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Slides to Digital
How to turn your chromes into pixels

By Jerry O'Neill

Revive the Dead: Digitizing long-forgotten slides with your digital camera will give them new life. This shot of Jerry Garcia in a Grateful Dead performance in the early 1970s is a personal favorite. Digitized with the Nikon Coolpix 4500 plus ES-E28 Slide Copier Adapter and desk lamp illumination.


Photographers have a love-hate relationship with slides.

On one hand, nothing beats the bright, sharp, wall-sized images you get when projecting a tray of slides onto a big screen. On the other hand, slides can be a pain to handle. Before digital came around, making prints from slides was complicated, relatively expensive, and the print quality tended to be disappointing.

Digital, however, can give your old slides new life. Once you’ve converted your slides to digital image files, you can:

• correct faulty and faded color;
• share your photos via e-mail, web sites, and online galleries;  
• make high-quality, relatively inexpensive prints at home or via most online or walk-in labs;
• create multi-media presentations with graphics, animation, sound, and transitions, which you can put on a DVD and watch on TV or on your computer. (Software like Adobe Premier Elements will help you do this.)

But first, you need to convert your slides to digital. There are two ways to get your slides into your computer: scanners and digital cameras. No single one is perfect for everyone, but once you’ve found a method that works best for you, it’s easy. Let’s look at both methods.

Scanners: film or flatbed?

There are two types of scanners—flatbed and film. Generally, if you’re willing to spend time and money to get the best quality possible, a scanner is the way to go.

Film scanners are optimized for scanning negatives and slides, and will give you the best results. Prices range from around $120 for the Pacific Image Prime Film 1800u 35mm scanner to $2,000 for the Nikon Super  Coolscan 9000-ED, which can handle any film format up to 6x9cm. Lower-end scanners will provide moderate resolution (enough for up to prints smaller than 8x10, and for viewing on-screen) and scans may need minor color correction. Spend more on a scanner and you’ll get faster scan times and FireWire or USB 2.0, which let you transfer images onto your computer quickly (important if you have a large backlog of slides), as well as better overall quality and higher resolution.

Advantages: Quality and control. Most come with software that can automatically correct minor defects including color fade and dust.

Disadvantages: Slow; Not ideal for converting massive quantities of slides.

Best suited for: High-quality prints, image restoration.

Flatbed scanners are optimized for copying text pages and photographic prints, but some have slide-copying capabilities, too. They range in price from under $100 to around $2,000 for pro-level models. Slide copying may be either via a built-in cover or an accessory. But their slide copying abilities are limited: because they’re optimized to copy larger prints, resolution is considerably lower and 35mm slides will produce files that are suitable only for e-mailing or posting on a web site. You may be disappointed in the results if you try printing them. Nevertheless, some flatbeds, such as the Microtek Scanmaker 6800 or  Epson Perfection 4490 Photo Flatbed Scanner, both of which cost around $250, will scan several slides at once, which can save you time if resolution is not a major concern. And if you have medium- or large-format chromes, a flatbed may be a very viable option that costs less than a film scanner.

Advantages: Quick way to scan several slides at once for online or on-screen viewing.

Disadvantages: Image quality not ideal for prints.

Best suited for: Web sites, e-mail, and professionals with medium- and large-format chromes.

Digital cameras

If your goal is to copy family and vacation pictures and you plan on making large quantities of small to moderate-sized prints, or just want to view your photos on your computer or TV, your digital camera may be ideal. Shooting is fast (it could take several minutes to scan a slide, but a camera will do it in a snap) and, if your camera produces at least 4-5 megapixel images, you may be able to make good-looking digital copies.

The big-image approach

It’s a simple technique: project your slides as you usually would, and take pictures with your digicam. The big advantage is that if your slides are in their Carousel trays, you simply put the tray on the projector and, with all other lights off, shoot away. But there are several caveats:

  1. Use a tripod: You’ll need to set your camera at its lowest ISO to get the best image quality. Shutter speeds may be several seconds long. A fixed camera position will also help keep framing consistent.
  2. Beware of noise: These slow exposures can produce artifacts on the file (noise), especially in dark or light areas of the image. Some cameras have a noise reduction mode. There are also Photoshop filters such as nik dFine 1.0 and Kodak's GEM, which can control noise.
  3. Tweak exposure: Full auto may not work here; be prepared to tweak exposure with your camera’s exposure compensation control. You may also want to set white balance manually to Tungsten if image color looks odd in auto white balance.
  4. Beware Keystone Kops! “Keystoning” is the effect that turns a rectangular image into a trapezoidal shape when the lens isn’t square to the screen. You can get away with a little keystoning when your subject is nature or people and you crop. But buildings and other straight lines produce noticeable keystoning. To avoid this, place the camera behind the projector, at a telephoto setting, and line it up with the projector as closely as possible.
  5. Avoid soft edges: Projector lenses aren’t made for duping, and the corners of projected images may be soft. You can reduce this by making an aperture: take a piece of black paper or cardboard, cut it to a donut shape with a hole half the diameter of the front of the lens. Center it on the lens, and tape it on. The smaller aperture will result in images that are consistently sharper (albeit darker) from edge to edge.
  6. Save your good slides: The longer the projector light shines through your slide, the faster it’ll fade. Use an unimportant slide to adjust your setup.
Projecting problems : Oops! Shooting copies off the wall or with a tabletop setup can give you keystoning hassles. I decided to square up this "Sunset in Cologne, Germany" slide in Photoshop instead of readjusting the camera and projector, but even with sharpening, it's not as crisp as the original.

Tabletop copying

A tabletop set-up is like a miniature projection screen; put a projector on one end of a table, and project the image on an upright 8x10 piece of smooth, white cardboard. Set up the camera as close as possible to the projecting lens. The big advantage is that, since the projector is much closer to the screen, the image is much brighter and exposures can be shorter, reducing the possibility of noise due to digital exposure. But it’s harder to minimize the angle between camera and projector lens, so keystoning will be more pronounced.

The direct approach

For the most time- and cost-effective method, consider ditching your Carousel altogether and making ultra-close-ups of the slides. Many compact digital cameras can focus so closely they can fill the frame with your slide—and those copies can be grain-sharp.

Some camera manufacturers make slide holders that screw into the lens. For instance, I digitize my slides with a Nikon Coolpix 4500 and Nikon’s $65 ES-E28 Slide Copier Adapter. This is essentially a metal tube that positions the slide roughly 2 inches from the front of the lens. There’s a piece of white, translucent plastic to diffuse the light. Point the contraption at a piece of paper with a desk lamp shining on it (for instance), set your white balance to tungsten, and you’re ready to go.

If you don't own a Coolpix, unfortunately nobody else makes similar products. But if you own a DSLR, you can pick up a slide copier attachment from Adorama’s Used department. Or, if you have a macro lens and a light table, you can mask off your light table with opaque material (to prevent flare), and leave an opening just large enough to let light shine through your slide. Set up your camera on a tripod, pointing straight down onto the slide (use a level to make sure the sensor is parallel to the slide), and shoot away.

If this is more trouble than it’s worth to you, there’s a third way to copy your slides. It’s easy: Simply take all of your slides to a one-hour lab, and let them do it.

Copied with a slide scanner.

About Jerry O'Neill:
Film AND digital! Jerry O'Neill thinks this is the most exciting time in the entire history of photography, being able to use both film and digital photography, with digital's amazing new capabilities.

Over the years he's used "film" cameras from Minox to 8x10, and digital cameras from the early 100,000 pixel models to today's 16,000,000 pixels and counting.

His photo career includes photojournalism in Bavaria and the U.S., medical and scientific photography, racetrack photo finish photography, and PR photography. His articles about photography have appeared in many magazines, books, and encyclopedias over the past 30 years, and he's a columnist for photo magazines in the U.S., Germany, and New Zealand.

This is Jerry's first article for the Adorama Academy.

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In Jerry's Digital Darkroom:
Pacific Image Prime Film 1800u
Nikon Super Coolscan 9000-ED
Microtek Scanmaker 6800
Epson Perfection 4490 Photo Flatbed Scanner
Nikon ES-E28 Slide Copier Adapter


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Film Scanners
Flatbed Scanners
35mm Slide Projectors


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