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If your photographic prowess pre-dates digital and you were serious about image quality, there’s a good chance you have a cache of chromes that hasn’t seen the light of day (or your light box) in quite some time, which is a shame because aside from occasional private showing in your living room, you probably have a number of celluloid treasures and no practical way of sharing them with others. And while we can spend the day debating whether digital is better than film, when was the last time you watched a slideshow accompanied by the gentle whirring sound of a carousel slide projector?
Though essentially a mechanical process, scanning slides can also be a creative process, and one in which you can often improve upon images captured long ago, but for a second time through fresh eyes. This is especially true when using film scanners that output RAW image files, which like their in-camera counterparts, allow you to dig deep into both the shadow and highlight areas for details that might otherwise be lost in the shuffle. RAW files (and to a lesser extent JPEGs) also allow you to fine-tune hue, color, contrast and saturation levels to a degree that was unimaginable when the images were originally captured.
Photograph © Allan Weitz 2011
The photograph above and below is a good example of an image that was improved upon through the scanning process. The original Kodachrome had a colder cast and was about a ¼-stop overexposed, which for slide film is considerable. Once converted to a RAW file, I was able to pull back the highlights, warm the overall tonality of the image, as well as darken the corners using the software’s vignetting tools in order to better frame the shot.
Photograph © Allan Weitz 2011
The passing of time also reveals the frailties of slide film, especially E-6 films (Ektachrome, Fujichrome, Agfachrome, Anscochrome, etc), which contain color dyes that unlike the far more stable dyes added during the processing stage in Kodachrome slides, are extremely susceptible to fading and color shift over time. The good news is it has become relatively easy to restore faded and/or shifted colors back to their original values.
To get the most out of your time and efforts, it’s strongly advisable to use a film scanner—not a flatbed scanner—with an accessory slide holder, because with the exception of the higher-end models, the resolving power of flatbed scanners will get you scans sufficient for casual online sharing but lacking for making sharp dynamic prints larger than 8 x 10”.
It’s also a good idea to save your new image files in multiple formats. If your scanner outputs RAW files you’re already one step ahead of the game. Just make sure you label and archive them in an easily retrievable manner. Regardless of whether your scanner can produce RAW files, it makes sense to save your newly minted scans in two formats—JPEG and TIFF. My personal system is to save a TIFF file at maximum dpi for print purposes and smaller, lower-res JPEGs for Web postings and other applications where file size is a factor. The beauty of TIFFs is that unlike JPEGs, they are not vulnerable to data loss every time you alter them, which limits their usefulness over time. And if your scanner does not capture RAW, a TIFF is your best long-term storage option.
Dedicated film scanners are available in a number of quality levels. If your goal is solely to obtain moderate resolution JPEGs for reference and online posting, there are a number of breadbox-size film scanners available for a few dollars north and south of a hundred dollars that should readily fill your bill. Most film scanners in this class output feature small LCDs for pre-scan cropping and other basic editing chores and output image files in the 5MP range. If, however, you want to be able to reach deep into the shadows and highlights of your slides, not to mention squeeze every last drop of detail out of slides, you’re going to want a higher-dynamic scanner that offers levels of resolving power in the 3500 to 8000 dpi range and a D-max of 4.2 to 4.9 D-Max.
When shopping for a scanner there are a few items, aside from high-res and D-max numbers, you might want to have on your must-have list. The number one item is dust and scratch removal software such as Digital ICE, which while not a replacement for properly cleaning your slides with Q-tips and film cleaner, effectively eliminates scratches and other irregularities from the front and rear surfaces of the slide.
Another feature worth considering is batch scanning, which allows you to pre-set your desired imaging parameters and scans multiple images without you having to sit around spoon-feeding the machine.
Note: While batch scanning saves time, it’s only efficient when scanning slides containing similar color, contrast and tonal qualities. If, however, you are scanning images with differing tonal qualities, you’re far better off scanning images one at a time.