Google Photos launched nearly two years ago as a simple storage, search, and photo editing solution for smartphone snapshots. Now Google PhotoScan lets you tackle those irritatingly tangible photos and daguerreotypes that have been cluttering up your attic all these years. With just a few taps, the app imports physical images at a resolution high enough to print copies. I got to spend a little time with the app ahead of its release, and I’m impressed. If it can live up to its full promise, it’s well on its way to being one of the best Android apps.
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Hands On With PhotoScan
Google PhotoScan is a free app available for both Android and iPhone. Android users need at least Android 5.0, aka Lollipop, or better in order to use PhotoScanner. I used the app on a Pixel phone running Android 7.0, or Nougat.
As with the Evernote Scannable app, the main screen of Google PhotoScan resembles a typical smartphone camera viewfinder. Hold your phone over the image you want to scan. The color of the background can be dark or light, and I managed to scan images on a slight incline, although a flat, level surface is preferable. You’ll want to get in close, until the photo fills most of the viewfinder.
When you tap the shutter button, the app overlays four white dots on the image you want to scan. (I’ll explain why in a bit.) You then move your phone until it’s centered over each dot, pausing until each turns from white to blue. You’ll want to physically move the phone, not just tilt it, while keeping your device as level as possible. After you’ve hit all four points, the app spits out your complete, scanned image. The whole process, from pressing the shutter to admiring your digitized picture, takes between 15 and 30 seconds. It’s very fast.
By default, the app turns on your phone’s flash during the scanning process. This is apparently the preferred method, but you can toggle it off if you want.
The final image is cropped to the correct size, removing most of whatever surface on which the original photo sat. In the examples I saw, I noticed that a little bit of the background could still be seen in some scanned images, but it’s easily fixed with a little cropping. Images are also correctly rotated, thanks to Google’s machine-learning algorithm.
Most importantly, PhotoScan removes all the glare from your snapshots, regardless of your lighting conditions or if the original picture is glossy or matte. This works because PhotoScan takes four separate images when you hold the phone over the dots displayed in the app. These images are then overlaid and aligned, using Google’s deep neural net technology, and any bright spots removed.
In my time with the PhotoScan app, I only scanned pictures that were on a table. Google says, however, that the app will work just as well with pictures on wall, under glass, or mounted in a scrapbook. I was told that it is even possible to scan slides, if they are projected onto a wall. It occurs to me that it might also be possible to scan paintings or works of art in a gallery setting. I was unable to confirm this, but it seems very likely.
If you opt to upload your scanned photos to Google Photos, you can rest assured they will be safe for the foreseeable future thanks to the service’s free, bottomless storage. Keep in mind, however, that by default only a compressed (but still high-quality) image will be kept in Google Photos, while the original scan will remain on your phone. You can opt to pay for storage with Google Photos if you want to store uncompressed images.
From Physical to Digital
If you upload your images to your Google Photos library, you can take advantage of the service’s editing and sharing tools, as well as its powerful photo search feature. Alternatively, you could also edit and share images from third-party apps like PicsArt Photo Studio. You can also impress your friends on Instagram with your use of IRL filters.
A notable point about uploading to Google Photos is that Google uses advanced facial recognition that identifies the same person over the course of many years. In the demos I’ve seen, Google Photos successfully identified the same individual from the present, all the way back to baby photos that were added with Google PhotoScan.
Evernote and the Evernote Scannable App also make it simple to capture images of printed photos and documents. In Scannable, for instance, the app identifies the document you want to scan on-screen and quickly imports it. If it’s a business card, it scrapes the name and contact information, adding it as a contact card. But Scannable isn’t very reliable; it doesn’t always get a usable image on the first try, and you have to hold your phone just so in order for the app to identify a document. With Evernote’s focus on optical character recognition, the emphasis is definitely more on capturing text. PhotoScan, meanwhile, is all about capturing a clear, crisp image.
While PhotoScan makes short work of pictures, apps aren’t the only way to scan home photos. There are several excellent scanners, both of the traditional flatbed variety and specially designed pass-through scanners, that tackle multiple pictures at once. If you’re an archivist, amateur historian, or just someone who’s very particular about photo editing, traditional scanners are probably the best option. Google PhotoScan is more for hobbyists and average folks unconcerned about capturing every single detail.
Note that scanned images are time-stamped with the date they were scanned, not the date they were taken. You’ll have to make that change manually if you want them to appear in chronological order.
I Can Tell By the Pixels
Google’s representatives are vague about the resolution at which Google PhotoScan imports pictures, and obviously your phone’s camera will make a big difference. They did say that the results were comparable to that of a desktop flatbed scanner. The benchmark Google set is to have images captured by PhotoScanner be high-quality enough that a new print could be made from the digital file. In the demonstration I saw, I was surprised to find out that the snapshot I scanned with the app was itself a print of a picture captured with Google PhotoScan. It was indistinguishable from a traditional snapshot.
Google representatives told me that PhotoScan does more to improve photo quality on faster, higher-end phones. That could be an issue if you’re using anything other than the Pixel phone I used in my time with PhotoScan.
One thing I did notice was that Google PhotoScan didn’t always get the color and lighting right even in my brief test. One scan, taken when the photo was further away from the phone, looked slightly paler and more washed out compared with another taken when the original photo was much closer. The second attempt was much better and looked identical to the original, but I can imagine that it might take an try or two to get a really high quality scan every time.
Upload Me to the Net
Google PhotoScan makes remarkably short work of capturing a high-quality digital version of a physical photo. It does a surprisingly good job capturing images, regardless of the original’s orientation, and it’s especially good at removing glare. It does a far better job than other mobile photo-scanning apps I’ve used, although the app probably can’t beat a stand-alone scanner for capturing the possible quality for archival purposes. But for the rest of us, it’s a fast and easy way to protect our cherished memories and make physical photos editable and sharable. I look forward to putting the app through its paces, and updating this review very soon.