Digitizing 35mm slides without a slide scanner

Sue has a large collection of 35mm and (I think) medium format slides and we’d been looking around for a way of getting some prints from them without giving them to someone else and hoping they’ll take care of them. We discovered in the end that we had all the equipment we needed just lying around in the house!

Of course the first thing we tried was scanning them using the trusty HP OfficeJet all-in-one, but the results were really quite disappointing. We’d tried the same thing with negatives before, with equally disappointing results. The colours were really bad (far too dark), and the resolution was appallingly low.

Next we tried looking at purpose-built slide scanners. These things are quite pricey, and I actually couldn’t find one that was affordable and had Linux support. I had heard you could get slide holders for scanning slides on a conventional scanner, but couldn’t find out much about where to get them from. I did find a page describing how to make one yourself, so we tried that — it was rubbish. It was fun to make, but gave no better results than just scanning the slides as they were.

It was at this point we discovered that the HP scanner hits some sort of resolution limit at about 400dpi, beyond which the results get markedly worse. When the slide is only an inch and a half wide, 400 dots per inch is quite a lot lower than we were hoping for. The advertised resolution of the scanner is 1200dpi, but never mind.

Somewhere I’d read that another approach would be to take digital pictures of the slides on a lightbox. So, slightly resigned to the whole effort being a failure, and about to give up, I suggested to Sue that she should have a quick go at that. Bingo!

The rigUsing a macro lens, a tripod, a lightbox, a chair and a pillow, Sue managed to get much better results than I had with the scanner. To get the slide as close to the lens as it would focus, she inclined the lightbox to about 30 degrees on top of a chair, holding it there with a pillow. The slide was kept in place with some sellotaped bits of paper! Once it was lined up correctly the photo was taken using the infra-red remote shutter release trigger.

The line upThe slides were not quite full frame in the camera, but not very far from it. The lightbox provided a nice evenly-lit background, and the tripod and remote trigger avoided any shaking while taking the picture. Each slide had to be perfectly square on to the lens to make sure it was all in focus.

Pixie House slideOnce the pictures were all taken it was just a matter of cropping them on the computer. To get prints from these digitized images, we’ll probably take the easy route and send them to PhotoBox. 🙂

Here is a reduced-size version of the finished result, a picture of the Pixie House (Harbour Lights) in Boscastle, taken sometime in the 1960s:

The Pixie House

UPDATE: This building was washed away during flooding in recent years.  Since then, we visited Boscastle and took some pictures.  Here is a picture of the rebuild:

124 Responses to “Digitizing 35mm slides without a slide scanner”

  1. Geoff Higgs says:

    Just viewed this forum today. Very interesting
    I have an HP S20 slide scanner that produces 20Mb bitmap files from a 35mm slide.
    It also handles colour negative strips (4 to 5) negs) and will scan small (up to 6″ x 4″) prints.
    It seems quite good to me but am not sure how it stacks up against other systems. It is specified as 2400 optical dpi and 36 bit colour.
    When I bought it, some years ago, the alternatives were twice the price (£700 against £350) and the slide scanner add-ons for A4 scanners were very poor. However, these scanner add-ons now seem to have improved vastly, judging by some of the results obtained by friends.
    This submission is triggered by a friend asking my opinion on the http://www.technologyinthehopme.com scanner, now £79.95. It says it uses a 5mpix sensor with 3600dpi “interpolation” (presumably actually less and softare generated – but you can’t make it up to produce real increased definition) and 48 bit colour.
    Does anyone have any experience of this device?
    By the way, I am not writing this a six-thirtyish in the morning but three hours later !?
    Geoff Higgs

  2. tim says:

    (oops — time fixed now!)

  3. Sandi Sheffey says:

    Clive Wright,
    I would like to see the photographs of the rig and drawings for producing the rig. I will begin digitizing quite a number of photos, slides, and negatives and am looking for an easy and quick way of doing this. My email is ssheffey@yahoo.com

    Tim, thank yo soo much for starting this. I like and will use your idea also.

  4. Juan del Solar says:

    I used to have a darkroom and I still have the enlarger. I would like to try to put the slides in the enlarger where the negatives are normally inserted, and project them on a ground glass or a diffuser. Then to place my digital camera on a tripod in front of the enlarger which would be positioned parallel to the ground and take a picture of the projected image.
    What do you think of this idea?
    Would the enlarger light be to harsh or too hot?
    I haven’t had the time to try it, but I’d like very much to hear your comments.

  5. David says:

    I’ve been toying with this light box idea myself. I jury rigged up something just as a trial and got a nice sharp, evenly lit slide to photograph with my digital camera set on macro. The problem is the camera will not focus the slide. It does fine with any other object at the same distance. A darkened room or a lit room does not seem to make a difference. Anyone else come across this problem and solved it. thanks

  6. Boris says:

    Thanks for a detailed article! I’m interesting to try scan some b/w films using my HP 3100 all-in-one device. You mentioned, that you tried it, and the results were not satisfied. Have you used any slide adapter or just put the film on scanner? Do you know anything about the following “HP C2521B Transparency Adapter”?

    Thanks again!

  7. Andrew says:

    Thanks for that Tim I have loads of old slides that have been put away at the back of the cupboards, that I will have to dig out now. Might also try this method on some of the old Glass Plates from my collection.


  8. Tony Pink says:

    Clive Wright’s idea appeals to me. The whole thread has been good to read. For starters Clive can you email me details of your method. toad@pinkies.demon.co.uk

  9. Don Sambol says:

    Clive Great idea. Just what I’am looking for. Can you send me the details?

  10. Mike Ogglesby says:

    Being a real tightwad (and OAP) I applied some lateral thinking and have made some surprisingly good digital copies of treasured slides by simply blutacking a slide onto my flat computer screen and ‘snapping it’, not even using macro, just zoom: macro shows pixels. I have a small tripod and will be experimenting with my bigger Fuji rather than my wife’s bijou Canon Ixus 70 (when I get it back from my son!). The computer is therefore my lightbox and I use a blank Word screen as lighting. I expect I’ll eventually find the brightness control to wind up the ‘backlighting.

  11. tim says:

    Mike: points for creativity!

  12. von Dawson's Express says:

    WoW, what a font of info, well done all. For what its worth, I have just bought a Canon EOS 450D and dug out a Jessops slide copier and T2 adaptor. I dug out my slides and found the camera/copier crops the pictures quite a lot BUT discovered that pictures of aeroplanes taken with a compact camera in the early ’60’s could be framed perfectly. I also tried colour negatives, again with small aeroplanes in the center, now that was fun! After loading up the picys on to my computer I used PaintShopPro8 and viola, ended up with pictures! I also copied some of those stereo pictures that kids have in viewers.
    I can only recommend thinking out of the box and experimenting, you never know what you may find, I think its a undiscoverd artform!!!

  13. janie says:

    when I use my printer etc. message says” better results from Hi-speed USB port.
    can I buy a plug-in, or does it mean that it has to be “plumbed-in” ! to my PC

  14. Joe says:

    I have a Sony DSC S650 digital camera that kicks into a macro phase when you just “zoom in”. It been a great $135.00 camera.
    What I did is take my old flat screen montitor, adjusted it to angle backwards as far as it can and set my slides on it using the normal slide frame to set them apart (pretty acurate spacing as its made to feed acurately through a slide machine).
    Next I made a top and bottom rail for the camera to sit on (think 90 deg. angled alum. pieces) and atached these to the sides of the monitor – this allows the camera to slide consistently “in-line” with all slides horizontally on the monitor screen. Then I just “slide” the camera along this rail, one by one seeing that things are alighned in the rear LCD screen on the Sony and use the built-in delay setting on the camera to take the final photo. Works like a charm. Once you have the “macro zoom” dialed n there is virtually no further adjustment needed as the distance fro lens to slide remains constant.

    It is very easy to make the camera slides and very easy to move the camera from slide to slide. I can also do a little more “zooming in” with this set up because the macro (zoom-in) ability is not all used up yet. NOW! Use the monitors normal screen adjustment conrols for more or less light through the slides or change the background color for some starteling effects (i.e.: change WORD TEXT background to YELLOW – RED — BLUE etc.)

    I have had a lot of fun with this and once you get the hang of it you can slide the camera along at a 4-6 slide per minute pace with no problem.

    PS – don’t try and use a typical “tube” monitor for this. All you’ll get is frequency lines.

    PPS – YThe color primnts from these digital repros print out nicely up to 5×7. Beyond that the focus blow out…..

    PPPS – and yes for those of you who might ask, prelim first year patent apps are in place on this – but have fun for now.

    Joe K.

  15. Fetina Faye MacKenzie says:

    I was doing a web search and came across this website which I visited over a year ago…although, some valuable information has been added since then, I find it more interesting that this reads like a conversation at a social gathering. If you didn’t look at the dates entered, you would have thought the conversation took place within an hour instead of a year. Amazing.

  16. Tom Marzipan says:

    Hi as an old codger who has been into dev/printing since 1950 I used a lash up with an old enlarger lying on its back with the base removed, white plastic (sanded to remove reflections) & a simple flash gun in place of the enlarger lamp for light. The camera was mounted on a slideing mount & then on a small tripod & used a quality enlarging lens mounted on bellows. I managed to duplicate colour slides for friends & family, & processed the film myself. The whole setup was held in place with plasticine on a board for portability. The enlarger was homemade, using a Foxs Glacier Mint tin for the light box, & bits of an old slide projector for the film holder. The bellows & focusing was all homemade & the lens mount came out of a camera that had been underwater for some time.

  17. Isla Gillard says:


    I started to scan my mothers 3000+ slides with the Nikon 4000ED film scanner which also does APS films and 35mm negatives which was an advantage too, but I found with 35mm slide scanning it just took too long doing one at a time, i then did a quick search online and found a company who take all the pain out of scanning, they are called Mr Scan http://www.mrscan.co.uk
    These guys offer a great quality fast scanning service. I returned my Nikon scanner and got Mr Scan to do all my photos. After my refund from Nikon i actual had all my images and money left over. Note: Don’t attemt to scan yourself, its cheaper to go with a professional scanning company.

    Isla, Farnham, Surrey

  18. tim says:

    Regarding ‘cheaper to go with a professional scanning company’ — I think it all depends what equipment you already have. In my wife’s case, for instance, she already had everything she needed: a macro lens, a light box, a tripod, and some time to spend on it.

  19. Donald Massey says:

    I tried Mike Ogglesby’s idea of using a PC monitor screen, with blank white document showing, but got a fine “fishnet” pattern in the background of the slide: on studying the monitor with a magnifying glass, I found the same pattern there, invisible to the naked eye.
    Any ideas to avoid?

  20. Nick says:

    Yes, a great page with plenty of interesting ideas. I’ve got a few AV slide shows that I need to transfer over to DVD and that means scanning around 1200 slides. I’m long-term unwaged due to ill-health and can’t afford to pay to get them scanned.

    I like the idea of using one of my slide projectors, and pointing the camera into it. But do I need to change to a different projector bulb, and do I need to put anything between the slide in the projector and the camera lens?

    I like John crane’s set-up but John, what is in that Ambico box?

    And finally, I have a Panagor slide copier with a Pentax PK mount, does anybody know if I can get an adaptor to use it with my Canon S2i?