Copying old stuff is a great winter project

If you are anything like me, you will have started in photography back in the day before digital cameras came onto the scene. Most photographers back then shot their pictures on 35mm transparency film. I was certainly one of those, my preferred stock being Kodachrome 64.

I guess many of the older-hands out there will have a collection of 35mm slides in boxes or albums, probably stashed away in the attic. This post is definitely for you. Why not turn your old images into cash?

I had a grand idea one rainy Sunday last winter. After searching the attic for an hour, I came across my collection of albums, and I counted over 5,000 slides! Why not digitize them, I thought? And then upload them to my usual stock agencies. What an excellent winter project.

There are several ways to digitize 35mm slides. Generally, the different approaches are: use a slide duplicator that can attached to a DSLR; use a flatbed scanner; use a macro lens and shoot the slides on a lightbox; or pay someone else to copy your slides.

I decided to go for the first option and bought a slide duplicator for £60.

Slide duplicators have been around for many years. Originally, they were used for copying 35mm slides to film. It was easier and cheaper to print images from negative film rather than directly from transparencies so duplication was a good option. However, many photographers, me included, shot on transparency because “trannies” were preferred by newspaper and magazine picture editors.

Film duplicators have been given a new lease of life because many people now want to digitize their old slides. The duplicator method offers a low-cost way to covert images to digital files.

Here is an image I took over 20 years ago. Originally shot on 35mm Kodachrome, the digitised version sells well as a stock piece.


The duplicator I use is an Ohnar Zoom Reverser. It has a zoom lens that allows for cropping at the shooting stage. However, I would strongly recommend that the zoom is not used. I prefer to shoot at the 1:1 setting and then if I need to crop the image I can do it later, during the editing stage.

The duplicator attaches directly to the DSLR body, using a T-mount. The T-mount screws onto the duplicator, which means that the unit can be used on a variety of different camera makes, providing you have the correct mount.

The slide holder at the front of the duplicator needs to be carefully positioned so that it aligns with the viewfinder frame. The holder can be rotated and then locked in position with a little screw on top of the holder.

Getting the right alignment is trial and error. It is worth taking time over this, shooting some test shots to get everything aligned just right before locking the holder in place.

Focusing and exposing the image

The slide duplicator unit has a built-in lens that is pre-focused on the area where the slide sits in the holder. The unit has a fixed aperture too, which means there is not automatic data exchange between the camera and lens. Instead, the correct exposure is achieved by altering the shutter speed on the camera. I set the camera on aperture priority and then adjusted the shutter speed to produce an exposure that was slightly under-exposed, by about 1/3 stop.

It is best to set the camera on a tripod and to use a cable release to fire the shutter. You can point the lens towards the sky or you can set up a photo lamp. I prefer the latter because it provides a more consistent approach, and you can use the set-up at night.

I use Astra lite panels for most of my studio work, and they make a great source of light for slide duplication. My lite panels are daylight balanced so I set the camera white balance to “daylight”.


Shoot RAW or JPEG?

This is an easy one for me, but I guess it comes down to time. I always shoot RAW. I could never contemplate shooting anything else. Whether it is for copying slides or shooting out in the field I have all my cameras set on RAW. But I appreciate time can play a factor. Shooting RAW does mean more time spent processing images before they can be uploaded to a stock agency. If you have 1,000 slides to copy, processing them will certainly be time-consuming.

Here are my numbers. It takes me two hours to set up, duplicate 20 slides, process them using Photoshop Elements, and upload them to a stock agency. If I shot JPEGs I would probably double or even treble the workflow. But, as I said before, I would never dream of shooting anything other than RAW, so I just live with the extra time it takes.

Alternative ways

I like the slide duplicator method. However, there are other ways to copy slides. Without doubt, a flatbed scanner would produce better image quality than a duplicator. There would likely be better definition and better colour rendition too. Scanners range in price from about £70 up to thousands of pounds. The Plustek scanner comes in at slightly  under £350 and it has good reviews.

I find it interesting how Plustek describe their scanner. They say “The Plustek 8200i is a powerful scanner that delivers the best film scanning solution for printing.” The scanner is definitely aimed at those who want to print a digital image from a negative or from a transparency. I think the scanner method is definitely better if you have a few precious slides that you want to print for display or for exhibition purposes. However, if you want to end up with a large collection of images for a stock library, then the scanner might be overkill. It is more expensive and it is more time-consuming to scan slides. The duplication method is less expensive and quicker and it provides perfectly acceptable results for stock material.

Finally, if you don’t want to copy or scan thousands of images, you could always send your slides to a company that can produce digital images for you. I had a quick search online and found several companies that would copy 1,000 slides for about £400. My collection of 5,000 slides would set me back £2,000 – ouch! Personally, I would rather do the copying myself, even if it takes longer.

Don’t forget the contrast

There is one last point I want to make. Contrast. Almost certainly, your duplicated digital images will be quite high in contrast, so don’t worry. There is a technical reason for the resulting contrast, which I will talk about in later posts. If you shoot RAW, you will be able to sort the contrast issue in post-production. It will take only a few seconds to greatly improve the image. Of course, if you have shot your duplications as JPEGs you are less able to sort the problem.

As far as agency acceptance goes, I have not found any problems. My usual stock agencies have no issues with accepting duplicated slides. It is nice to see my pictures from 20 years ago appearing in magazines around the world.

I hope I have inspired you to get up into the attic and search for those 35mm slides. Let me know how you get on.

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Tools of the trade

In this post I want to mention the tools that are needed to help build a great stock photography collection. Obviously, a camera is helpful! However, there are cameras and there are cameras so I thought it would be a good idea to go through my own camera bag.

Tools are important in any craft. A plumber comes to your house with an assortment of stuff. One screwdriver doesn’t fit every job. Cameras are much the same. Although one camera could work well as a multi-tasking tool, it is often better to have an assortment of equipment.

One thing I want to make clear though is that you do not have to amass bags and bags of different gear to make a success of stock photography. In fact, if all you can afford is a good quality smart phone, then so be it. You can make a start with basic equipment and you will find, as time goes on and the money starts to show up in your bank account, then you might want to think about better and more equipment.

Always remember, stock photography is the classic exponential curve. Success can be very slow at the start but when you get going you will find growth in sales blossoms. More about this in later posts.

You need a camera to take photographs

Okay, so the workhorse of any professional photographer has to be a good DSLR. These are versatile beasts. Interchangeable lenses, function selection that often needs an engineering degree to work out, and exposure matrices with computer chips are all present in a good quality DSLR. Having said that, you don’t really need all that functionality, but it comes with the gear anyway.

Personally, I use Canon cameras; I have two 5D MK III bodies. I have always found that Canon cameras offer good value for money and they are robust dependable. However, other cameras will do just as good a job. The key is to spend as much as you can afford, so that you get the best possible workhorse.


There is one important point that you should remember when selecting a camera for stock work. Video. Your DSLR should be capable of recording at least high definition video, even better if it can record 4K. The new Canon 5D MK IV is coming out soon and apparently it has 4K capability.

It is important that the stock photographer gets to grips with video because more and more sales are coming from short clips. And, it is so easy to shoot some video while out and about. When I am on location I always shoot stills, timelapse and video clips. More material uploaded to stock agencies means more sales, and that of course means more money to spend on new kit!

Another important thing for me is the sensor size. If possible, always go for a full-frame sensor. I will talk much more about the technicalities of full-frame versus smaller-sensor cameras in later posts, but for now all I will say is that full-frame sensors give much greater quality and are more versatile than cameras with smaller sensors.

A camera needs a lens

When I was learning the craft of photography, as a freelance editorial rookie, I remember an old-hand saying to me, “save on the box, splash on the glass”. What I think he meant was, buy the best lens (glass) that you can afford. I have always applied that principle.

I really believe Canon has the best cameras but Nikon produce the best lenses. When I am shooting stop motion or timelapse sequences I use Nikon manual prime lenses on my Canon camera body. The image quality from a Nikon prime lens is outstanding. However, when I am shooting stills, I use two Canon zoom lenses; a 24-105mm and a 75-200mm.

Although I use two camera bodies, each fitted with a zoom lens, there is nothing preventing you from having one camera body with one lens that covers a wide range. The important this is to have a wide range. Start with basic kit and expand and grow as your sales increase.

When shooting stock, you want to offer your potential buyer options. Imagine shooting an historical building. You want to go wide to capture the entire building but you also want to get in close to pick out some of the features of the architecture. Stock photography is about giving your buyer options. A wide range in your zoom lens will pay off long term.

For timelapse and stop motion I alwys use fixed prime lenses. In my kit bag there are three important Nikon manual lenses for this type of work; a 24mm, a 50mm and a 105mm micro (Nikon call it a micro rather than a macro lens). The reason I use manual lenses for this type of work will become clear when I talk in later posts about flicker avoidance.

Smart phones are okay too

I have to admit to being an “Apple junkie”. I love Apple computers and phones. I do all my editing on an Apple Mac and I have an Apple Notebook for work in the studio, when I need to link the camera to the computer for stop motion photography – more about this later. My current smart phone is the iPhone 8. It has a good quality camera with a 12MP sensor that is capable of working well in most situations. However, many of my fellow photographers would never use the iPhone8, preferring one of the following phones.

The Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus is, to many people, the best possible alternative to a “proper” camera. The main sensor has the very first f1.5 aperture, which means that it performs rather well in low light. The sensor also features Dual Aperture Technology, allowing it to move from the f1.5 to the f2.4 for brighter conditions. Samsung reckon there is a 30% reduction in noise from their smart phone, which is very important when thinking about stock photography. One of the most common reasons for a stock agency to reject work is because there is too much noise in the image.

A very close second to the S9 is the Huawei P20 Pro, which came out in April 2018. The front camera has a tremendous 24MP sensor, and it has excellent battery life.

The Galaxy Pixel 2, with its 8MP front camera sensor is another top performer. The onboard software is pretty impressive too. The software stitches multiple images together to ensure the best possible final image.

And finally, the iPhone X. Released in October 2017, the phone has a nice 12MP sensor and the software seems to have been developed to ensure a lot of detail is captured with natural colours. Images are much more vivid with this phone than any other smart phone on the market.

Definitely a good quality smart phone is a must for the budding stock photographer. There will always be a time when you are caught without your DSLR at hand. A decent smart phone such as those mentioned above will ensure you don’t miss a great image. I have many photographs that were taken on my phone that have sold several times over.

One other thing


Finally, I want to mention one other type of camera that is really useful for the stock photographer, the action camera. Personally, I have a few GoPro cameras and they are amazing. My trusty GoPro Hero 4 goes everywhere with me. It often gets mounted onto my cycling helmet, my ski helmet or the handlebars of my road bike. I have a mount that allows me to fix it onto the bonnet of my car, which is great for producing POV footage of an interesting road. It has been inside a bird box, on top of a digger, and inside a bucket while water was poured over it!

So there you have it. The basic tools of a stock photographer are: a good quality DSLR, nice glass in the form of several different lenses, an action camera to get really unusual footage, and a back-up in the form of a smart phone.

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