Wednesday 9 September 2015

How to Scan Your Old Films and Slides

I have literally thousands of them. They lie mouldering in boxes and envelopes, at the back of cupboards and in the bottom of drawers. Memories from the forgotten world of my youth. People, pets and places who are long gone or changed almost beyond recognition: colour transparencies so old they look like scenes from somebody else’s life.

I haven’t looked  at them for years. And when I look at them now, I see that many of them are sadly faded and decayed. On some, the colours are washed out.  Others are covered with dust and fluff. Many even have tiny spidery webs of mould growing upon them. That is what happens to old pictures taken in a non-digital world. If I were to have any chance of saving them I realised I would have to do it soon. And so I set about searching for some means of scanning these fragile memories onto hard discs and DVDs.

First A Scanner

At first I planned to use my flatbed scanner, an Epson V550, which not only comes with a slide-holding frame to let me scan several slides at once, but also has a ‘Digital ICE’ capability to assist in removing surface blemishes during the scanning process. My first attempts were reasonably successful but I soon discovered that fitting the slides into their holder and then scanning them was a slow and laborious process. I simply would never get around to scanning the huge numbers of slides in my collection. I decided therefore that a dedicated slide scanner was what I needed. These come in all shapes, sizes and prices. After much research I decided that the Reflecta ProScan 10T ( (branded as Pacific Image PrimeFilm XE in the USA) provided all the features I needed at a price I could afford (549 Euros but available discounted if you shop around).

My Reflecta ProScan 10T film scanner.

This scanner has slot in the side into which either a section of file-strip (colour, black and white, positive or negative) may be fed up to a maximum of 6 frames at a time; or else up to four mounted slides at a time – there are two dedicated holders for mounted and unmounted film. After each slide is scanned you just push the holder along to position the next slide for scanning. It’s mostly pretty simple and effective. My main grouse is that it is quite difficult to fit unmounted film into its dedicated holder because the holder has nothing to hold them firm, flat and properly aligned. The mounted slide-holder is much easier to use.

Next Some Software

While the scanner comes with its own scanning software (CyberViewX) I soon discovered that most people prefer to use one of two third-party programs: either Silverfast  ( or VueScan ( The former comes in various versions starting at 49 Euros for Silverfast SE but its fully-featured versions are quite expensive (Silverfast Ai Studio costs 299 Euros) and each licence only supports one brand of scanner.  If you want to use it with two scanners you have to buy two licences. VueScan, by contrast, is quite modestly priced $39.95 for the Standard edition, $89.95 for the Professional Edition) and it has a very generous licence which lets you use it with any mix of supported scanners (so I can use it with both my Epson and my Reflecta at no additional cost) and it can even be installed on up to four computers which may include both PCs and Macs. The software provides a free trial which is functionally equivalent to the full version but which places a watermark over scans. I tried this for a few days, was very satisfied, and then upgraded to the full professional version which, as an added bonus, even includes all updates free and forever!

VueScan in action

The VueScan software lets you tweak your scans in all sorts of cunning and clever ways. You can set the white balance, make adjustments for photos taken under fluorescent or tungsten, make corrections for fading and colour-loss and much, much more. For me, though, having such a large number of dirty and degraded slides, the single most useful feature is the InfraRed scanning support. Your scanner hardware has to provide this (it may be called ‘Digital ICE’ as in my Epson flatbed or ‘MagicTouch’ which is the name used by the Reflecta).

VueScan lets me apply three levels of IR scanning – light, medium and heavy. Mostly I used the medium option which does a remarkably good job of removing dirt and fluff from my pictures.  Occasionally, for example when a transparency has acquired fungal growths (a common problem with old film) I switch to heavy IR scanning. This deals with all but the most degraded of my slides and it usually means I don’t have to clean them by hand (as explained here:

Here you part of a slide (a) before any IR processing has been done – look closely and you will see various black blobs especialy at the lower right-hand corner; (b) VueScan’s InfraRed processing to show the blobs it will remove from the slide and (c) the same slide with the blobs removed.

The only slides I’ve had real problems with are the ones whose emulsions (the physical layers of colour) have themselves degraded. Some of these seem to have developed little bumps that make the entire slide look spotty. Interestingly when I scan these with CyberView and VueScan the software’s ‘solution’ to the problem are quite different. CyberScan removes the worst of the bumps but that has the effect of leaving chunks taken out of picture elements – for example, giving people in my photos ‘serrated edges’. VueScan does a less aggressive removal which generally fades the dots to make them look less obvious than before but visible nonetheless. Fortunately, I have only a small percentage of slides that have degrade to this extent.

Here is the slide I processed earlier, now with all the nasty blobs removed!

So, on the whole, I am pretty satisfied with this slide-scanning solution. If you have old transparencies or films lying forgotten in cupboards and drawers, don’t let them decay beyond repair. Scan them while you still have the chance!