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.
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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