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How to scan slides without a scanner

How to scan slides without a scanner - Edward Byrne shows us how you can bring your memories stored away on slides into the digital world.

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Computers - Peripherals and Hardware

Words and images by Edward Byrne.

Before making the jump into digital photography I was a keen shooter of slide film. Like many of you reading this article, I have quite a few slides that I have never digitized and thus are rarely viewed. Looking through them recently, however, I started thinking about how nice it would be to have them all digitized and catalogued as I do with my DLSR photos. Actually, I wouldn’t even need all of them; even a selection of the better shots would be fine.

While speaking with a long-time professional wildlife photographer lately, he told me that I could just try photographing them. In fact, that’s what he did when he needed a quick print from one of his thousands of slides. I thought the idea merited at least a proof-of-concept experiment, so I set out to give it a try.

  • DSLR
  • 1 dedicated macro lens, preferably with a 1:1 reproduction ratio.
  • 1 small lightbox (the only piece of kit I obtained purposely for this experiment)
  • Tripod - Visit Vanguard World

Essentially, you’ll be taking a digital photo of your slide with your DSLR, thereby digitizing it in a fraction of a second. The key elements in the technique are the light table and the macro lens. The light table illuminates the slide so that you have a homogenously backlit image with a controllable white balance, while the 1:1 macro ensures the highest possible definition of the “scanned” image. I used the Nikon 105mm AF-S f/2.8 VR and a Kaiser slimlite 10 cm x 13 cm 5000K lightbox. This Kaiser model is just large enough to hold a few 35mm slides at a time (and modestly priced).

Ideally, you need a tripod that allows the central column to be horizontally positioned for macro work as you are then able to place the light table flat so the slides won’t slip off. Vanguard's Alta Pro 263AT is just one of their tripods that can do this. Secondly, this position makes it much easier to ensure that the sensor plane (essentially the back of the camera) is parallel to the slide. You can always adapt your own setup with a standard tripod but you may have more trouble with these two issues if you opt for a vertical, or almost vertical, setup.

The Nikon 105 Micro has a closest focusing distance at approx 30 cm, which is the point at which the reproduction ratio is 1:1. This is the distance that you’ll aim for when you position your lens with respect to the slide. Remember that the closest focusing distance is often quoted from the sensor plane or the nodal point of the lens, not the front element of the lens. You’ll have to check your documentation or experiment a little to find the sweet spot.

The rest of the procedure is fairly straightforward, frame your slide and take your shot. Remember that you may be forced to slightly crop the image depending of the focusing distance. Here are a few pointers that may help :
  • Turn VR / IS off
  • Use manual focus
  • Use mirror lock, if available on your camera, for maximum sharpness
  • Use Aperture mode to control depth of field.
  • Experiment a little with depth of field. Although you won’t need much with a flat surface, you may find that you get slightly sharper results if you decrease your aperture size a little.

Optionally, you may wish to try shooting in Tethered mode with software that supports this feature. Commercial products like Apple’s Aperture, Adobe’s Lightroom, and Bibble Labs’ Bibble Pro are examples. Other freeware/shareware exists as well. The advantage of shooting in Tethered mode is that you have a full-screen image of your slide in mere seconds, as each image is transferred to your computer as you shoot. This can be a time-saver compared to the zooming and panning on a small LCD as you check the quality of the shots.

Your mileage will vary depending on your technique and the original quality of the slide. Brighter samples tend to yield better results using this method. You will not match the professional quality of the dedicated slide scanners, but you may surprise yourself with very decent results achieved in such a short time. If you’re just looking to lift a quick image for the web or even small prints, this method may suit your needs… and your pocketbook may thank you for it.

A few examples:

Find the tripod and camera bag to suit your needs at www.vanguardworld.com

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