A Primer on Digitizing Your Old 35mm Slides

Photographic slides are part of many people’s old photo collections. Photographers in the pre-digital era are likely to have several of their images stored in this format. Others may have inherited a few boxes of slides from the family archives. Regardless of how the slides got there, one thing is true of all of them: they are at risk of deteriorating and being lost forever if we don’t act soon to digitize them.

What is a 35mm slide?

35mm slides

Technically, a slide can be either a cut negative of an image captured on film, or a developed and colorized film slice generated from a negative. In both cases, the slice is framed in cardboard or plastic in order to allow it to be easily handled as well as loaded into a slide projector for displaying.

Slides were originally designed as a space-saving format to store photos. Further, with slides, it was easy to project photos on a screen for a group to view at the same time rather than have people flip through an album individually. Over time, however, as digital formats and online sharing became more common, slides fell out of use. Many hobbyist and professional photographers kept the format alive for a bit longer, as they preferred the detail in film to that in early digital photos. But with digital now so well established, slides are largely relegated to gathering dust in boxes.

How to convert 35mm slides to a digital format

There are a couple of options when trying to convert images stuck in slides to a digital format:

Professional scanning

If you are willing to invest a bit in the project, professional conversion services are probably the best choice, especially when large libraries are involved. They have the equipment and expertise to efficiently convert negative slides as well as regular image slides. They can then make the images available through a number of digital formats, including online downloads, USB flash drives and CDs. The process is not only quicker but will also yield high quality images that can be printed and enlarged. Lastly, an established professional service can also expertly restore photos contaminated with dust or debris spotting, a common problem with slides that have been kept in storage for a while.

The do it yourself route

If you’re planning to digitize 35mm slides yourself, then you need to start with the right equipment which, in this case, means a scanner designed for scanning slides. These units take the slide and project it onto a receptor that captures the image and digitizes it internally. You can then pick and choose the slides you want to scan and retain versus the ones that are best discarded. If you don’t factor in the time involved, this approach is less expensive than using a service. There are a lot of slide scanners on the market and so here are some points to consider when shopping for one:

  • Image quality – Don’t waste your money on a low-megapixel scanner to scan 35mm slides. You need a scanner in the range of 9 megapixels or higher for best results. There are a lot of discount scanners available, but they compromise on image quality in order to keep their price points low. The best gauge of quality is the extent to which you can enlarge an image once scanned. Low megapixel scanners generally only give 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 all year to scan slides, then this may not be such a huge consideration. But if you don’t want to be spending months processing slides, a better quality scanner can deliver faster results, as well as multi-slide scanning capability. Keep in mind that fast scanners require more data storage, so you will likely need a sizable storage card as well for the scanner until data is moved to your computer.
  • Compatibility formats – The large majority of scanners work well with most computers that are up to two 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. There are many choices out there offered by the likes of Amazon and B&H. 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, you may want to go down to a local camera or computer store to see how these scanners actually 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 wrap up the task over a weekend or within a week, consider renting. It may end up being more cost-effective than buying in such instances. Many high-end scanners are available for rental periods at a fraction of the cost of an outright purchase.

Bootstrapping

epson10000 flatbed scanner

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