Making digital images from 35mm slides

As a young man, my father was quite the technologist.  He bought a reel-to-reel tape audio recorder during his service in the U.S. Army, and so I can hear the voices of my grandparents during a long road trip in the 1960s or my parents during their vacation to the South in 1971.  Dad acquired a super-eight film movie camera during that time as well, and he shot movies with it up to the time I was a child.  He even became a camera buff, shooting more than one thousand photographs that were developed as 35mm slides.  As a result, I can draw on an unparalleled archive of images from my family’s history.

As a technologist of a different sort, I have tried to bring this archive into the digital age.  During my college years, I was able to produce an 8mm video camera recording for much of Dad’s movie footage, and I digitized that footage through a miniDV video camera and Firewire cable in later years.  During my graduate school years, I digitized the audio from a few hours of reel-to-reel tape to produce audio CDs.  Oddly, producing high-resolution scans of the 35mm slides has posed the biggest challenge.  Today I can report that we have finally found a way to digitize those amazing boxes of slides!

When I was in graduate school at Seattle (1996-2000), I performed my first experiments with slide scanners.  My friend Elizabeth allowed me to use her HP Photosmart slide scanner, and the resulting images were okay, for the time.  I tried buying an inexpensive slide scanner from another company, and yet the product from the hours of time I invested in using it was fairly disappointing.  In recent years, I purchased a Canon CanoScan 8600F, a flatbed scanner with a lid that can backlight transparent sources.  The images from this flatbed have been pretty nice, since it can operate at 4800 dpi, but scanning even a single slide at this resolution takes a fair amount of time.  I’ve never managed to scan the whole collection with scanners.  I have also found that scanners do not cope very well with the range of brightness that we encountered with the slides; many dark slides simply produced poor quality images in any scanner.

In 1999, I discovered that Canon had produced the FP-100 slide adapter for my Hi-8 video camera, and I acquired one for the princely sum of $120.  Essentially, the FP-100 was a low-temperature lamp, a bracket through which one could move a slide holder (with some wiggle room for positioning), and a ring to attach to the front of the camera.  I was glad that the cool lamp was bright enough to illuminate the darkest images from the collection, since the video camera could adjust its iris to the content of the slide.  Because the video camera could only resolve 480 lines in each image, though, the video images we produced through it were not quite what I wanted.

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The entire sandwich of equipment is unwieldy, but it works well enough!

In 2015, I found the missing ingredient.  My Canon EOS-M camera employs a prime (non-zoom) lens with an external fitting of 43 mm.  I asked my photographically talented friend Brad Melton for some assistance on how I would connect the 46 mm FP-100 to the prime lens, and he located a “stepup ring” for me.  Would a slide adapter intended for a video camera be usable with a modern mirrorless high-resolution still camera?  We quickly discovered that the camera was unable to focus on the slide images because the lens was too close to the CCD to focus on an image so near.  I compensated by adding a macro tube between the camera body and the lens.  The entire sandwich of equipment included these elements:

  1. Canon EOS-M2 mirrorless camera
  2. Meike MK-C-AF3B 10mm macro tube
  3. Canon EF-M 22mm f/2 STM prime lens
  4. HeavyStar Dedicated Metal Stepup Ring 43mm-46mm
  5. Canon FP-100 slide adapter.

I was reasonably pleased with the performance, on the whole, but there are certainly some drawbacks. The first is the problem of achieving good focus. Many of these slides now carry a fair amount of dust, and the camera was frequently inclined to auto-focus on the dust rather than the image. The second issue results from the image being so close to the lens; the edges of the slide are considerably farther from the lens than the center. Focusing on one part of the image generally meant that parts of the slide farthest from the focus point would be more than a little fuzzy. This photo gives an example of this behavior:

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In the left snapshot, I have selected my mother’s face as the focus point. In the right, I have selected my grandmother’s instead.

I also encountered some degenerate behavior in the focus.  I would occasionally flip the selector over to use manual focus rather than automatic.  After cranking the focus ring all the way to one end of the dial, I would sometimes discover that the camera thought it was being operated by a madman and would force the focus back in the other direction.  When I tried switching to a different macro tube thickness, I was entirely unable to focus, so I simply felt grateful that I could get these images to focus at all!

In some cases, the slide scanner had dealt very poorly with slide images that were quite dark overall or that featured a significant contrast between light and dark portions of a frame.  Happily, the Canon EOS-M2 seemed to handle these contrasts better because it was storing brightness levels in the 14-bit depth afforded by the CR2 raw file format.

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My older brother always wanted to play.

One of the most common claims about 35mm slides is that they are far more resilient to aging than are prints from the same negatives.  Did that hold up?  The image of my father on the mule at the top of this post dates from 1964, around fifty years before this blog post was written.  The hues may be somewhat less vibrant than they were originally, but I doubt very much that a print from 1964 would hold up as well.  In this case, I have cropped to approximately 40% of the original field of view.  The slide below this is from 1965, showing my mother during her graduation ceremony from Northeast Missouri State Teachers College.  Again, I have cropped to about 40% of the original slide (in part to strip away unfocused areas).

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These slides enable me to see my parents in the primes of their lives!

Of course, capturing the original CR2 files for each of a thousand slides is just the beginning.  From here, I will need to export each to a TIFF file, crop the image to a new dimension, possibly apply a noise reduction filter, and export to JPG (the images I included here have not been gone through noise reduction, though I did scale down the resolution considerably from the 18 megapixel originals).  That step will take considerable time, but I believe the result will be a far more useful archive for our family history.

I hope that this post will contribute some ideas for how to get your family archives in a more manageable condition!

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Our family

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2 thoughts on “Making digital images from 35mm slides

  1. Winona Gasswint

    Wow! How fascinating to see what you all looked like years ago! Do you think the color is anywhere near accurately? I didn’t remember your mom having red hair.

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    1. dtabb1973 Post author

      I think the photo of Mom’s family has a reddish cast to it; her hair was brown at that time. Mom reports that she went auburn for a few months.

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