As digital technology transforms photography, photo albums will eventually give way to electronic frames that display images stored on a home network. The images could be changed with a few clicks of a remote control, which would come in handy when a different set of in-laws visits. Or when your oldest child complains that there are too many pictures of the baby.
Such networks are still a ways off for the masses, but there are plenty of things the average person can do today with digital images. For example, you can e-mail them to your family, upload them to online photo albums or create slide shows on your computer. You could even build an electronic shrine around them on the Web, but that might result in a restraining order.
The first step is putting your pictures onto your computer. Those who own digital cameras have it easy in that regard: They just plug their camera or its memory card into their computer. With conventional photographs, though, you'll need either help or some new equipment.
For film that has yet to be developed, you can ask the photo finishing shop to turn the shots into a CD with digital images. Those CDs typically cost about $10 more than a standard set of prints.
Some online photo services--including Shutterfly, Ofoto and Photoworks--also offer to turn your rolls into digital images that are stored on their Web sites. The potential drawback there is that you'd have to download the images you wanted to store on your home computer, which could be time-consuming.
The alternative is to convert your prints, slides or negatives yourself, using a scanner hooked to your computer. This approach is time-consuming too, but it could save you money in the long run.
You'd use a flat-bed scanner for prints and, in some cases, slides as well. There also are specialized film scanners that work exclusively with negatives and slides.
Scanning slides and negatives yields better results because they have more detail than prints. But most film scanners sell for upward of $300, whereas a flatbed scanner can be had for a third of that.
Three key statistics to look at when judging a scanner are resolution, bit depth and dynamic range. Resolution measures the amount of detail the scanner captures, and it's typically expressed in pixels or dots per inch. Bit depth, which measures how fine a distinction the scanner can make between colors, is the total number of bits used to describe each pixel. Dynamic range measures how well a scanner can distinguish grays, and it's rated on a scale of 0 to 4.
Generally speaking, the higher the numbers, the better. Manufacturers often boast extremely high resolution based on software or hardware "interpolation," a technique for simulating detail. A more reliable way to compare scanners, though, is by their "optical" resolution, which is 600 dots per inch for many flatbed scanners.
If all you plan to do with the images is view them on a computer screen, you don't need high resolution. But if you plan to archive your collection or send images to people who'd like to print them, you'll want something significantly better.
Times staff writer Jon Healey covers the convergence of entertainment and technology.