little to go on. I wanted to mention, though, that cost isn't the only consideration when it comes to storage of large files. The cloud isn't really a cloud (I know you know this). It's a data center, and large data centers have an enormous environmental footprint and contribute to climate change, resource consumption and habitat destruction. So please reconsider advising readers to simply use as much storage as they please, without consideration of the real-world impact. Don't save everything in the cloud, with the highest resolution if you don't need to, and don't save *everything*, period. Thanks for spreading the word. We've only got one planet.
    12/12/2021 12:21:04 AM Reply
    • @CJ: Thank you CJ, you bring up a good point that we hadn't really considered. We've made an edit to the article to include consideration for the environmental impact of cloud storage of photos.
      12/13/2021 2:20:13 PM Reply
  • I have quite a few old black and white negatives I would love to digitize, would you scan these as colour as well? I have a canon MG7500 printer/scanner which doesn't seem to have an option for scanning negatives only photo's
    9/25/2018 8:48:35 AM Reply
    • @Tim Calvert: Hello Tim. To scan negatives using a flatbed scanner, you would need a scanner that is listed by the manufacturer as capable of scanning negatives, plus ScanSpeeder Pro edition (currently in beta). The negatives need to be lit from above as opposed to below, therefore a transparency unit is required on the scanner. It does not appear your scanner model does this, but some examples of flatbed scanner models that do are the Canon 9000f Mark II, Epson V600, Epson v550, Epson V370 and others. I would probably scan black and white negatives in 16-bit greyscale, if that is an option for the scanner, in order to capture the most accurate information and avoid unnecessary colour correction. I hope this helps!
      9/26/2018 3:36:44 PM Reply
  • Thanks for the great tips. Does the advice to scan in color still stand if you're printing in b/w?
    2/12/2018 10:38:54 AM Reply
    • @Davie Park: It does! You can print color photos in b/w, sepia, etc.
      2/12/2018 8:29:58 PM Reply
    • @Davie Park: It does! You can print color photos in b/w, sepia, etc.
      2/12/2018 8:29:19 PM Reply

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