I inherited my passion for photography from my Dad.
Between the mid-fifties through to the late seventies he used a series of cameras including a twin lens reflex Rolleiflex, an Agfa Ambiflex SLR with interchangeable lenses (35mm and 80mm) and finally a Canon AE-1 with a 35mm lens.
Birthday parties. Picnics to the zoo, Juhu beach and Hanging Gardens. Shikar in the dense remote jungles of what was then known as ‘Central Provinces’. Trips abroad as the Mayor and a whole spectrum of diverse photographic opportunities in between.
He religiously documented each and every one of them using the favoured camera of that year. Faithfully entrusting Kodak to process the film into Kodachrome colour film transparencies that were meticulously labelled and stored in the now iconic yellow boxes of yesteryear.
The old man passed away in 2007.
It was years later, when clearing out our house in Goa that I came across his huge stash of slides. Half a century old, they were already showing signs of degradation with moisture, dust and fungus. With every intention of digitising the images, I carried a small selection of 8 boxes back home to Mumbai.
You must remember that we were well over a decade into the new millennium.
Celluloid had surrendered to sensors, the ‘D-‘ word had, slowly but surely, completely prefixed the entire range of SLR cameras, and slide projectors, that were once the very lifeline of any meeting, could now only be found in museums and junk yards having being completed replaced by their hi-tech digital counterparts.
And so it was a combination of being confronted by a wall of obsolete technology cemented, I do admit, by the lack of a truly determined effort that an entire decade elapsed before I looked at the slides again.
About a week ago I browsed the internet for digitising options.
I found that I could have them done professionally by a studio but that would cost an arm and a leg. The problem was that by now many of the slides were heavily degraded and it was possible that I would have spent a huge amount of money for nothing.
There were several devices available online that could get the job done. High cost and the fact that the final images would lack quality were deterring factors.
And then I discovered a few interesting do-it-yourself options. They all required a DSLR camera and, preferably, a macro lens.
A macro lens allow images to be taken at 1:1 magnification from a relatively close distance. (You could use a regular lens, say a 50mm or a 35mm or even the kit lens that came bundled with your camera but you would have to add an additional close-up magnification lens allow you to achieve focus at a closer distance. A few more details on this option later).
An important step in the process was to determine the ‘closest focusing distance’ of the camera.
For that, the camera needs to be put on a tripod and focussed on an object in front of it. Keep moving the object closer. The ‘closest focussing point’ is the nearest point beyond which the camera ceases to be able to focus and the ‘closest focusing distance’ is the distance between the camera, (actually, the camera sensor, if one wishes to be nitpicky), and the object.
Next, you need to rig up a contraption that will ensure the following:
- Block out unwanted light and shadows that would contaminate the image.
- Ensure that the slide is positioned properly. If placed at an angle, part of the image may be out of focus and thus blurred. Also if it is not centered correctly you may wind up with trapezoid or skewed images.
- A light source to illuminate the transparency.
For that one needs to construct a box, (preferably blackened inside to absorb light), with an opening at one end just wide enough to accommodate the lens barrel and a slide holder at the other end that allows for easy change of slides and ensures that point No. 2 is taken care of.
The length of the box should be such that it allows the image to be taken at the minimum focussing distance.
The macro lens that I possess is a Canon EF 100mm f2.8L.
It so happened that earlier that day I was gifted a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label whiskey. The lens slotted perfectly into the black box it came in!
All I needed to do was cut off the flaps at the end at which the camera would be introduced, and seal off the other end, i.e. the end at which the slides would be placed. A square opening is then cut in the centre of the latter that matches, exactly, the size of the transparency.
Using a thick sheet of plastic, (I used a plastic table mat, please don’t tell my wife) I cut 5 strips of plastic. Three were stuck around the slide opening (both sides and bottom) to accomodate the slide. The other two were stuck over the first set on either side and slightly overlapping, to act as guides so that I could insert and remove the slides easily. (See the video.)
As a light source I used a 30W LED light but any ordinary light source can be used. Preferably place a diffuser in front of it (even a simple sheet of white paper would do the trick).
Position the camera on a tripod such that the barrel of the lens is just above and parallel to the table as in the image below. (Note the two coasters in front of the lens, I’ll get to them later)
Ensure that the camera is level. (Use the digital level included in most DSLRs. Optionally / additionally one can use a spirit level).
Slide the box over the lens. if necessary raise its level so that the sensor, lens and box are aligned. I used a couple of coasters to do this. (See the image before the one above).
Camera settings: Manual focus. Turn the camera’s focussing ring to the minimum focussing distance.
Place a slide in the holder and adjust the box forward/backward till the slide is in focus. (Actually, once I had adjusted the box I shifted to auto focus and each time I took a shot I refocused just in case the box moved.)
Camera exposure. Manual exposure would be ideal but I shot in AV mode using a low ISO (to avoid noise) and used the built in exposurmeter to adjust shutter speed and aperture. (I was more concerned with adequate shutter speed to avoid blurring. Aperture was relatively less important as a slide is two dimensional and depth of field should not be a concern)
Shoot in RAW if you plan to post process later.
A few other concerns:
Glitch on the slide is usually a mixture of dust and fungus. One needs to blow away the dust. Persistent dust needs to be gently rubbed away with a soft cloth. Vigourous rubbing will leave scratch marks on the slide. ( I learnt the hard way… and still learning, to be perfectly honest!!)
On browsing the Internet I learnt that fungus is best removed with isopropyl alcohol (IPA) using a earbud with strict instructions not to soak the slide. I managed to get 90% IPA but it did leave marks. I’ve have placed an online order for 98% IPA and will update you with results.
If you don’t have a macro lens then you could use the kit lens that came with the camera. To achieve optimal magnification and a manageable focussing distance you may need to consider adding close-up lenses.
These are quite cheap and usually come as a set that include +1, +2, +4 and +10 magnification elements that can be used singly or in conjunction with each other.
Once you have shot your images take them to the computer for final editing.
It is at this point that you may notice the de-boxed and exposed bottle of amber liquid that stands forlornly at the side having waited patiently while you performed all the aforementioned mun-jun (non-Hindi speaking readers may please get in touch with their Indian friends for translation).
I recommend that it is only fair that you reward said bottle by pouring four fingers over a few cubes of ice.
Take a deep swig and enjoy the rush as your images and all their attendant memories come to life!