Google PhotoScan saves irreplaceable photos in four snaps

A new app linked to Google Photos turns your phone into a scanner, preserving print images digitally without removing them from an album or frame.

Joan E. Solsman Former Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
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Joan E. Solsman
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Watch this: Scan old printed photos easily with Google's PhotoScan app

The genesis of Google 's latest push in photos arose 69 years ago.

For vice president of Google Photos Anil Sabharwal, the inspiration for PhotoScan, which quickly creates a digital copy of a printed image, reaches back in his family's history to 1947. His grandparents, who were Hindus living in what had just become the Muslim state of Pakistan, faced soldiers at the door who ordered them to gather what belongings they could carry to cross the Indian border. Leaving behind jewelry and other valuables, Sabharwal's grandparents made sure to grab photos.

Sabharwal said his father, who was 8 years old at the time, has a only a few items remaining from his family lineage prior to 1947. "He's got a watch that his dad used to wear, and 10 or 20 photos of their wedding and of him as a kid," Sabharwal said in an interview in New York.

Just think of what Sabharwal's father could have done with PhotoScan.

Google on Tuesday unveiled the app, which uses your phone's camera and flash to quickly scan a printed photo. It leans on its software and machine learning to remove glare, crop it, correct its color and orient it appropriately before preserving it digitally in the cloud.

Photos have increasingly become a way for major tech heavy hitters like Google and Apple to strengthen their relationship with you. Many of the companies offer online storage for your digital photos, but Google's PhotoScan takes a step further by bridging the gap to the world of physical prints.


Google's new app PhotoScan creates a digital copy of a printed image, without having to remove the photo from a frame or album.

SSPL via Getty Images

"The last time I was home, it was great," he said. "I was capturing them in a way so I can share them with my kids." He added that because prints degrade, those digital preservations may be the only vestiges left for his children's children to tie them to their family history.

To use PhotoScan, you align the print you want to preserve in a box on your phone screen. You tap to start scanning, and then you move your phone over four white dots near the four corners of the image. The dots turn blue and disappear when each angle is captured, and then the program takes a few seconds to assemble a scanned digital reproduction of that picture.

The app works on photos that are free and lying flat on a surface, or it can scan photos in a frame on the wall or in the pages of an album.

After scanning, PhotoScan files the images in Google Photos, where that app will back it up remotely and apply the organization tools that Google Photos is already known for: identifying people by face, making images searchable for things like "wedding" without tagging, including them in automated montages and movies, etc.

The app scans quickly. Sabharwal said one his Google Photos engineers was able to scan about 100 photos in 10 minutes while holding a conversation with her sister.

He also said that Google worked hard to release PhotoScan before Thanksgiving in the US and the winter holidays generally, when families may be gathered together to reminisce about their own history.

PhotoScan is available Tuesday for both Android and iOS globally.

Google also announced some other improvements to Google Photos Tuesday.

  • Editing in Google Photos has been revamped with an "auto enhance" quick tool for images, more and different filters called Looks, and advanced editing controls, that lets photo aficionados noodle around more finely with levels and colors.
  • Google Photos will be rolling out more sophisticated movies its assistant automatically generates, such as one called "Lullaby" that will collect pics of your sleeping baby and set them to quiet music. It will have another around Christmas that will combine images and clips from Christmases past, with plans for more next year, like a movie for images of pets in April.
  • The app's shared album feature will make it easier to combine pictures from multiple people, by sending a link to the shared album to specific people via an email, a text or through Google Photos app itself.
Watch this: Google's PhotoScan saves your printed photos without glare