Google found a way to preserve your photos before they fade forever

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor
Yahoo Finance

Few people still take photos using film anymore, but somehow we’ve all got stacks and stacks of old Polaroids and 3x5s stuffed away in our attics or under our beds. And unfortunately, those photos are slowly fading away over time.

But Google (GOOG, GOOGL) has a way to save your precious pictures — yes, even those infamous shots from your spring break ’96 trip to Cancun — with its new PhotoScan app. Available as a free download for Android and iOS, the app lets you scan your old photos using your smartphone’s camera — instantly creating digital copies that you can then save to the cloud.

What makes PhotoScan any different from just taking a picture of your photos with your phone’s camera, you ask? Well, a lot, actually. See, when you take a picture of a photo, you inevitably end up capturing glare from nearby light sources that obscures parts of the image. You can try moving the light or taking the picture at a different angle, but that glare will always be there.

Google Photo Scan app scanning.
Google’s PhotoScan app is a snap to use.

PhotoScan, however, eliminates that glare entirely. So you end up with a near-perfect copy of your original picture. Google says the app does this by using machine-learning techniques that recognize and remove glare and even shadows from photos while keeping their original content. That’s the key here. There are already apps on the market like Heirloom that let you scan old photos, but none that I could find that can remove things like glare and shadows.

To use PhotoScan, you launch the app and line up the photo you want to scan in the on-screen viewfinder. You’ll see a large circle in the center of the screen and four dots in the corners of your photo. Line up the circle with each of the dots, moving from one to the next, and the app will automatically capture your image.

It takes a few seconds for PhotoScan to work its magic, but when it’s finished you won’t see any glare or even the surface where you were resting the original picture. It’s all gone.

Google Photo Scan screenshots.
Google’s PhotoScan app lets you save your old shots forever.

I used the PhotoScan at a small press event in New York and was genuinely impressed with how well it worked. To test the app, I purposely stood under a bright light and scanned a photo with a lot of glare. Once the image was processed, the glare and the table I was scanning the picture on were completely removed, leaving me with just the original photo.

Google says that by making you scan your photo from four different positions, the camera can capture multiple images of your picture. The company’s machine learning algorithm then lines up the four images to create a single photo and removes any overly bright pixels to kill the glare.

If, however, you don’t like the way PhotoScan crops an image, you always have the option to manually adjust its borders on your own.

Google says scans will be clear enough to be reprinted, but promises that it’s working on an update to PhotoScan that will provide higher resolution scanning options for smartphones with high-end cameras like the company’s Pixel handset and Apple’s iPhone 7 and 7 Plus.

Google Photos Editor screenshot
Google Photos improved image editor offers enhanced editing tools.

PhotoScan isn’t the only news Google released regarding its photo apps. Google Photos is also getting a handful of new features including a new auto enhance tool and advanced controls that let you adjust image properties such as hue, color saturation, warmth and skin tone.

Google also made some improvements to its Google Photos Movies feature. If you’re unfamiliar, Movies is a section of Google Photos that automatically pulls together similar images and videos to create a short, personalized movie. Apple has a similar feature in its own Photos app called Memories. Now, however, Google is making movies a bit smarter, starting with the new Lullaby theme.

Designed for new parents, Lullaby finds photos and videos of your newborn with its eyes closed and sets them to soothing music to create a short clip of all of the videos and photos of your baby snoozing. If you don’t like the video Photos creates, you can always go in and manually edit it on your own. Google says it’s working on similar themes for the holidays, pet owners and Earth Day.

Both the new editing tools and Movies are available in the latest version of Google Photos. PhotoScan is available for download today.

Daniel Howley is tech editor at Yahoo Finance

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Email Daniel at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.