Every time you scan something, the digital image returned to you has a certain number of colored dots or pixels per inch. This number is called “DPI,” literally referring to how many ink “dots per inch” create the image of a photo.

Having trouble visualizing the meaning of DPI? Picture this (pun intended!): A photo labeled as having “200 DPI” literally has 200 dots of ink in a single square inch.

Here’s why this matters for your images and the best scanners to create clear, well-preserved photo scans.

Choosing the Right Setting for Your Photo Scanner

We often equate DPI with scanning an image, but it really has nothing to do with the scan itself. Instead, it all affects a photo print.

In essence, the higher a photo’s DPI count, the higher the quality of a reprinted photo that originated from a scan. For example, if you scan a photo at a low DPI and then try and print it (or worse, enlarge it and then print it) to put into a frame, the photo will look blurry and distorted.

Knowing this, it’s a common misconception that a higher DPI is always the best choice when scanning photos, but that’s not always the case.

In reality, increasing DPI unnecessarily can alter the look of your images significantly. Most images you’re likely to scan at home are 3 x 5 inches or 4 x 6 inches. If your intention is to print or share these images with the same approximate size, 300 DPI is perfect. If you intend to print larger photos, such as 8 x 10s, 600 DPI will help enhance the details. When scanning personal photos, scanning above 600 DPI is generally unnecessary.

So when do you resort to higher resolutions, like 1500 or even 3000 DPI? If you’re scanning slides or photo negatives. These are smaller to begin with and need all the help they can get to maintain their details.

All in all, why does DPI matter?

It’s important to scan your photos before they fade, discolor, or get damaged by floods, fires, and time. Knowing how to set your photo scanner plays a key part in preserving your memories.

So what are the best rules of thumb? It’s as simple as this:

If you never plan to reprint your photos, scan at 300 DPI.

This is a general setting and is a great option for capturing and preserving the details in most photos.

If you plan to enlarge images, scan at 600 DPI.

Of all the options, 600 DPI is the most commonly used and what we teach at The Photo Managers as a scanning best practice. Your digital photos will retain the same details as the original printed copy and you can rest assured that you can reprint them later.

If you’re scanning small images, like slides, start at 2500 DPI.

These small photos can be a little harder to capture as the details are so tiny. Start at 2500 DPI, print a sample to see how it looks, and keep adjusting as needed.

Learn How to Scan Your Own Photos

Want an alternative to scanning photos with a traditional scanner?

Using a camera allows you to digitize any photo format including prints, slides, and negatives. Check out our self-paced Camera Scanning Simplified course.