How to Digitize Slides

Here are three easy methods for bringing your dusty old slides up to date.

How-to-Digitize-Slides
How-to-Digitize-Slides
Photo By Jim Orr/fotolia

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.

Your best bet? Usher these memories into the 21st century by digitizing and burning them to DVDs. You have three choices: Use a slide duplicator on your digital SLR, scan them, or outsource the task to a slide duping house.

SLIDE DUPLICATOR

Selling for about $85 (street), a slide duplicator (or "duper") is a cylinder that attaches to your DSLR's lensmount using a T-mount adapter ring ($18 street). Duplicators are relatively small, rugged, and easy to store and transport. Unlike scanners, they don't require electricity or a computer.

Dupers have a lensmount 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 DSLR's imaging plane 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: With DSLRs that have APS-sized sensors, you're 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 begin, dust each slide with bursts front and back of canned air before duping. We found it easiest to work with our DSLR (the Kodak DCS PRO 14n) 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 set up, duping goes quickly, thanks in part to your DSLR's LCD 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 palate 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 sharpness with a duper. Our test images made with Adorama's Pro Optic Zoom Slide Duplicator were sharp enough for viewing on a computer monitor, but when output to even small 4x6 print sizes, the full-resolution images from our Kodak 14n setup were noticeably softer than the original slides.

Bottom Line: If you're digitizing slides for computer slide shows, DVDs for TV viewing, or for posting on the web, a slide duper might suffice. But, if you want the possibility of making prints from your duped slides, pass on the duplicator and consider a film scanner.

PRO Inexpensive and relatively fast.

CON Images not sharp enough for big prints.

FILM SCANNER

The good news: Film scanners have become ultra sophisticated and ultra easy to use. The best are absolutely plug-and-play. The Nikon Coolscan V ED ($550, street) used for this comparison produced usable scans within minutes of coming out of its box. They're also reasonably priced, starting as low as about $250 for a decent unit. 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 at least 3,000 dpi (noninterpolated) if you want sharp and colorful 11x14s from your slides. We also highly recommend scanners that have Kodak's dust-removing Digital ICE, as well as those with noise-reducing multisampling modes.

If you have medium-format or black-and-white negatives in addition to slides to digitize, look for scanners like Microtek's 4,000-dpi ArtixScan 120tf multiformat ($1,500, street) whose digital dust-off (SilverFast Ai 6) works with b&w as well as color originals.

If you don't already own a good image editor, shop for a film scanner that bundles a version of Adobe Photoshop or Elements. 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 ($450, street, for Nikon's SF-210, an auto slide feeder for the Super CoolScan 5000 ED), but will save you many hours in the long run. Pacific Image Electronics PowerSlide 3600 ($640) can batch scan 50 to 100 slides at a clip.

Bottom Line: From an image quality standpoint, film scanners are your best bet. They make little sense, however, if you don't need the resolution or have a limited number of slides to digitize and won't be using the scanner again. If this is you, consider a slide duping house.

PRO Extensive control over resolution and image quality.

CON Cost of the scanner may be high.

SLIDE DUPING HOUSE

A quick internet search turns up dozens of these. 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 minilabs (the majority today) can digitize slides at moderate resolutions.

You will be surprised at the range of pricing. It can cost from $0.75 to $5 per slide for 2,000-dpi scans. Ask the photofinisher up-front about all costs. Vendors with low per-slide charges, for instance, often charge exorbitantly to cover the expense of blank DVDs.

When selecting a vendor, confirm that it cleans and scans each slide individually. Avoid batch scanners.

Most duping houses offer multiple pricing tiers based on resolution. The lowest-priced scans (usually under $2 each) are 2,000 dpi and are fine for viewing on monitors or TVs and can even be printed to 4x6 or 5x7 inches. Larger 3,000 dpi scans are usually twice as expensive.

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 or moisture. Don't ship loose slides, because 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 rubberband 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 DVD(s) 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.

Tips for Dupers:

  • Clean your slides.

  • After scanning, back up your digital files.

  • Make sure you have plenty of computer memory to store all these digital images.

  • Don't attempt to digitize large numbers of slides on an old, slow computer system.

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