Quick & Simple Way to Digitize Old Slides

Introduction: Quick & Simple Way to Digitize Old Slides

About: Those who know me know that I've always got some project on the go at all times. My interests are varied enough that I can jump from one to the next and not get bored. I seem to learn by doing and the best way…

Growing up it was always fun when my Dad would break out his big box of old slides and show them when we had company over. Years have passed since the last time that happened and with my parent's 50th wedding anniversary around the corner I starting thinking about digitizing them for a DVD slide show. To my surprise (and horror lol) I found that my father has 1200 slides in total, much too many to scan one at a time in a flatbed scanner. After asking one of the local photo stores about the costs of bulk scanning slides and finding this was relatively costly I decided to try and find an alternative.

The answer, it ended up, was laying in my camera bag. The simplest solution is to just set up the projector and screen and take photos of the screen. The results will not be as high quality as scanning them but for viewing on a TV and making 4x6 prints the quality is acceptable.

*Note: I've since viewed the images on my 46" HDTV using my PS3 and the results don't look that different from watching them on the projector screen itself ;)

What you'll need:
1) Tripod - This is a must
2) Cable Release - While not absolutely necessary it can reduce camera shake and result in a clearer picture
3) A camera capable of long shutter speeds (even most point and shoot cameras allow this now)
4) Projector, Slides, and a Screen
5) A darkened room
6) Photo editing software for cropping/colour correcting etc (Photoshop, Lightroom, Picasa etc)

Step 1: First Things First, What Are We Dealing With Here?

It will make your life easier if you have a good understanding of your camera, if you don't you may want to go grab the manual when following this tutorial.

When taking pictures of slides in this fashion there are a few things to consider.

1) We're shooting in low light
2) We're shooting a stationary object
3) We want the reproduction as sharp as possible
4) We want to limit the perspective distortion as much as possible.

Step 2: Dealing With Low Light

Dealing with low light:
First off if it is not painfully obvious we will not be using any flash so disable this now.

Normally shooting in low light means using long shutter speeds or higher ISO settings (or both). Because we want the reproduction to be as sharp as possible we should not use a high ISO as this causes noise in the image and will effect the quality of the reproduction. Luckily since the object is stationary we do not need a fast shutter speed, by using a long slow shutter speed it will allow us to lower our ISO setting.

In the attached image (courtesy of wiki commons under CC ShareAlike licence) you can see the difference between high and low ISO settings (low ISO TOP, High ISO bottom).

Step 3: Minimizing Camera Shake to Retain Image Sharpness

Since we know we'll be using long shutter speeds there are a few things to consider regarding camera shake. The use of a tripod is absolutely crucial, you want to eliminate as much camera movement as possible. If you are using a general purpose tripod (often sold as a video tripod) there may be too much play in it to fully stabilize your camera even with all of the screws tightened, if this is the case either buy a better one or borrow a good one from a friend.

Other things that effect camera shake is the instance of the shutter press, no matter how gentle you are the camera is going to move. This can be overcome in two ways, one is by using a cable shutter release (normally only found on DSLRs) the other is by using the self timer setting on your camera. Since the cable release is fairly straight forward I'll focus on the self timer, consult your manual to see how to set your camera into this mode. Some cameras have multiple time durations or a custom setting, if you have the option to change it set it to the shortest delay (normally 2sec), if its not configurable you'll probably be stuck at a 10sec delay.

On DSLR cameras some of them allow for "mirror lockup", this will further reduce any vibrations caused by the mirror flipping up out of the way when the photo is taken. Consult your manual to see if this feature is available to you, note that some cameras only offer this feature to allow you to clean your image sensor and this is not what you want.

Lastly, something that you might overlook that could dramatically reduce your camera shake is the zoom. Try to use as little zoom as possible, the more you're zoomed in the more amplified any camera movement will become.

(Attached photo shows effects of a shaky camera, courtesy of wiki commons under CC ShareAlike licence)

Step 4: Dealing With Perspective Distortion

The only way to truly eliminate this would be if your camera was on the same axis as the projector, however if this were the case it would be blocking the light so we'll have to try and work around this.

The simplest solution is to place your camera below the slide projector but up high enough so it is just out of the way of the image.

This will still result in slight amount of keystone distortion and you've got two choices to deal with it. The easiest way is to just crop the image and since the distortion is so slight you'd never notice (this is what I had to do), the other option is to correct it using the perspective or skew transform in Photoshop. I won't get into the specifics of how to do that but here is a link to an article that goes more in-depth about how to do it.

Step 5: Camera Setting Tips

As I mentioned earlier this is possible to do with point & shoot style cameras however due to the lack to fine control your results will be poorer than if you were using a digital SLR camera. It is still worth trying however, especially if you just want to make a DVD slide show for viewing on the TV since standard definition is pretty low resolution anyway.

Tips for point and shoot cameras:

-Set your camera to the lowest ISO setting available (normally 80 or 100)
-Turn your camera flash OFF
-Use the self-timer function on your camera if you don't have a cable release, this will ensure your camera doesn't shake when the photo is taken. Some cameras have a 2sec setting as well as a 10sec setting, this is essentially the type of thing that the 2 sec setting is meant for.
-If your camera allows for exposure adjustment (usually indicated by EV�) you can use this to tweak the exposure brighter or darker, use trial and error to get it right.
-Limit the amount of zoom you use, the more zoomed in you are the more amplified any camera shake will be.

Tips for DSLR cameras:

-Set the camera to the lowest ISO
-Use an aperture that is big enough to let in a decent amount of light but small enough to ensure a depth-of-field wide enough so your image is still sharp and in focus.
-Use a cable release or self timer to limit camera shake, also if your camera allows mirror lockup you should enable that to further reduce shake.
-Limit the amount of zoom you use, the more zoomed in you are the more amplified any camera shake will be.
-Adjust your shutter speed to control overall exposure, again this will probably be trial and error.

Step 6: Processing the Captured Images

Tips for post production work:
When I started this task the first 100 slides I did manually one at a time, cropping and colour correcting them. I quickly realized that this was very time consuming and was defeating the point which was to get a "quick and dirty" copy of the slides while maintaining an acceptable level of quality.

A program such as Adobe Lightroom allows you to copy and paste develop settings from one picture to others. Basically you spend the time doing it right on one picture and then you highlight the rest and apply the same settings. You'll have to do this twice though, once for portrait orientation photos and then again for landscape orientation. Instead of spending 2hrs on 100 slides I was able to process 500 slides in 1hr. You'll still have to go in to manually fix a few of them if the colour correction or levels are funky but its a great time saver.

The same (or better) results can also be achieved with photoshop by setting up custom actions and then running them as a batch, this method is more time intensive but will also allow you to correct for perspective distortion (not available in Lightroom) since your camera will be shooting up towards the screen instead of perfectly perpendicular to the screen.

If you have neither of these programs you can download a number of free photo editing programs that will do the job as well (albeit manually one at a time). FastStone Viewer is a great free image viewer that also has some decent editing power, I highly recommend downloading this anyway as a replacement to the stock windows photo viewer. Picasa made by google is a fantastic free imaging program that is packed with fun features, it will allow you to do all of the cropping/colour correcting plus a whole host of other fun stuff like making slideshows and gift CDs. Last but certainly not least is GIMP which is the most powerful free image editing program around, designed to be a free alternative to Photoshop this program offers a lot of features but may be overwhelming to beginners.

Using the method I've outlined here I was able to capture 300 slides in a little over 1 hour (not including cropping them on the computer and correcting colour etc). At the point of writing this I've got 800 of the 1200 slides digitized and using other methods I would probably only have 50-100 finished in the same amount of time. The end result is images that are suitable for 4x6 prints and viewing on a TV (even looks good at 1080P HD resolution)

Have fun and good luck

(Attached image courtesy of wikicommons using GNU Free documentation license)

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    11 years ago on Introduction

    I ran into this problem for work when I had to digitize some x-ray films so I created an app for my iPad and iPhone and BlackBerry PlayBook to help me solve this problem. It's called ViewBox. Just wanted to share it with your readers.

    You can read about it here:

    or Download it from the app store:


    13 years ago on Introduction

    Excellent "ible".  I used the same idea myself a while back, but hadn't worked out a lot of the details.  One thing I found that you didn't mention;  with the camera below the projector, if you tilt the top of  the projection screen forward it will reduce the keystoning (distortion) of the image in the camera.  You want the screen to be perpendicular to a point halfway between the camera and the projector.  You've made me want to dig out my old slides and do some more.  Thanks