Copy slides and old prints: a really easy way to digitize your archive

DIY Photography: a really easy way to copy slides and old prints

DIY Photography: a really easy way to copy slides and old prints

Most of us may have said goodbye to film when it comes to taking photos, but many of our most cherished memories are still locked in the pre-digital era. Whether you have drawers full of fading prints or boxes full of prized transparencies, you probably wish you could find a way to copy slides and old prints onto a computer so they could be shared with a wider audience.

But what’s the best way to copy slides and old prints and get your pictures onto Facebook, Flickr or your family website? The most obvious answer is to use a scanner. Flatbed scanners for prints are built into many desktop printers nowadays.

Film scanners are more specialist, but can still be bought without breaking the bank. The quality of these scanners varies, but this isn’t an issue for most of us, who just want to get pictures into the digital domain.

The real issue with most scanners is that the whole process is a time-consuming affair, involving lots of patience as you scan one line at a time.

But there’s an alternative. Rather than copy slides and prints with a cut-price digital sensor, why not use the high-quality one that you have built into your DSLR?

Photographing your prints isn’t much more complicated than sticking them on the wall and then shooting them using a tripod. All you have to do is find the right evenly-lit spot in your home.]

Re-photographing your slides is a bit more complicated because you need a lightbox – a backlighting device that photographers used to use to look at their pictures. As few people use slides any more, these are relatively cheap to buy second-hand.

The one other bit of gear you’ll need to re-shoot your prized photos is a macro lens, which will enable you to focus close enough to the 24x36cm positive images.

A really easy way to copy slides and old prints: step 1

01 Stick it to the wall
To re-photograph old prints, stick them on a flat wall or cupboard at chest height using blobs of Blu Tac. Avoid 
a surface too close to a window or in direct sunlight – you need even, diffuse lighting. You don’t need bright light because you can use long exposures with a tripod.


A really easy way to copy slides and old prints: step 2

02 Square up to the target
Set your camera on a tripod and extend the legs so that the centre of the lens is at the same height as the centre of the print. Use Live View to frame the picture so you’re as square on as you possibly can be (for more, see our cheat sheet What is Live View telling you?). Use autofocus to make sure that the detail is sharp.


A really easy way to copy slides and old prints: step 3

03 Choose your settings
Use Aperture Priority (A) mode and set an aperture of f/8 – this is usually the setting that gives the best resolution from a lens. Now set a low ISO, at or near 100. Fire the shutter using a cable release or remote control, or, if you don’t have either of those, use the self-timer.


A really easy way to copy slides and old prints: step 4

04 Give it a positive twist
The general shooting technique for slides is the same as prints. As transparencies need to be backlit, use a lightbox. You’ll need a tripod that can be angled to shoot directly down, and you’ll need a 
macro lens to be able to get close enough.

Final tips on how to copy slides and prints


Don’t frame too tightly
Review your copies on the screen of your camera for exposure and sharpness. But don’t worry too much about cropping – it’s easier to do this in Photoshop once you have the digitised image on your computer. You’ll probably want to edit your images anyway – adjusting colour balance, removing blemishes, and tweaking the contrast and saturation.

Check your lighting
To see if light is even on a surface, put a pencil on it at 90°. Its shadows should be roughly symmetrical and not too distinct


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  • Ultimately, using a scanner dedicated to scanning slides will produce a better result with less hassle. In some towns it is possible to rent them for a weekend at the same cost as renting for 1 day.