How to digitize/scan old slides
April 16, 2022 3:07 PM   Subscribe

What's the most simple/efficient way of digitizing old family photos from slides? I've done a bit of searching online and the process seems daunting (I found a video that involved a digital camera and a empty paper towel tube and quit researching!). What's the best way to go about this?

My uncle has been going through his old slides for photos of my father, mother, grandparents, etc. and is putting aside their photos from his collection of slides. What is the best way to go about scanning these (or whatever you have to do)?

Is there a way that I could do this on my own relatively simply? I'm not sure if my uncle would let me give the slides to a third party to process them, so that's something I might ask him about when he lets me borrow the slides.

Do I need to buy a different type of scanner? I have a Brother multifunction printer/scanner.
posted by VirginiaPlain to Technology (7 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
The term to search on is "slide copier". I can't suggest any particular one because I eventually sent the slides to digmypics. They did a great job.
posted by SemiSalt at 3:16 PM on April 16, 2022 [1 favorite]

Magnasonic has a small box manual-feed scanner; you'll want to use an SD card for the digital files. The controls are very basic and there are some hitches: it occasionally crashed.

Recommended for price, and the benefits of having a built-in viewer (take a look before scanning, do I even want to scan this slide or color negative?), and because it doesn't take up a lot of desk space.

The Magnasonic FS71 will give you decent reference scans from the slides; for better quality you could then take those particular slides to a professional.

Magnasonic All-in-One 22MP Film Scanner with 5" Display & HDMI, $119.
posted by xaryts at 3:28 PM on April 16, 2022

Best answer: I've done a lot of this over the past couple years.

Depending on how many slides you have, as well as your willingness to deal with the technical aspects of scanning and processing the image files, it really could be best to send them to a scanning service. There’s always a risk shipping anything, but the top services themselves are reputable and careful.

Definitely think seriously about doing this because scanning slides and negatives on your own is a tedious, fidgety, and time-consuming process with a lot of subtleties that can produce wildly different outcomes for your image files.

If you do decide to DIY, there are dedicated slide scanners you can buy —a used one on eBay would be fine— but they’re expensive and probably not something I’d recommend for your situation, since a decent flatbed scanner can give acceptable results.

For your all-in-one Brother to work with slides or negatives it has to have a light in the lid that can shine through the slides (this would be behind a removable panel). I kind of doubt yours has this, but without knowing the exact model I couldn’t say for sure. Feel free to post it in a followup and I’ll let you know.

I personally use an Epson Perfection V600, which is a popular flatbed scanner for this sort of thing. It comes with trays to hold your slides and negatives and makes good-quality scans. There are less expensive Epson models and the whole line in general is very often used by DIY photo-scanning folks.

Regardless of what scanner you use, I highly recommend not using the software that comes with it and instead buy a license for an app called VueScan. It will work with pretty much any scanner that’s been made in the last couple of decades, it has different modes depending on your level of expertise, and it allows you to use your scanner to its fullest potential.

There’s lots more I could say about post-processing the image files, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish.
posted by theory at 4:39 PM on April 16, 2022 [4 favorites]

I recently used a company called Memory Fortress, who did a great job on transferring some old super 8 films to USB, and I would definitely use them again for slides and the like. They were very conscientious in the receipt and turnaround, communicating at all points, and made me feel like my family heirlooms were being well-looked after.

A different, low-fi example is a technique my uncle used a number of years back, where he videotaped an actual live slideshow of some slides taken in the 50's, with family members present to identify the people and places in the slides, recording their conversation along with the slides-as-a-movie. At first this seemed really silly and boring to me, but now that most of those family members are gone, the video--with family play-by-play--is actually a treasured artefact. The video camera was set up on a tripod, capturing the whole of the projector screen. The voices can be heard ambiently. It's not a high-quality photographic reproduction, but it does certainly bring the images to life.

Not your question, exactly, but just another idea, to involve your uncle in the historic preservation of the images.
posted by amusebuche at 6:54 PM on April 16, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It really depends on how many slides you have, and how much time you're willing to dedicate to it. Twenty? Eh, sure, I'd tackle that on a weekend. Fifty? I'm losing interest. Five hundred? That's going out to a service. The companies that offer slide and film scanning as a service have high-quality, fast equipment that not only scans quickly, but adds some basic image optimization and color correction on the fly. If you just want to rip a bunch of scans "as-is" at home, you can certainly do that somewhat quickly and brainlessly, but if you're not going to do a good job of it, the question becomes... why bother?

Some (not all, and it is exceedingly rare to find a MFP/all-in-one printer/copier/scanner that will do this) flatbed scanners will have a backlit insert for scanning slides and negatives. You place the slide/negative into a special holder in the lid, close the lid, a diffused light comes on to illuminate the slide from behind, and it scans the slide. Without this backlight, your Brother MFP is almost certainly going to capture a black square, or a very, very muddy image. Also, most consumer MFPs are document scanners, meant for scanning printed documents and very basic photos. Most only have 8-bit color depth, not the greatest color gamut, and (read the fine print) a fairly low true optical resolution, around 300dpi. Which is fine for scanning text or a large picture, but isn't a lot of pixels for a 1" x 1.5" slide transparency. But even those consumer flatbed scanners with the slide/negative insert are a compromise, an added afterthought. They work, mostly, but they're a pain in the ass to use. If you already have one of these with the slide insert, by all means give it a whirl. But if you're going to have to buy a scanner that will do slides anyway... buy a slide scanner, not a compromise.

There are some entry-level at-home slide/film scanners; Kodak makes one that works. It's not great, but it works, and after your first few "oh, that's how this goes" attempts, you'll be producing passable results. Fine for sharing on social media, but you're probably not going to be making poster-size prints without a fair bit of post-processing.

Toward the upper end of the consumer/entry-level pro range, Plustek is a good place to start. More robust, easier loading, better results out of the gate. And really, unless you're a film photographer that is going to be doing a lot of slide/film scanning, or you're planning to open your own shop, that's about as far up the line as I'd go.

I'm not a huge fan of the tabletop models like the Kodak with the built-in screen; it's much too small for my older eyes to really see what kind of results I'm getting. I'd rather have something connected to my computer, so I get a preview scan on my huge, color-calibrated monitor. Much less guesswork.

If you look at one of these scanners, whether it's $500 or $170, and think "Damn, that's a lot of money for scanning slides!" oh we're not even close to being done yet. You also need to factor in your time. And, it's going to take some time. And, when you factor your time into it, jobbing it out starts to make more sense, especially as the number of slides goes up.
posted by xedrik at 8:02 AM on April 17, 2022 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Okay, xedrik you've convinced me to talk to my uncle to send them to a third party to get them processed. Apparently he has over 1000 slides!
posted by VirginiaPlain at 12:04 PM on April 17, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Send them to a pro, then, because they will do batch processing on the images that you probably don't know how to do, and the results will be better. (I'm a former prepress guy who thought our scanning techs were wizards.)
posted by wenestvedt at 2:34 PM on April 17, 2022 [1 favorite]

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