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. Pete Davies says:

    What an interesting forum! I have over 30,000 slides which, sooner or later, I want to transfer. I am still using slide film, but my son has gone over to digital, with Canon EOS.

    My Jessops slide copier crops rather severely, as mentioned above by another contributor. I wasn’t aware of one specifically for use with a digital camera – must investigate! My all in one Epson Photo RX585 is hopeless for this sort of task, but great for scanning prints. Son and I have done some experiments: I project the slide onto a white wall we use as a screen, and my sone photographs them from that. He sets the camera at 400asa.

    By the way, there has been some comment above about the light box: size, type of lamp, etc. The one I have came from London Camera Exchange in Southampton, and cost about £15.

    Hope this helps!

  2. bharat patel says:

    I have tried the purpose built 5 Mpix slide and negative scanner available at around £80.00. Did not like the quality and had to send it back. It seems there is another – Plustec Optifilm. Not sure how good that is but…

    Anyway I will be trying the method described by Tim and others. I also have a lot of colour negatives. Can these be photoed the same way? And what software will convert the image to original colours?

  3. Donald Massey says:

    I lashed out all of £15 for a Jessop Lightbox, but results with my Canon A70 Compact were poor: focus was inconsistent, and colours were inconsistent.
    I have tried the Asda route (see Alan Bray, March 22 2008), but although picture quality was good, there was severe cropping of the image top and bottom in landscape format

  4. dianne says:

    hi thanks for all the great info was looking at the small digital scanner at about 100 dollars so the feedback was great. had tried the digital camera with photos but got flare of photo paper any ideas. will try the light box idea for the slides or the slide viewer with the camera on macro sounds good also. also is there a way to convert negatives to photos anyone know of software for this.

  5. bharat patel says:

    Hi, I tried the home made box and shot a few slides. Results were better than the 100 dollar/£ scan boxes. But need to refine the technique as slight movement and apereture settings can make things inconsistant. Also my macro is 1:1 so had to do almost 50% cropping thus wasting on quality. Using higher value aperture seem to be better as focusing was not that critical.
    Also shot some negative and used “invert” in Photoshop. That seemed to sort of bring the original colours back but then had to use level control for red, green and blue individually by bring the left hand slider inwards on each colour and then final level adjustment on RGB.

    To do this after inverting the scanned image create new adjustment layer and choose level adjustment. From channel drop down menu select red, and bring left hand slider inwards, then do same for green and blue untill satisfied and all looks natural.

    That seemed to reproduce the original colours. There might be another way of doing it but this may be a start!!

  6. ivor says:

    Some great comments – but has anyone had any good results from a lower priced dedicated scanner – if so which one as the other methods seems too time consuming for someone technologically challenged

  7. Joginder Singh says:

    I have been wanting to convert over 1000 of my slides of 1965 vintage and had been trying to find some good method of digitizing them. Thanks to Tims blog, one has had some good ideas to do it at home and in an inexpensive manner.
    I have specially liked Clive Wright’s idea of creating the Clive Rig and would like to try out the same. Clive, can you send me the drawings/ photos as you have mentioned. Kindly send me at my email address – given below.
    Thanks for all the info. It is enlightening.

  8. Michelle says:

    So simple, yet so effective.
    I have been looking for a scanner to copy our old family photos.
    Thanks for the information, I will certainly give it a go.
    Lovely picture by the way.

  9. Nelly Richard-Lopes says:

    Recovering from leg surgery gives me plenty of time to read… including Tim’s postings.
    I am also interested in building Clive Wright’s box but do not have his e-mail address. Could you forward it to me (nelly.lopes@cox.net)? Or this message to him.
    Thank you,

  10. Tony S says:

    Great practical ideas to solve the slide scanning issues. I have around 2000 to digitize, some taken out of an aircraft window over Alaska in the late 60’s.
    Reading the reviews of all the scanners, it seems that the process is slow with very indifferent results and software plus the scanner costs! Cannot add to the knowledge yet but will come back with my results.
    Clive, please could let me have the drawings and Joe K, could you send a diagram or photo of your setup please? Email below. Thanks in advance.
    Really good site and thanks to all who contribute.


  11. RON says:

    yes i have tried to digitise slides with the projecting onto screen then photographing method i was very suprised with the results much better than i thought but after a long debate with myself i have decided to buy
    myself a plustek 7300 scanner copy my slides then sell the scanner on
    they seem to bring a good price second hand on ebay if are kept in good condition, good luck to all you slide merchants.

  12. ROYSTON HARRIS says:

    Clive Wright

    Just read your post 2nd April 2008 and would be very pleased to receive details of your rig for copying colour slides into a digital camera. Many thanks in advance. My email is roystonharris@dsl.pipex.com

  13. Ivan Dickason says:

    Hi, I also have read the post by Clive Wright and would be pleased if he could forward details of his rig for copying colour slides with my digital camera. Many thanks.
    Ivan Dickason

  14. RON says:


  15. Ralph says:

    Coming late to the party here but my experience might be useful.

    I have tried multiple scanners including the top of the line Nikons and finally spent the money for an Epson 750 Pro. It provided the best quality all around but like all the others still did not provide real sharp and faithful copies. It did provide good enough quality for converting the slides to video and I developed a good working process that permitted me to deliver a video in short order, but I do not consider the quality at a sufficient level for “replacing” the slides themselves.

    That leaves a quandry as to what to do BUT in doing this project, I ran across another issue that you all need to be aware of.

    I had stored my slides (some back to the 60’s) in plastic slide pages as they made it easy to review large amounts of slides quickly. Unfortunatly I discovered that the plastic pages from the company called Coast Plastics (are a stiffer type of plastic) are rapidly degrading and they are both degrading the slides quality and leaving residue on the slides. AND the residue is different based on the slide type. Ektachrome seems to have oily spots on the emulsion and the Kodachrome has oily smears on the non-emulsion side. In either case, the residue requires manual cleaning and in some cases it is doing damage to the emulsion.

    This issue aside, I am looking to use the newer Canon 5 Mk II (coming out next month) with a light box and a macro lens to convert to digital replacements of my slides. This camera is supposed to be 21 Mega Pixel which from all my research is supposed to be close to the resolution of an Ektachrome and near to the Kodachrome resolution. I am hoping this will resolve the sharpness and contrast issues and provide RAW images that will enlarge similar to an actual 35 mm slide.

    I will come back and report when I get this setup running but from all my efforts I am ready use this method as I believe that I cannot wait much longer without loosing the images altogether.

    Scanners do not work to a level that I am pleased with but that does not mean that they will not work for some levels (such as inclusion in a video) so I do understand other’s enthusiasm and I m happy for them. I simply want something that will do justice to all the work and care that went into my 35 mm.

    Do check your slide pages…

  16. Alasdair Munro says:

    Hello all. I have too many slides to scan. I did borrow a Nikon dedicated scanner but decided I would need another lifetime to scan half of my slides. I now have a EOS40d with a Tamron 90mm macro and a large light table which was previously owned by the local newspaper. I have a Jessops slide copier but remembered that it will be subject to the cropping resulting from the 1.6 magnification factor of the camera as it is not full frame, so I decided to use the lightbox with a tripod and the macro lens.The immediate results are impressive, once the White Balance on the camera is adjusted. The Live View mode makes focussing much easier, and the self timer helps avoid shake. The real skill lies in not kicking over the tripod, as the central pole is horizontal with the lightbox on the floor.

  17. Brian Richardson says:

    Hi, thanks to Tim for an excellent and informative discussion. With reference to Clive Wright’s post can I add myself to the list for the details of the rig for copying colour slides with a digital camera. My e-mail address is brian.elsie@virgin.net Many thanks, regards Brian

  18. William McLachlan says:

    Hi, thanks to Tim for an excellent and informative discussion. With reference to Clive Wright’s post can I add myself to the list for the details of the rig for copying colour slides with a digital camera. My e-mail address is willmac@lantic.net

    Many thanks,

  19. Shani says:

    Hi, I tried your home made slide scanner using the same setup but the digital camera would not focus on the slide whatever I did. I set it on a tripod, used macro mode etc. Light source was a fluorescent tube 10W Philips daylight in a normal lightbox. What could I have done wrong?

  20. tim says:

    Shani: how far away was the slide from the lens? It sounds like it might have been too close for the lens to focus. If you have the ability to set the focus manually, try setting it as near as possible and moving the camera to find the correct distance.

    Otherwise, it’s just a case of moving the camera further away I’m afraid. We tried with a macro lens attached. I know that some compact digital cameras have ‘digital macro’ mode which can focus very close to the lens, but haven’t tried it for this sort of application so I don’t know if that’s suitable.