How to Scan Slide Film with a Camera and What You’ve Got at Home

“Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.” – William Shakespeare, King Lear, (I.iv)

“I think it would be best if we delay the shoot.” That was part of an email I received in early March, right about the time I was thinking that my year wasn’t looking too bad, business-wise. I work as a commercial photographer in Vancouver, Canada, and I had enjoyed a fairly prosperous couple of months. Early 2020 was looking better than 2019, that’s for sure. Then everything ground to a halt: I don’t have to go into much more detail than that, as I’m not alone at all in this situation. The entire planet feels at a standstill.

Scanning Film at Home With Your Camera, the DIY Way

So what do to with my downtime? A story making the rounds is that William Shakespeare wrote King Lear while in quarantine for the plague. Although this claim can’t be substantiated, 1606 was a tough year for illness in England, and apparently, people did stay rather close to home. That year, Shakespeare banged out King Lear, Anthony, and Cleopatra as well as Macbeth, so certainly something was working well for him, creatively. My task while staying home was not nearly as lofty as a famous play (let alone three!), but there was one project I was keen to take on. ‘Keen’ might not have been the right word, but I had a bunch of old 35mm slides that I wanted to copy.

I own an Imacon scanner – it’s an ancient boat-anchor, and it does an amazing job with scanning. However, it won’t work with mounted slides. The film has to fit around a drum, and the slide mount is too rigid for that. I wasn’t interested in taking hundreds of slides out of their mounts and putting them in the scanner and then figuring out what to do with them afterward. I looked into a slide copying attachment for my camera, which seemed pretty good except that reviews were mixed, and the attachment for my system was designed to be used with a 60mm macro lens. (I have the 105mm.) Add to this the fact that it was going to be expensive with a new lens, and the attachment was out of stock (guess I wasn’t the only one with this idea), and it ceased to be an option.

So instead, I built my own slide copying setup. I grabbed a camera, macro lens, tripod, a few apple boxes, a sheet of translucent plexiglass, some card stock, a flash, and I was ready to go. We even did a video about it – feel free to take a look if you’re interested.

Once you get it set up and rolling, it’s surprisingly easy to blaze through a few rolls. Everything is locked down, including focus, so you can copy quickly – certainly a lot faster than scanning things in. Then, autocorrect in your capture software, make a few jpegs, and the images start to look pretty good.

But then what to do with them?

Two of the boxes of slides I found contained the slideshow I did for the high school grad for the year ahead of me at school. There were about 75 old Kodachrome images that had been shown once, 30 years ago. I went through them all, and after getting used to the feeling that I was in the opening sequence of a John Hugues film, I posted a folder on social media and asked a few people to comment and see if they could recognize anyone. I made a pre-emptive apology about how if anyone didn’t want their finest teenage moments posted, just let me know and I would take them down.

The positive response was overwhelming. I heard from people I haven’t spoken to in decades. There were laments for classmates who were no longer with us and some who are struggling, but also laugh-out-loud comments and anecdotes that brought me back to a place I can barely remember. The images were spread far and wide, and at least a half-dozen people thanked me directly for posting these memories and adding a bit of levity to these otherwise dreary days.

It was totally worth it. Copying these slides offered no value to me in terms of bettering my skills as a photographer or adding to my photographic career. But, it did remind me about the incredible value in images – even awful ones I took during high school – and how young and energetic we all once were.

Here are a few family pics as well as a great one of me as a 16-year-old. Thankfully, my sartorial style has evolved somewhat.