03 December 2011

What to do with those old colour slides?

I have literally thousands of colour slides – probably 8,000-9,000 of them, from times which range from when my father bought his little Voigtlander Vito B in about 1955 until I took my last colour transparencies in the 1990s.

The question is what to do with them all in the time poor digital age.  How often would one get out the projector and set up the screen, manually load the slides into the projector’s magazine, and settle in for a slide evening?  Answer: effectively never.

Clearly the answer is to harness the technologies of the digital age and digitise the lot.  To that end, in about 2001 I purchased a transparency adapter for my HP flatbed scanner, and produced some acceptable digital photos from some of my favourite slides.  I was pretty happy with this at the time, but it is a process that has couple of downsides It is very labour intensive, and as the scanner is focusing through the screen onto a transparency that is sitting above the glass, its focus will tend to be thrown off somewhat by backscatter from the surface of the glass.  Acceptable resolution is achievable but high resolution is not, and the process struggles to produce a file that will allow a print larger than 15cm x 10 cm.

Also, good old Hewlett Packard decided not to release drivers for that particular scanner for operating systems post Windows XP.  I found some third party software that would allow me to continue to use the scanner but it will only scan at a resolution of 1200 x 1200 dpi, and while it offers a range of post-scan processing options it does not permit the simple option of scanning the slide as is and not mucking about with it.

So after a bit of homework on the I web imported from the United States a specialised slide scanner, a Pacific Image Electronics PowerSlide 5000, which as its name suggests scans at a magnificent 5000 x 5000 dpi. This appears to be a clone of a German original made by Braun; I could not find on the web any sign of an Australian retailer for either the Braun machine or the US equivalent.

The machine comes bundled with Adobe Photoshop Elements 8.0, and there are options which enable files to be sent to that software for processing, but as I have a copy of Photoshop CS3 I prefer to take the scans as JPEG files exactly as they come off the scanner, and make any tweaks I want to as a separate step.  Any slide with the right exposure will be acceptable without further processing, but the wonderful thing about digital technology is that those very important under- or over-exposed slides of family occasions or long departed friends can be very considerably enhanced and seen as intended.

The slides are fed into the scanner from a standard slide magazine which holds fifty slides.  They can be scanned at any resolution up to 5000 dpi, to either TIFF or JPEG files, using 8-bit or 16-bit colour, with two or three quality options.  After a bit of experimentation I am systematically scanning the whole collection at highest quality in 16-bit colour at full resolution.  This means I am not having to make decisions about which treatment to apply to which slides, and I also have the maximum opportunity subsequently to crop a slide heavily and still have a good quality photo of the reduced field of view, or a detail of the photo.

This approach is not for the faint hearted because it is very heavy on storage; such high quality scans produce files in the range 13-15MB, which means that you are looking at about 500MB to scan one 36-exposure roll of film. 

Scanning at this quality is a pretty slow process – it takes about 4-5 minutes per slide, but as they feed automatically into the scanner it is possible to load up a batch and then go and do something else – as long as that something else is not a process on your computer that requires more than a modicum of RAM, as the process is pretty heavy on memory.

There is a downside to everything of course, and the downside of scanning at such high resolution is that your scans come up with a magnificent high resolution image of every biological colony that has made a home for itself on your slide collection over the course of half a century.  That is where Photoshop CS3’s spot healing tool comes in – it really does a great job of cleaning scratches, smears and the spots of bio-debris from the image.

This of course is only half the story – after putting all this effort in you have gone from having boxes of slides that you never get around to looking at to having hundreds of Gigabytes of files on a hard drive somewhere.

I have two solutions for this, to get me to the point where I actually see some of these precious images.   The first is that I keep as many of them as I can in a master folder on the hard drive of the laptop which I carry backwards and forwards between home and the office.  I point the screensaver to that master folder, so that every time the screensaver cuts in I get a random display of all of the photos in the folder.  As I use an external monitor at both locations, I get to see a selection of my slides in a high quality format quite regularly.

The second (more systematic viewing) solution is that I recently purchased an Apple TV unit for about $139. This plugs into my TV via an HDMI cable, so I can view any chosen subfolder of the master folder simply by firing up iTunes and transmitting the images to the high definition TV screen over the home wi-fi system.  Works a treat.

Expect more pictures on Aussie Observer.

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