A Primer on Digitizing Your Old 35mm Slides

Invented by Kodak in 1935, 35mm slides became the most popular photographic format by the 1960s due to their compact size. Kodachrome was especially popular because it offered superior colors to Ektachrome. Like negatives, the popularity of slides greatly declined with the introduction of digital cameras. Even so, it’s incredibly common to find photographic slides in old photo collections. Pre-digital era photographers are likely to have several images stored in this format. Others may have inherited a few boxes of slides among their family heirlooms. Regardless of how you acquired slides, the thing that is true of all of them: is that they’re at risk of deteriorating and being lost forever if you don’t act soon to digitize them.

What is a 35mm Slide?

35mm slides

Unlike negatives, a 35mm slide or transparency generally refers to a positive image captured on film. The film is cut into individual frames and mounted in cardboard or plastic to help protect the material and allow projection. Color 35mm film slides are common, while black-and-white ones in any size format are relatively rare. 

Slides were originally designed as a space-saving format to store photos. In addition, this handy format made it easy to project photos on a screen for a group to view at the same time rather than people flipping through an album individually. Over time, as digital formats and online sharing became more common, slides fell out of favor. Many hobbyists and professional photographers kept the format alive for a bit longer because they preferred the superior details captured in a film to that of early digital photos. Today, since digital photography and excellent quality cameras on smartphones are universal, slides have largely been relegated to gathering dust in boxes.

How to Digitize 35mm Slides

By now, you’re likely wondering how to digitize slides. The good news is that there are a couple of options to convert slides to a digital format:

Professional Slide Scanning

If you’re willing to invest some money in the project, professional conversion services are probably the best choice, especially when you wish to digitize many boxes or carousels of slides. Professional scanning services have the equipment and expertise to efficiently convert slides. They typically provide digitized images in a number of digital formats, including online downloads, USB flash drives, and CDs. The process is not only quicker but also yields high-quality images that can be printed and enlarged. In addition, well-established and highly-rated professional service can expertly restore photos contaminated with dust or debris spots, both of which are a common problem with slides that have been stored for a while.

The Do it Yourself Method

If you’re planning to digitize 35mm slides yourself, then you need to start with the right equipment. Most standalone scanners are designed to digitize both 35mm negatives and slides. These units take the slide and project it onto a receptor that captures the image and digitizes it internally. You can pick and choose the slides you want to scan and retain or discard the rest. If you don’t factor in the time involved, this approach is less expensive than using a service. Although many 35mm slide scanners are available, you need to consider several factors when shopping for one.

  • Image quality – Don’t waste your money on a low-megapixel scanner to scan your 35mm slides. You need a scanner in the range of 9 megapixels or higher for best results. Although many discount scanners are available, the image quality is greatly compromised in order to keep their price low. The best gauge of quality is the extent to which you can enlarge an image once scanned. Low-megapixel scanners generally only yield a 4 x 6 image at best. Good scanners can produce poster-size images without loss of detail or quality.
  • Scanning speed – Again, low cost means a slower machine to convert 35mm slides to digital. If you have a lot of extra time on your hands to scan slides, then this may not be such a huge consideration. But if you don’t want to spend months processing slides, a better quality scanner can deliver faster results and multi-slide scanning capability. Keep in mind that fast scanners require more data storage, so you’ll likely need a sizable storage card until you download the images to your computer.
  • Compatibility formats – The large majority of scanners work well with most computers that are up to two 2-years old. If your computer is older, then you may run into issues, especially on systems running an OS older than Windows 10 or an earlier Mac OS.
  • Comparison shopping – Don’t settle on the first scanner you find. Amazon, B&H, and Adorama offer competitive prices on many scanners. Walmart and Target are a couple of other stores worth checking out, although their stock tends to be limited when it comes to higher end models. Before you settle on a model, a trip to your local Best Buy, Staples, or another store that sells computer accessories will enable you to see how these scanners work and learn more about their features firsthand. 
  • Consider renting or buying – If your scanning needs are a one-time event and you believe that you can complete this task over a weekend or within a week, consider renting. This approach may be more cost-effective than buying a scanner. Many high-end scanners are available for rental periods at a fraction of the cost of an outright purchase.

What is the Best Scanner for 35mm Slides to Digital

epson10000 flatbed scanner

When you’re shopping for photo scanners, look at online reviews from unbiased sites and get a recommendation from someone you know that already digitized their slides.

Flatbed scanners: If you are working with a very tight budget then you can use a flatbed scanner, although you’re unlikely to get very high-quality images this way. Still, it is a viable method to digitize slides into photo files for online sharing. Image quality is dependent to a large degree on the intensity of the internal scanner light. You should factor in a certain amount of editing time for each scanned image to enhance the quality. Additionally, just laying the slides on the scanner won’t work. You’ll need to create some kind of cardboard backing to reflect the light back through the slide in order to capture a decent quality image. Since this will generate a collage of slides as one image, you’ll need to crop out the individual images using photo editing software such as Photoshop. Although not ideal, the flatbed scanning method is still an option worth considering for those who want to minimize costs.

Standalone scanners: Most negative photo scanners also have the capability of scanning 35mm slides, additional negative sizes, and even Super 8 and 8mm film. It’s important to check the specs prior to buying the scanner to ensure it has the capability to digitize 35mm slides.

Bottom line…getting 35mm slides scanned professionally is the best way to share precious memories with family, friends, and preserve them for generations to come.