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How to Scan 35mm Slides

by Oscar Sodani
May 1, 2006

Oscar Sodani is a founder of Help2Go and owner of Help2Go Networks, an IT consulting firm in the Washington D.C. area. Oscar holds the CISSP certification as well as industry certifications from Microsoft, Cisco and Novell.

Many of us have thousands of old 35mm slides somewhere in our attic, basement, or deep in a forgotten closet. Now that viewing slideshows is (thankfully) a thing of the past, and viewing photos on the web or on your PC is all the rage, how you can convert your old 35mm slides to digital photos?

The first thing to understand is that scanning slides is a big project. It will take you either a) a LOT of time or b) a LOT of money. Unfortunately, the best options take a lot of both time and money. The way you proceed is going to depend on how much of each you want to throw at this project.

The first thing you should do is go through your slides and decide which ones you really want to transfer over. If you have thousands, this is going to be a lengthy process. But not nearly as lengthy as it would be if you decided to transfer each and every slide.  So do yourself a favor and figure out which slides you can live without.

Quick and Expensive

The easiest (and most expensive) route to take is to have a professional photo processing store take care of this for you. You would simply drop off your slides at your local photo store, and they will charge you for each slide transferred. The cost varies - as of this writing, you can expect to pay US$0.75 - US$1.00 for each slide. Remember how you should narrow down the number of slides you want to transfer - this is the reason why! A few thousand slides can easily run you thousands of dollars to transfer. Ouch.

Make sure you choose a photo processor you trust. After all, this is going to be a one-time transfer... you should be certain that the results are going to be what you expect. A good idea is to do a test run of 20 or 30 slides. See what you get back from the photo store and if it meets your needs and expectations.

Even though it is cheaper, DO NOT use the Kodak PhotoCD system. The PhotoCDs are substandard quality, and not the best way to preserve your memories. 

Slow and Inexpensive

One novel way to convert your slides is to use your own digital camera to take photographs of them. You will need a lightbox, which can be bought for US$30-50, and a tripod. The process involves inverting the tripod mount so that it faces down, and hovering the camera above the lightbox and your slides. Check out this complete tutorial, with pictures, from

They report that the results are excellent, but the quality of the photograph using this method is not going to be nearly as good as the professional method above or the slide scanning method below. However, it is by far the cheapest solution to the problem.

The Middle Way: Slow and Moderately Expensive

Most people will choose to take this route, which will produce excellent quality digital images from your slides, without having to pay thousands of dollars. All you will need is a slide scanner. These have gone up in quality and down in price the past few years so it is now a viable alternative to professional photo processing.

You can purchase a dedicated slide scanner, or a regular flatbed scanner with a slide attachment. The slide scanner is going to cost you more, but they often allow you to process 4 or more slides at a time - which will reduce the time you spend on this project by at least 75%! The slide attachments for flatbed scanners often work well, but it is very time consuming to scan one slide at a time.

The first thing you should do before purchasing either a slide scanner or a flatbed scanner with a slide attachment is to check out the reviews at Most customers who posted a review are pursuing the same exact project you are - so their advice will be perfectly relevant.

For slide scanner, spending less than US$150 is out of the question. A very good slide scanner will cost almost US$500, and the top of the line slide scanners cost US$1000. However, the quality of the image produced will rival those from a professional photo studio.

A good flatbed scanner with a slide attachment should cost at leat US$100, but I wouldn't spend more than US$200 on one. For that kind of money, you can buy a good slide scanner. Go with what your budget allows, but be warned - I have heard many times that spending the extra money on a good slide scanner that can handle multiple slides was the difference between a successful project and a project that was quickly abandoned.

Editing Your Photos

Once you have your slides converted, you will probably want to crop them or edit them in some way. Below are the photo editing programs that we recommend.

Free Software Programs:

  • Irfanview : a quick and dirty image editor.
  • The GIMP : an open-source professional photo editing program.
  • GIMPshop : a modification on The GIMP that makes the menus more like Adobe Photoshop.

Commercial Software Programs:

  • Adobe Photoshop : the premiere professional photo editing program. Expect to pay US$500 or more.
  • Adobe Photoshop Elements : a slimmed down version pf Photoshop aimed at home users. Expect to pay approximately US$80.
Good luck with your slide project!


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