How to digitize slides
Here are three easy methods for bringing your dusty old slides up to date.
This post has been updated. It was originally published on December 17, 2008.
Got stacks of slide carousels loaded with holiday, vacation, and other family memories? Those trays hold too much personal history to be tossed, but in their current analog state, all those images are just too bulky, dusty, and, well, old-fashioned to bother with. Luckily, if you want to digitize slides, the options are plentiful.
Digitizing and storing them in the cloud or on a flash or external drive will reduce clutter and preserve the memories. You have three choices: digitize slides by using a slide duplicator on your digital camera, scanning them, or outsourcing the task to a slide duping house.
Related: How to edit your digital photos to look like film
Selling for about $70, a slide duplicator (or “duper”) is a cylinder that attaches to your camera’s lens mount using a T-mount adapter ring. Duplicators are relatively small, rugged, and easy to store and transport. Unlike scanners, they don’t require electricity or a computer.
Dupers have a lens mount on one end of the cylinder and a sliding gate that holds two slides on the other. The duper focuses a slide’s image onto your camera’s sensor using an internal lens that has a fixed aperture and focusing distance.
Most duplicators today also have a zoom mechanism that lets you continuously crop into the center, eliminating up to 50 percent of the image area. The slide gate adjusts in four directions, letting you crop left, right, top, or bottom. It also twists to level a horizon line. When you achieve the desired crop, lock the gate into position with the two thumb screws, and you’re ready to dupe.
A downside to duplicators: If you’re working with a non-full-frame camera, you may be forced to crop into the image. With some slides, that can be an improvement, but for scenes that were carefully composed in-camera, it’s a deal-breaker.
To digitize slides, start by dusting each slide front and back with bursts of canned air before duping. We found it easiest to work with our camera on a tripod, which we placed about 10 inches in front of a bare 150-watt tungsten light bulb that served as both a viewing and taking light. Because the unit’s fixed aperture is small (to assure adequate depth of field for sharpness), the viewing image is very dim, necessitating a bright source to see the slide and confirm that it’s correctly positioned in the gate.
Once you’re setup, duping goes quickly, thanks in part to your camera’s rear monitor and histograms, which make finding the right exposure a snap. Your camera’s auto white-balancing feature also comes in handy. In the film era, matching the color palette of your duping film to that of the light source was a major consideration. With auto white-balancing, you can use almost any common light source so long as it’s bright. With our duping system finalized, we were able to knock out six or seven slides per minute.
You may lose some sharpness with a duper but overall, this is a quick and easy method for creating reasonably high-quality scans at home. Of course, it does require you to own a digital camera.
Bottom line: A slide duplicator is an affordable way to digitize slides. However, your scans will only be as high-quality as your camera sensor’s resolution.
Pro: Inexpensive and relatively fast.
Con: A digital camera (ideally, full-frame) is required.
Digitize slides with a scanner
Related: Best 35mm film
The good news: Film scanners have become ultra-sophisticated, ultra easy to use, and reasonably affordable. Depending on resolution settings, as well as noise and dust reduction options, scanning each slide can take several minutes or longer.
Your scanner should offer a resolution of up to 6400 dpi (noninterpolated) for sharp, crisp photos. We also highly recommend scanners that have dust-removing Digital ICE technology, as well as those with noise-reducing multisampling modes.
If you have medium-format or B&W negatives in addition to slides to digitize, look for scanners like the Epson V600, which accommodates 35mm and 120 film and 35mm slides. It also employs Digital ICE to remove dust and scratches.
If you don’t already own a good image editor, you may want to invest in a subscription to Adobe Photoshop or Capture One (or you could just use Photoshop on the Web for free). You will need it for cleaning up dust spots and other imperfections in your scans.
If you have literally thousands of slides to scan, get a larger unit with an accessory batch loader. They’re bulky—storing them can be an issue—and may add to your start-up costs (Nikon’s SF-210 runs about $1,709), but will save you many hours in the long run. Pacific Image PowerSlide X ($999.99) can batch scan 50 slides at a time.
Bottom line: Film scanners aren’t as quick as digitizing slides with a slide duplicator but they do provide users with a lot of control over the final output. Also, built-in dust and scratch-removing software saves editing time.
Pro: Extensive control over resolution and image quality.
Con: The cost of the scanner may be high and they take up space.
Slide scanning service
If you want to digitize slides with low effort, consider a slide scanning service. Before you resort to them, if you live in a metropolitan area that has custom labs, make the rounds to check on local availability and pricing of the service. Virtually all retail photofinishers that use digital mini labs (the majority today) can digitize slides at moderate resolutions.
The pricing will vary, but can be as little as $0.25 per slide. Be sure to do your research and verify all costs. Vendors with low per-slide charges, for instance, may tack on fees to cover the cost of an SSD card or file transfer service. When selecting a vendor, confirm that it cleans and scans each slide individually and avoid batch scanners.
Scanning services now generally offer scans at a resolution fit to print and view digitally. Some may provide a discount should you choose lower-resolution scans—but be forewarned that prints may not be possible.
Before submitting your slides, dust them off with canned air and pack them up carefully. If you’re mailing them, use dust-free protective padding like packing paper or bubble wrap, and put the slides in resealable plastic bags to lock out dust and moisture. Don’t ship loose slides as the mount from one can easily gouge the emulsion of another, and don’t wrap slides in paper towels, which shed dust and lint. Wrap stacks of slides in dust-free paper or aluminum foil and rubber band them together, writing some form of ID and your name and telephone number on each stack.
If you’re submitting hundreds of slides, save yourself future headaches and batch them by subject and label each group with a short, descriptive term (Holidays 2005, NYC Vacation, etc.). Ask the vendor to put each group of scans in its own folder on the resulting SSD card or file-sharing service and request that your descriptive names be carried over to the folders. Although there may be an extra charge for this, you will locate images much more quickly later.
Bottom Line: While sending slides out for duping is, from a labor standpoint, the easiest way to bring your slides into the digital era, it’s probably also the most expensive.
Pro: Little labor on your part.
Con: Can take weeks, is expensive, and affords you little control over the image quality.