Scantastic: Turning Vintage Slides into Digital Photos

At least once each week in this blog, I undertake the process of taking one or more physical objects that look like this...

and turning them into something that looks like this...

Do I simply plop these slides in the scanner, only to then drop and drag them into the pages of this blog?  If only it were just that simple.  

Okay, first of all, a disclaimer.  I can readily admit that I am learning as I am going, so this article is not intended as a be-all, end-all guide to scanning, but rather a starter dialogue to different tips and tricks that one might use when converting slides into digital images.  There are certainly many ways that people can digitize slides, and here are some of the techniques I use each week.  Below, you'll see a diverse range of images, the problems with each, and the methods I utilize to get them to be more "presentation friendly."

The three tools that I use to scan my vintage slides into digital files are an Epson V550 "Perfection" Photo Scanner, the Epson Scan software bundled with the scanner, and Adobe Photoshop CC.  My general work flow is to scan the slides at 3200dpi into TIF files using the scanner software, and then load those TIF files into Photoshop for varying degrees of tweaking to then get down sampled to a 2000 pixel wide image that is exported to a more compact JPG image for web hosting.  Every slide I convert goes through this much at a minimum, and some will require more assistance than others.  

The tools of my trade: above, the scanning window of the Epson Scan Software, and below the main window of Adobe Photoshop software.  I often use features in both of these applications to try to improve my scanned images. 

Easy Slides

While every slide requires some degree of manipulation, there are some that require only a modest amount of tweaking to be presentation ready.  These are definitely the exception rather than the rule, but at least they do present themselves from time to time. 

A surprisingly intact August 1961 Ektachrome slide purchased in a bulk lot a little while ago. Above is an export of the raw scan, while below is the finished version that required less than a minute of cloning to remove dust, and application of the auto contrast in Photoshop, followed by some modest tweaks to vibrance and saturation levels.


Kodachrome is generally unique among slide films in its overall chemistry.  The sometimes challenging offset of this anomaly is that many slide scanners don't have built in settings to accommodate for this outlier, and thus will often impart a somewhat cool cyan hue to the initial scans.  Fortunately, if the image is well exposed, the effect can often be minimized to neutralize the hue while salvaging the unique tones that clearly make it a Kodachrome image.  

A scan of a Kodachrome of the Massachusetts State House from 1952 looks OK to start as seen in the image above, but I elected to reduce the cyan levels in the color balance, and finished with a moderate increase in contrast and saturation to result in an improved version below.  There is still a blue tint, but I don't find it too off-putting.


Dark Underexposed slides can be improved provided the underexposure is not excessive. This was a common issue with slow speed slide films of previous decades.  

An August 1965 Ektachrome shows a drab feel when scanned "normally" above.  For this slide's enhancement, I checked off the backlight correction option within the scanner software, resulting in a much better starting image, that only needed use of auto contrast in Photoshop, and a modest bump in vibrance and saturation.


On the other side of the exposure spectrum there are occasions where slides can be overexposed, resulting in a washed out look to an image. - color restoration on scan, histogram shift, brightness, contrast, saturation

A Kodachrome slide of a May Day Parade in Catonsville, MD in 1956 shows some troubling overexposure from apparently using too wide an aperture, as seen above.  For this shot, I utilized the color restoration check box in the scanner software, and also did some tweaking to shift the image's histogram to restore even more of the color levels to the image before scanning.  Afterwards, I did some additional adjustments to brightness, exposure, and contrast in Photoshop to create a much improved result below.

Flat Colors

Images taken on dreary days or with an unremarkable film stock will often tend to appear a bit listless as well.  Fortunately, use of settings to boost vibrance and saturation can often inject a bit of pop into these images.

An August, 1964 Ektachrome taken on a muggy day shows flat colors and a washed out sky. Use of auto-contrast followed by the pumping of both vibrance and saturation shows a more vivid result.  With most things though, just because a little bit of something is good does not always mean a lot of something is automatically better.  Oversaturating an image can result in something that looks surreal and not life like at all.  With great power comes great responsibility.

Color Fading

A big problem on earlier Ektachrome and Anscochrome film slides is the tendency of slides to fade as decades wear on.  Even some of the most well kept slides will often exhibit significant fading or color shifts.  While these issues can not be completely surmounted, they can often be minimized to a considerable degree.

A scan of a 1958 vintage Anscochrome in Arizona looks about every bit of the byproduct of an Instagram filter in the raw result above.  Using the color restoration option in the Epson Scan software provides a much better starting point, and a quick pass of brightness and contrast sliders, some manual spot repair, and tweaks to vibrance in color, produce a much better, albeit still flawed image, as seen in the representation below.

Dark Fading

While old Kodachrome may not have major issues with color loss to anywhere near the extent that older E-2/3/4 process films do, they can and do darken with age, improper storage, and excess projection and exposure to light, resulting in a look somewhat similar to underexposure.  Scanning can help to restore some of this degradation. 

A mid to late 1950's image from Mexico shows some troubling effects of dark fading.  For this image, I elected to use both the color restoration AND backlight correction check boxes in the scanner software, followed by bumps to vibrance and saturation to result in an improved result below that also has minimized the vignetting around the edges.  However, the results fail to show any details in the dark areas of the windows behind the magazine stand.

Excessive Contrast

Tonal range of slide film is often limited, so contrasty scenes don't render (or scan) well.  Provided that the contrast in the image is not too severe, careful use of Tone Curve tools can help render a more natural image.

In this ca. 1955 shot of Springerville, Arizona, the original scan above has rather strong side lighting, resulting in overall drab color and poor shadow details.  By doing some tweaking to the tone curve, both on the scanner software, and in Photoshop, I am able to bring out the shadow detail more fully, and provide more pleasing color in the overall image, with some concession to the nice deep blue sky. 

Delicate Light Scene

This is actually one of the more novel "issues" to encounter with an image, as it can actually be a beneficial starting point for image improvement.  Since slide scans often tend to be contrasty, finding a scene that has delicate light and contrast can actually be a plus.

A Kodachrome image of sunset over over the Rappahanock River in Virginia on September 19, 1949.  Using only modest increases in contrast, vibrance, and saturation, a greatly improved and more vivid result appears below that has a very lifelike quality to where one would never guess this was taken 65 years ago! 

Emulsion and Dust issues

This is one of the more frustrating and common issues to encounter when scanning vintage slides, and can be one of the most time consuming to correct properly.  Dust is typical on all slides, but can be a serious headache on some specimens.  Fortunately, both the Epson Scan software and Photoshop offer solutions.

A raw scan of a Kodachrome of the desert Southwest from 1955 shows a fairly significant amount of dust remaining on the surface of the image, as seen above.  The scan below shows how the same slide looks with the "Dust Removal" box checked in the scanner software.  A modest improvement.   

Using the Digital ICE setting instead of dust removal yielded a grand total of four small spots remaining on the sky in the background, the removal of which took only 15 seconds in Photoshop.  The image was then given a quick Auto Contrast filter to result in the image below, a vast improvement over the original.  Digital ICE is useful for many slides, but can often mar detail areas such as lettering or automobile trim.  Use it with some discretion.  

Glass Slides

I have a big soft spot in my slide collecting heart for slides mounted in glass and metal mounts.  Kodachrome slides using these mounts have a tendency to have MUCH better original color retention than those in the typical cardboard mounts.  However, glass mounted slides do have their own unique trade-offs in that the outside glass of the mounts tend to attract troubling dust, while the inside surfaces will too often "touch" the actual film, resulting in contact spots if any humidity or other moisture ever gets within the mount.   

An undated (though the TV antenna offers a definite hint) glass mounted slide of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Home in Auburn, NY is fortunately rather free of offending dust, but shows some definite binding of the film surface with the glass frame of the mount in the scan above, evidenced by the bulls eye patterns seen in the sky.  I made proficient use of both the of Cloning and Spot Healing Brush Tools in Photoshop, and then treated the result to a slight bump in vibrance and saturation to really polish off this lovely image! 


These are the slides which really have to be worth it in order to digitize, due to the subject matter.  The most typical "combination" results from poor storage conditions, and will see a slide that shows both color fading as well as emulsion and dust issues.  These can be a serious headache to restore, and tend to be reserved (personally) for images that are truly worth the effort to restore to past glory. 

An Ektachrome image of Harundale Mall, in Glen Burnie MD somewhere around 1962 shows fading as well as a number of problem areas in the emulsion that can be readily seen in the scan above.  Using the color restoration option in the scanning software, followed by a liberal amount of time and effort cloning tool in Photoshop, as well as increases in contrast, vibrance, and saturation to complete an improved result in the image below.  I could have straightened the image as well, but generally wanted to retain as much of it as possible.


And then there are some of the most frustrating items I've encountered: stretch shots.  More specifically, someone trying to stretch another exposure from their roll of film.   The usual telltale signs of this are a photo that is partially wiped out to be clear (beginning the roll too early and trying to use film already exposed to light in the loading process) or one that has processing marks, such as stickers or perforations.  And it seems that almost universally, these photos will be otherwise some extremely good images!  

A "stretch" Kodachrome image of the South Carolina Capitol in Charleston from 1952 shows a cut off frame, job control number "0261" partially perforated into the film stock, and some soft vertical streaks due to light exposure.  Using Photoshop, the image was cropped, dust removed with cloning tool, and magenta hues desaturated to minimize the light streaks on the left, resulting in a image that shows only slight signs of abuse compared to the original. Sometimes you can do a good number to salvage a damaged image like this... 

...and sometimes, not so much, as the circa 1957 image  from the Western United States shown below clearly illustrates:

The Hopeless

While exposure issues as well as environmental damage and decay can often be corrected to some degree, there are some issues that even most advanced equipment and software can not begin to correct.  The two most common of these image faults that are poor focus and blur.  Aside from the use of a light-field camera, there is no way to change the focus of an image after it has been taken.  Using sharpening filters (notably absent from mention anywhere above in the article) may help for slightly soft images but are no true fix.  And while today's digital cameras often feature image stabilization that helps compensate for unsteady hands taking a photo prior to writing the image to the flash card, yesterday's film cameras had no such innovation.  

A footnote: there is more than one way to convert images readily from slides to digital images.  Another option is to use a slide copier attached to a digital camera.  While this method must often be done with great care to avoid color tonal shifts and loss of sharpness, it does carry with it an advantage of being quick, as well as allowing the more flexible options of image manipulation if the copies are shot using a camera's raw mode.  Just a little food for thought.

This week, I illustrated examples of taking images of yesterday through the machines of today.  Next week, I'll be showing samples of images of today taken using some interesting machines of yesterday.  Stay tuned!