Friday, October 17, 2014

Simple way to digitize the occasional slide or negative -- b&w or color -- without a scanner

What My Wayback Machine Looks Like
Like most people who came to digital photography after years of shooting film, I have a lot off stuff sitting around that's not digital -- black and white negatives, color slides, and color negatives. How to convert them has always been a thorny issue for me. The easiest way is to scan prints, but I never made all that many enlargements, and the prints I have are too small to create a really good file. (I've rephotographed some of my old drugstore prints and it works pretty well, but that's strictly a low-res option, only useful for screen resolution on a computer.)

Scanning slides and negs is problematic. Scanning film and slides on a flatbed scanner is better than it used to be, but it's time-consuming and still doesn't give great high-res files. Film scanners made to do the job can do it, alright -- but they're expensive, and I never could justify the expense for my old photos, most of which I just don't like that much anymore. (It would be different if I planned to shoot a lot of film in the future, but that's not likely, although I really respect the people who do. Me, I'm too impatient.) So what to do?

I solved my problem with the Opteka Slide Duplicator -- $29.95 at Amazon. And with it I can get better digital copies than most flatbed scanners produce, comparable to the results of a film scanner at a medium resolution setting. You can get them for most digital SLRs and a few compacts. (Note: This particular model doesn't seem to be made anymore, but last time I looked, there were others out there for just a little more money.)

Yes, it's a plain old slide copier with a 52mm thread that screws into many of my Nikon lenses, including the tack-sharp 50mm f/1.8, which seems to work best. It has a built-in closeup lens, a tube that holds a slide at the appropriate distance (there's an attachment for holding negs, too -- and, surprise, it also works pretty well).

Will Jesus Save the Live Nude Girls?Slides are the easiest. They slip right into the holder from the top. You'll need to manually focus. It's a good idea to stop down to about f/11 for the extra depth of field needed to keep the entire (slightly curved) slide in place. Aim at any neutral light source and set your white balance on auto. Crop and tweak in any photo editing program, and there you are. This digital copy, which I took in Times Square in 1976, looks better than the slide, since I could make minor adjustments that weren't possible on the original.

Digitized from the B&W Neg with Slide CopierBlack and white negatives are also a breeze. I took this photo on Tri-X in Madison in 1985. There's an adapter the size of a slide that has slots in the side for film strips. Insert the adapter, and then slide in the negative strip from the side. You'll get an image of the negative, which you can "invert" in any photo editor so that it becomes a positive image. Tweak brightness and contrast to your taste, and there you are.

Digitized from the Color Neg with Slide CopierI took this photo in Miami Beach in 1985 on Kodacolor. Color negatives are more of a challenge, because of the orange mask that is part of the color negative process. It has to be properly removed, or you will end up with colors that can't be fixed by any amount of photo editing. Click on the photo to see my description of how I did it myself. You could also buy scanning software like VueScan that does it more or less automatically, and which works with jpeg files as well as scans.

I used to have bad associations with slide copiers from the days of film: The colors would never come out right, there was an awful contrast buildup, and you had to bracket the hell out of every shot to even get in the ballpark. You had to have just the right light source. And there was visble image degradation from the second-generation copy effect, going from film to film.

But digital cameras have come so far they're eliminated these problems. You see what you get and can easily reshoot. Auto exposure and auto white balance take care of most of the problems. And if you shoot RAW, as I do with the D90, you have a lot of flexibility in white balance correction. You can tweak in postproduction. And a 12 megapixel camera like my D90 will give you resolution comparable to a 3,000dpi scan on a film scanner. Good enough for me, and a lot quicker.

Will it work for you? That depends. If you're mainly trying to digitize lots of old photos of friends and family so they can be viewed on a computer or TV, or made into snapshot-size prints, use a flatbed scanner with a film and slide attachment. It's faster, and you can set up a regular production line. The quality will be sufficient for your purpose, and the software will help with the orange mask on color negs. But the files you make won't be real high-resolution files suitable for large reproduction.

If you're a serious film shooter today, or have a large quantity of film images you want to digitize at the highest possible resolution, you've probably already invested in a film scanner, which at the high end gives by far the best results. But, again, they're expensive and not exactly speed demons compared with the instant it takes to make a copy with the slide duplicator.

If, like me, you only occasionally want to reach back and make a high-res digital copy of a film image, and you want to do it quickly, the slide copier is perfect.


Vulcanrider said...

Madison Guy,
I appreciate your article on digitizing slides and B&W Neg's.

If I use the Opteka Duplicator to copy my old Tri-X negs, can you describe or estimate the effect it will have on the resolution, contrast and dynamic range of the digital file, assuming I shoot raw using a 12 MPixel camera?

Best Regards,
Alan Mitchell

Madison Guy said...

Sorry, I haven't done that sort of rigorous testing. I can say I was pleased with the result, using a 12mp dslr.

I don't convert enough old film and slides to invest in the major expense of a high-quality film scanner. But the Opteka does a better job than any flatbed scanner I've used.

If you need the absolute best in resolution, contrast and dynamic range, use a film scanner. But I think it only makes a significant difference if you're planning to print very large, which I don't do.

And for occasional use the Opteka just can't be beat. And the cost, compared to a good film scanner, is so low you really can't go wrong trying it.

Hope that helps.