Digitising Your Photograph Collection
Note: This article does not deal with scanning prints which is a totally different topic. It is also aimed at a transparency / negative size obtained from 35 mm film cameras (36 mm x 24 mm). When digitising other sizes of transparency / negative you may need to use different equipment although the same principles apply. What I'm going to do with all my thousands of 6 cm x 4.5 cm transparencies remains to be seen!
Like many of us, I started photography many decades before good digital cameras were marketed at sensible prices. As such I have thousands of transparencies (slides) and negatives on film that really need to be preserved by digitising them.
Scanning thousands of transparencies and negatives is not a job for the faint hearted as the amount of time it can take is phenomenal. When Grace and I were first married and living in Kuwait, Grace started the job of scanning these images using a flat-bed scanner equipped with the appropriate film/slide holders and light unit to illuminate the image from behind the transparency or negative. Primarily scanning transparencies, it would take her several hours just to scan 40 images. Imagine the task when you have thousands of images to scan. Of course, there are some scanners that will automatically scan a batch of images at a time, but this also takes a great deal of time and doesn't always produce perfect results.
Another, less well known fact, is that almost all scanners (particularly flat-bed) do not resolve anything like the specification figure quoted by the manufacturers. If you work on half the specified figure you won't be far out with most scanners. This means, for example, that a scanner specified to scan at 3600 dpi (dots per inch) will more likely achieve a real-world figure of about 1800 to 2000 dpi. You can see for yourself exactly what I mean with real-life scanner reviews at URL: http://www.filmscanner.info/en/
So, what can you do about these two very significant problems? The simplest way is to use your digital camera to photograph each of your negatives or transparencies. That is if you can resolve the five main problems associated with doing this.
1) The size of a transparency or negative is very small and you need to be able to fill the frame of your camera with the image you want to photograph.
2) You need to be able to prevent light from shining on the 'front' side of the image you want to digitise.
3) You need to be able to evenly illuminate the 'back' side of the image you want to digitise.
4) You need to be able to securely hold the transparency or negative in front of the lens of the camera.
5) You need to be able to focus the camera lens very accurately on the transparency or negative to be digitised.
There are a number of slide copiers on the market that will digitise your transparencies but most of them are not worth considering if you want good quality images. One of the more expensive devices I've seen is made by what has always been a very reputable company but it is total rubbish – and very expensive for what it is. It provides a support for the transparency but there is nothing to prevent light from shining on the 'front' side of the image – and this is key to getting good quality images from your transparencies or negatives. Also be aware that some 'slide copiers' don't allow you to scan negatives.
Back in around 1973 I bought a Pentax bellows and slide copier unit, second-hand, from the mother of my then girlfriend. My girlfriend's father had been a keen photographer before he passed away and I was fortunate enough to buy this unit at a very reasonable price. I still have this equipment but, sadly, the fabric of the bellows succumbed to hungry insects whilst I was living in the Philippines and it is now unusable because it lets in the light.
I've been looking around for some time for some way of digitising my transparencies and negatives and despite spending a lot of time looking at what is on the market have gone back in time to the equipment I bought for my Pentax camera all those years ago. As my version of this had been rendered useless, I've been looking around for another unit or an equivalent. They are few and far between. It is so sad that camera manufacturers no longer make this sort of equipment for their cameras. However, I eventually got lucky.
I frequently visit a website entitled DP Review. One of their recent postings was of great interest to me as it was about 'rescuing' old photographic equipment and repairing it – bringing it 'back to life'. You can watch the video at URL: https://www.dpreview.com/news/6952410979/video-mathieu-stern-of-weird-lens-museum-visits-the-camera-rescue-project . The rescue centre can be found at URL: https://camerarescue.org/ .
This led me to go to a website in Finland at URL: https://kamerastore.com/ . They are also on youtube at URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BtofN0LVuCI . As I looked at this website and, more by chance than anything else, I came across a more recent, automatic (diaphragm operation) version of the Pentax bellows and slide copier I referred to earlier – in excellent condition. I immediately bought it for €170 + €10 for DHL delivery. I'm aware I could have bought a film scanner for much the same sort of price, although how good it would be may be questionable, however, one of the main factors I'm looking for is speed of operation. Time is an important factor when you have thousands of transparencies and negatives to digitise.
I'd also like to mention that this camera shop provides amazing service. I ordered the equipment on-line during the weekend, when the store was closed. The store opened on Monday morning and by lunchtime I'd received a text message and an e-mail to say my parcel was on its way – both from the store and the courier (DHL). My parcel, superbly packed, was delivered and in my hands by 1100 hrs. on Tuesday! Next day delivery from Finland. Brilliant.
If you want to take this route you need to remember that not all 'old' equipment will fit onto your camera. In this case, the Pentax unit has a M42 thread, whereas my digital camera uses Canon EF bayonet fitting lenses. I'd already got a Fotodiox adapter which I'd bought for a few pounds which allows me to fit M42 threaded equipment to my Canon camera body. That only deals with one end of the bellows unit. I also need to fit a lens onto the opposite end of the bellows and for this I have a Pentax (M42) Super Takumar 50 mm f1.4 lens that fits on very nicely. I bought this lens attached to a second-hand Pentax Spotmatic camera, probably towards the end of 1971 or early in 1972. I paid £95 for the camera/lens combination out of my student grant when attending Leicester Polytechnic all those years ago and it's still in reasonable condition. This was probably less than half the cost of a new camera/lens in those days – a very considerable sum at that time – especially for me as a student.
However, I digress. The bellows unit is a piece of equipment that will allow the lens to focus at much closer distances than it would normally be capable of doing. This will enable you to accurately focus on the transparency or negative you wish to photograph. It also means that you can photograph, in close-up detail, subjects such as flowers / insects / jewellery and other very small items (if photographing something in extreme close-up, at a greater magnification than 1:1, it is advisable to fit a lens reversing ring. Really close-up photography is called macro-photography and is a specialised subject in itself way beyond the scope of this article.
This will enable you to solve problems 1 and 5, above.
Connecting the slide copier attachment both to the bellows unit and the lens will solve problems 2 and 4, above, inasmuch as you now have a device that will securely hold the transparency or negative in place, as well as connecting it to the bellows unit (problem 4). Connecting the bellows of the slide copier attachment to the front of the lens will prevent light shining onto the 'front' side of the transparency or negative (problem 2).
In theory, an extension tube (or tubes) could be used instead of a bellows unit, however, you still need a device that will hold the transparency or negative firmly in exactly the right place and which will also prevent light reaching the 'front' of the image you want to copy.
Whatever equipment you use, it is important to remember that transparencies and negatives are not always absolutely flat – this is particularly the case for slides in mounts. This means problems in obtaining maximum sharpness across the whole of the image being copied. To minimise this, you should always set the lens to a small aperture; f11 or even smaller may be necessary to provide you with sufficient depth of field, although using small apertures may bring about additional problems, such as lens diffraction (particularly with small image sensors), unless you're using a macro lens designed to be used at small apertures. You can read more on this topic at URL: https://expertphotography.com/lens-diffraction/
Problem 3 is not always easy to resolve as the light needs to be diffused and also, ideally, provide a colour temperature near to that of 'normal' daylight. Of course, colour casts can be sorted out once the images have been photographed and transferred to your (external) hard drive and opened using your image editing software, but this takes time which may well be better spent taking photographs of your transparencies and negatives.
Some people point their camera to the sky and hope for the best, but this is far from ideal as even the colour temperature of the sky varies widely according to the time of day and the weather conditions. The level of illumination is also inconsistent, which doesn't help matters. I'm not going to discuss exposure settings in this article as there are so many variations of camera to choose from: sufficient to say use aperture priority if using an automatic exposure system with a small lens aperture (read more about this below). Aperture settings on the lens will normally be made manually.
A fixed light source (diffused) is going to provide you with the most consistent results. Although there is a light diffuser on the back of the slide copier attachment, it is always wiser to use a diffused light source to prevent any 'hotspots'.
Many years ago – probably around mid-1980s time, I built my own light table (too expensive to buy) complete with the correct colour temperature fluorescent tubes. The other day I unearthed it from our garage and plugged it in – it worked straight away. You can't imagine how pleased I was. Anyway, after a bit of a clean I'm now able to use that as my light source. A diffused flashgun may possibly be used if nothing else is available.
Just a tip: If you're not looking through the eyepiece of your camera when you take the photograph, it is a good idea to cover it as any light entering the eyepiece will affect the exposure setting used by the camera when you're copying your transparency or negative. In fact, it is better to fit a viewfinder blind to keep the light out of the viewfinder and use a cable (electrical or mechanical) shutter release to minimise vibration when the exposure is made. The fact that the camera / bellows / lens / transparency and negative holder are all in one unit will also help to minimise the risk of vibration affecting image sharpness.
I can now copy a large batch of transparencies in a few minutes – instead of many hours. In some ways, quality is less important than time as most of my original transparencies (I haven't started on the negatives yet) are in rather poor condition so my camera (full-frame 21 mega-pixel) is more than adequate. In fact, after running the photographs through my editing software some of them end up looking better than the original and, of course, 21 mega-pixel gives a far higher resolution than film so it's all good as far as I'm concerned – especially as my time to spend on this task is very limited.
As a little extra: If you don't have the resources listed above but still want to digitise your photographs, prints in particular, you can re-photograph them using your iPhone onto which you can install PhotoScan by Google Photos (https://apps.apple.com/us/app/photoscan-by-google-photos/id1165525994) which will give you some help in obtaining better quality images. However, I might add that this set-up is really only used a a 'last resort' and is certainly not an ideal way to digitise your photographs.
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