Scanning 35mm Slides
And Why Macro Capture Is a Good Choice
Updated July 2014
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Digitizing 35mm slides with a DSLR is easier than you think.
In this article, I walk you through the process, including what gear to choose.
(For additional tips and techniques, please be sure to see my new Film Scanning e-book for the Kindle Reader.)
1. Flatbed Scanners
2. Macro Capture: Primary Considerations
3. Visual Comparison: Scan vs. Macro Capture
4. Choosing Extension Tubes (Skip this section if you have or plan to get a 1:1 macro lens!)
5. Choosing a Macro Lens
6. Don't Forget The Stand!!
Many readers have emailed me and asked about scanning
35mm slides. What's the most convenient way? What's the
most cost-effective? What yields the best results without
resorting to a drum scan?
I'd been thinking about this problem for a
while. Ready-made scanners have some limitations. They
offer a fair degree of speed and ease of use, but they lack that
optimal image quality that most of us seek. The
Nikon Coolscan, which was probably the best of the bunch, was
expensive, and now it's not being made or supported anymore.
The methods we're going to discuss will apply just as well to negatives, and also larger formats such as 120 and 4x5.
I often use an Epson V500.
It's pretty good for 35mm negatives and better for 120 film. Unfortunately, the scans of mounted
35mm slides are just a little too blurry
for my liking. The scanner offers no built-in way to adjust the
focus height. The plane of focus is somewhere above the glass of
the flatbed, but the exact amount may vary between scanners. You
might get one that focuses better on mounted 35mm slides, but then
again you might not. Since there is only one height of ideal
focus for a mounted slide, chances are you won't be one of the lucky
Messing Around With Height
Since my V500 appears to scan 35mm negatives better than mounted slides, I
checked the height of the film holder. The negative is held more
than 0.5 mm, but somewhat less than 1.0 mm, above the glass. It
looks closer to 1.0 mm than 0.5, so it could be 0.8 or 0.9 mm.
Meanwhile, mounted slides seem to be 0.4 to 0.5 millimeters from the
glass. Aha! That tells me that if you unmount slides and
put them right up against the glass, the focus is going to be even
worse. In fact, when I scan photo prints directly against the
glass, they do look softer than they should. Instax Mini photos are already a bit soft, but my Epson V500 makes them look very soft.
Now, it might seem that if I make shims that are 0.3 to 0.4 mm thick,
the mounted 35mm slides should scan better. A piece of
economy-grade printer paper measures 0.095 mm thick, or about 0.1
mm. Three or four sheets, and we ought to have the right
I also measured some black construction
paper at 0.21 mm thick. Two sheets ought to do it, yes?
Actually, no. I tried raising the height in 0.2 mm
increments. No luck. Then I tried varying it by 0.1 mm
increments (tedious!). Incredibly, there was no
improvement. None! (Not long after this test, my well-used scanner
decided to quit altogether. Looks like it's macro capture from
here on in!)
How Blurry Scans Can Wear Out Your Hard Drive
It takes a lot of work in "post processing" to sharpen slide scans from a flatbed. Unsharp masking really brings
out the grain and the scan noise patterns, which look like vertical
lines. You have to tweak your favorite noise-reduction
algorithm to try to fix that without re-softening the scan.
It's tedious, it's a trade-off, and the bigger scan files put a lot of wear on a hard drive with all that RAM
swapping. (My flatbed actually cost me a hard drive because of this.)
The Epson V700 / 750 allow for
height adjustment of the film holders, but realize that this, too, has
limitations. The focus point for "film with film holder" is
supposed to be 3mm above the glass, but it could be (say) 2.92 mm, 3.27
mm, 3.32 mm, or some other random number close to three.
Dealing with height variations is kind of a drag. Even if you get
it right, a flatbed scanner has moving optics. That means there
is going to be a very small amount of "play" there. It's alright
for everyday scanning, but what if you want to make 24"x36"
enlargements? If you have something
really special, it's worth it to pay an expert operator to drum-scan your work,
but what if you have 200 slides?
Here's my experience with macro capture, the only realistic "serious" method for most of us.
Macro Capture: Primary Considerations
1.) Many so-called "macro" lenses are not 1:1 macro. That means you will need a
set of macro extension tubes to hold the lens farther away from the
camera sensor. Up to a certain point, the farther away you
hold the lens, the bigger the magnification. If you want to avoid a big headache, make sure you read the section "Choosing Extension Tubes", below. Read it BEFORE you get a set of tubes and put them on your camera!
2.) You will need some way to light up the
slides uniformly from the back. A light bulb will produce uneven lighting
of the wrong color temperature. I searched around for plain
white glass or white acrylic and was unable to find anything that
really would have worked. Everything I found was either the wrong
consistency, was curved, or had some kind of texture that would show up
in the photos. My solution was to get a small, inexpensive light
pad (get yours here). For 8x10 transparencies, you'll need a bigger one.
You will have to make something to block the light that
shines around the slide. Otherwise the glare will ruin the
capture. A simple solution is to cut a 25x37 mm rectangular
"window" in a piece of black construction paper. Put the paper on
the light pad so the light shines through the window, then lay
the slide on top of this window. Or, the other way around if you prefer.
It doesn't have to be perfect, but make it as straight as you can.
4.) You will need a way to hold the camera steady and perfectly
parallel to the slide.
This is the hardest part.
Everything will have to stay put while you focus the macro lens and
take the picture. Forget shooting handheld; the focus
precision demands a steady support. The section "Don't Forget The
Stand!!" (see below) discusses some ready-made options. If you
make your own, consider how much it costs you to go chasing all over
creation for the parts you'll need.
Visual Comparison: Scan vs. Macro Capture
Here's a capture of a 35mm slide, scaled down to fit this page.
I added the white rectangle to show the area we're going to
Now, here's a side-by-side comparison of that area, taken from two different
methods of image acquisition. One was a flatbed scan of the mounted
slide, the other was macro capture. What a difference!
The macro capture was done with a 55mm Micro-Nikkor f/2.8 AIS using a couple of cheap extension rings.
Total extension was about 16mm. (See below for cautions regarding
cheap "macro extension ring" sets....) Just for reference, the
macro capture was done at ISO
800, 1/80th of a second, with the lens set on f/5.6.
According to my measurements and screen resolution, the 100% crop
would represent actual size if the photo were enlarged almost to 30" x
45". For 35mm, that's a pretty big enlargement.
And by the way, I made the original photo with a cheap zoom. I
did not use a tripod. Had I taken the original photo with a
better lens and used a tripod, I could get even sharper slides, and
thus a better macro capture.
To get the kind of sharpness improvement you see in the macro capture above, you have to be really
good with the focus. You can get a passable capture by focusing
through the viewfinder, but it's better when you switch to "Live View"
and zoom all the way in on the view. Even there, you will
probably have to do a few tries to get the ideal focus. If you do it wrong, it can easily be worse than the flatbed scan.
It's a good idea to use the camera self-timer. Just a fraction of a
millimeter of flexion, and your slide will be out of focus. At these
close distances, the plane of focus is very thin.
Choosing Extension Tubes
(Jump ahead to the next section if you have or plan to get a 1:1 macro lens)
First I'd better mention that the cheapo "extension ring" sets have a tendency to get stuck on the lens. Sure, you can remove the rings from the camera just fine, but often they will not let go of the lens.
If your extension ring gets stuck on the lens,
first make sure the whole assembly is removed from the camera.
Then, hold the lens and try pulling on the extension tube barrel while
turning it. Sometimes this will release it. If it does come
off, you might find that the extension tube will no longer hold the
lens reliably. How'd you like to be going along thinking
everything is okay, then your cheap extension tube suddenly drops your
$400 lens on the pavement? That's what happens with cheapo
extender tubes, for some reason. They either hold on to your lens
like they're brazed there, or else they just nonchalantly let it fall out.
"Oh, you don't want
extension tube to weld permanently to your Nikon lens? Okay, take this!"
You would think it's not rocket science to make a lens adapter, but I
guess it is. Metallurgy and precision machining are two things we
take for granted in our modern society. Actually, most cheap lens
adapters are made with spring clips. You're supposed to be able
to pull outward and compress the clips, in which case the adapter will
release your lens. Problem is, the spring clips are not exactly
NASA-grade alloy. Sometimes they lose their spring after a couple
of uses. Or maybe one use!
If the extender tubes do stick permanently, keep the lens that way and just use it for macro slide
capture. Otherwise you can sit there trying to figure out how
you're going to prevent metal particles getting down in your lens because
you had to use an abrasive cutoff wheel to remove the cheap extender
rings. I know of people who have done this.
Don't waste your time on cheap bellows extensions, either. Chances are that you will have the same kinds of
problems. (Here again, if you have a lens that you don't ever
plan to remove from the adapter, then go for it...)
If you don't want to trash your lens, there are two real options for macro.
The first option
is to get a good set of tubes. Forget all the re-branded generic ones, unless
you have a lens from which you never plan to remove the rings.
Even the Vivitar set, which is usually pretty good, can sometimes jam
up on your lens. Furthermore, if you try to use a lens with an
electronically-controlled aperture (typical for modern kit lenses),
you'll be stuck at f/22, which is a diffraction disaster for digital cameras.
You'll need to use something wider to get better detail.
Realistically, you're looking at $200 for a good set of extender tubes
that (A.) won't get stuck, and (B.) can work with
For Nikon cameras, a lot of people buy the Kenko extension tube set. There's also a set for Canon EOS cameras.
These may not be perfect, but at least they don't jam like the cheaper
ones. The Kenko tubes will work with electronically-controlled
(DX and G) lenses. The drawback is that the whole assembly has
some play in it. Not as much as you get with the really cheap tubes, but it's there.
This can make it tricky to maintain the perfect focus necessary to capture
slides. This is all the more reason why your camera and
lens should be oriented vertically, looking down, so that gravity keeps
everything parallel (see "Don't Forget The Stand!!", below).
There's another, possibly bigger reason to skip extension tubes
altogether. That is, corner sharpness. However, the use of extension
tubes with a macro lens such as the Micro Nikkor 55 is generally OK.
The real problem starts when you try to use a non-macro lens with the
tubes. The 50mm Nikkor Series E "pancake" has incredible sharpness at
the center... but not in the corners when you use an extension tube.
Again, the main purpose of using an extension tube is to bring a
less-than 1:1 macro lens up to 1:1 magnification.
By the way, if you're instead thinking of buying the Nikon-made PK13 extension tube,
make sure you realize that it does not support lens electronics.
That means it will not work with lenses that don't have an aperture
ring. The PK-13 works great with the 55mm Micro Nikkor,
though. If you have that combo, you might consider getting the Nikon ES-1 Slide Copy Adapter.
Yes, it's a little finicky, but not nearly as bad as the
ultra-makeshift rig I used to do the macro capture for this
article. With these three things and a Nikon DSLR, you have
pretty much everything you need for slide capture, except a light
source. (Canon owners, you could still use these same three items
if you get a Nikon-to-Canon lens adapter, such as this one or maybe this one.)
If you have a Canon DSLR, I highly recommend you get the real Canon
tubes. They're so expensive that you're better off buying them
individually. I'd go right for the Canon EF 25 II
extension tube (get it here).
Canon tubes now cost about two or three times what they should, but
that's the way the whole camera industry has been going lately. This tube has a total
extension length of about 32mm, which means that if you set your zoom
lens to a focal length of about 32mm this will give you 1:1 macro. Here's the equation, if you feel like doing some math:
(Extension length) / (Focal Length) = Magnification
Many people use DX or APS-C digital cameras, so the apparent
magnification is greater because of the crop factor. 1x macro
would be perfect for capturing a 35mm slide if you're using a full-frame DSLR,
but on a DX/APS-C camera, you really need only 0.67x to have it fill
32 / f = 0.67
32 / 0.67 = f
f = 48
That means when using the Canon EF 25 II, which has a total extension
length of about 32mm, you'd want a lens with a focal length of about
48mm on your APS-C camera. The 18-55 kit lens can do this,
obviously, but it's not really sharp enough for macro capture. Instead I'd get the 50mm 1.8. The Canon-made extension tubes are designed to work
with the lens electronics, which is another reason to go for the Canon and skip the cheaper tubes.
If you look at the equation, you might notice that as the focal length goes up, the magnification goes down.
That means extension tubes are a waste of time with long
lenses. The 18-55mm kit lens provides just about about the
ideal range of focal lengths for extension tubes.
The second option
is to buy a macro lens that can do 1:1 magnification without needing extender tubes. This is the option I recommend.
Choosing a Macro Lens
If you have a full-frame DSLR, just get a macro lens that can do 1:1 macro. That's 1x magnification.
If you have a "crop sensor" camera (DX or APS-C), that same 1:1 lens would
give you an effective 1.5:1. That's an apparent magnification of 1.5x.
This happens because of the crop factor of the smaller
For crop-sensor DSLR's, all you'll really need is a macro lens
that can natively do at least 1:1.5, or 0.67x magnification. When you fit
that lens to an APS-C or DX camera, you'll get an apparent 1:1.
This is not really a problem, though. When you buy a "1:1 macro"
lens, that number refers to the highest magnification it can do:
in other words, 1x. The same lens can do 0.67x if you want
it to; simply move the object farther away and
re-focus. You can go below the rated magnification for a
macro lens, but you can't go above it without extender rings.
Just as an example, if you had a Micro-Nikkor 55mm lens, you'd still
have to use extender rings, because that lens has a maximum
magnification of 1:2.1, or about 0.48x. The apparent magnification if you fitted
that lens on an APS-C camera would still be only 1:1.4, or about 0.71x.
If you don't anticipate using the macro lens for other kinds of macro
work, you won't need one with an extended working distance.
For crop-sensor Canon DSLR's, I would consider the Canon EF-S 60mm macro. You can use it as a portrait lens when
you're not doing slide capture, but just keep in mind that it doesn't
have image stabilization. The Canon has good bokeh (Tamron's 60mm macro is better
Nikon users can get the Nikon 60mm f/2.8G AF-D lens, available through this link.
This is an excellent lens that will work on full-frame (FX) or crop
(DX) sensors. On a DX-format camera such as the D7000,
D5300, etc., it makes a great portrait lens, since the apparent focal
length is 90mm. However, if you want to save some money and don't care
about autofocus (which you won't use for macro capture anyway), go for
the Nikon 60mm f/2.8D AF, available through this link.
(Actually, the AF-D will autofocus on the higher-end Nikon DSLR's such as the D810 and D7100; just
not the entry- or mid-level models such as the D5300.)
There's also the Micro Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G VR
macro lens. As I've found with the Canon 100mm,
this focal length is just about perfect for macro capture, and I also
use the 100mm macro for all-around photography and portraits. If you can budget the 105mm, get the 105 instead of the 60mm. Either of them will work on both FX and DX Nikons.
There's also the Tamron AF 60mm f/2.0 SP Di II,
a 1:1 macro lens made only for APS-C / DX cameras. Tamron's model number on this is
G005. The 60mm SP Di II, like the Canon 60mm macro, doesn't have
image stabilization. You can pick up the Canon EF-S mount version here or the Nikon-mount version here. If you have a Sony DSLR, your version is here.
If you're after bokeh, this Tamron 60mm macro lens is actually better than
the Canon 60. It should be, since it costs more.
If you want the 90mm Tamron, which will also work on full-frame DSLR's, you
could go for the SP model with VC ("vibration compensation"). Canon-mount version here; Nikon here; Sony here. The Sony-mount version has no VC. Tamron's model number on this lens is F004.
If slide capture were all I planned to do with the lens, I'd actually go for the Tamron model 272E. That's the classic AF 90mm f/2.8 Di SP. (The name says "A/M", for "Auto /
Manual focus", but you can manual-focus with the other lenses,
too...) This version, like the 60mm lenses, has no image
stabilization. For slide capture you don't need to spend the
extra $250, since you should be using steady supports anyway. Canon-mount version is here, Nikon-mount version here, Sony here. This is a very popular lens model, so they also make it for Pentax DSLR's (get it here).
The 60mm and 90mm Tamrons have a short working distance for 1:1
macro. This makes them a somewhat poor choice for use on
butterflies or other critters, which will want to fly away when you get
that close. What the Tamrons do have going for them is nice bokeh.
These make good portrait lenses when you're not using them for slide
Best Macro Lens for Nikon DSLR's
If your budget can accommodate it, just go for the Micro Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G
Best Macro Lenses for Canon DSLR's
If you're a Canon DSLR user and you want the absolute best, go for the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM macro.
This has the best, sharpest image quality, which will give you the best
in slide capture. At a street price of about $1050, it's not
cheap, but at least if you buy this lens you won't be constantly
thinking there's some better macro lens around the next
The 100mm f/2.8L macro has a working
distance of 5.9 inches (even more with an APS-C camera), meaning that
you're not stuck using it on slides and postage stamps.
If you don't care about image stabilization, which is not usually
used for macro anyway, here's what I would do. Head straight for the
non-L 100mm f/2.8 USM macro lens. Read my review here, or get your lens through this link. It has L-quality optics, but it's about four-hundred dollars less than the actual "L" version.
If you're looking to build the ultimate slide capture device, you'll
know you're using the best optics, instead of messing around with extender
tubes that have play in them. The only big drawback to the EF
100mm lens is that when you fit it to an APS-C camera, it acts like a
150 or 160mm lens. Then again, you may find that desirable.
One day I saw some unusual wildlife that was far away. The 100mm
Canon macro on a Rebel T3 offered the longest reach I had at that moment. 160mm effective focal length was sure better than 70 or 80.
Don't Forget the Stand!!
To perform the original macro test, I used some hardware that wasn't
designed for cameras. It was kind of precarious. The test
rig didn't hold the camera very well, so it introduced way too much
play. It's a wonder I was able to get a good slide capture at all.
What's really needed is a "copy stand" or "macro stand". (For this purpose you won't need the lighting kit.)
I strongly recommend that you don't skimp here. The macro stand is actually your most important component,
next to the lens and camera. You will be adjusting the camera up and down a lot more than you might expect. When you have to refocus a macro lens, the amount of your view that's filled by the slide will change.
Sometimes you have to move the camera half a dozen times, refocusing
each time, to get the correct 1:1 view of a slide. When you're
not filling up the screen with the 35mm slide, you're sacrificing
resolution and detail. This is where a good copystand is
Skip The Cheapo Stands
I would recommend skipping the $35 stands altogether. About the
lowest-priced copy stand worth considering for the task is this one,
but only if you have a lightweight camera. I mention it for
those looking to get started for the smallest investment. Thing is,
such a track usually ends up costing more in the long run. If you still
want semi-cheap but reasonably good, get this stand instead.
The weak link in macro stands is the right-angle mount for
the camera. That's also the part that matters most. The
cheap ones have more wobble. Another weak link is the gear
mechanism. Either of these can cause unwanted "play" that
translates to a poor-quality slide capture.
Look to the $100 to $200 range for semi-serious use. Most of
these are larger than the $25-$50 stands. With the larger
stands you may have to set your light pad on a stack of books to get the slide close enough to the macro
lens. It's actually better to get a larger stand than necessary, in case you get a bigger macro lens down the
road. How would you like to order a stand and find out the post is not tall enough for your camera / lens combo?
One word of caution: an angled upright post will cause you some frustration.
Every time you move the camera up or down, the slide will have to be
re-centered beneath the camera. This is not a complete wash,
though, because once you get a routine going, you will know exactly how
high to position the camera and where to place the slide /
negative. Take note that even most of the top-end models have an angled post.
The reason they do this is so the post won't be in the field of view
when the camera is elevated. An angled post allows you to put the
camera out over the center of larger documents. (For capture of
35mm and 120 size transparencies, this feature isn't really necessary.)
The Albinar High Load copy stand is probably the best deal. I have a full review here.
If you want the highest build quality and think you'll be using the
heaviest camera / lens combos at some point, choose a super heavy-duty
copy stand. While there are copy stands that go for $2,500 or more,
these have features such as tilting camera mount, built-in light pad
base, etc. Just know that the real pro quality starts
The Kaiser 205510 ("RS 1") is not cheap, but then again you get what you pay for. You can get it here.
That's a rather sizeable chunk of change for a stand, but you
will find it's got the performance for serious work. Everything
is better: better gear mechanism, better hold, and a solid camera
Another one in this range is the Beseler CS-21.
Film enthusiasts should all be familiar with that name. Their
copy stand has the same upright design as some of their enlargers.
There is also the Kaiser 205511. The camera mount assembly allows for forward adjustment of the camera.
If you're serious about macro photography and slide capture, it's
absolutely worth it to purchase a good copy stand. Since you're basically
making a "scanner" here, keep in mind that a good stand also allows you
to "scan" documents, large format negatives & transparencies, and,
yes, photographic prints. This will get rid of the problem
of blurred scans, which you get from a cheap flatbed scanner whose
optimum point of focus is a couple of millimeters above the
(Speaking of which: don't forget to put anti-Newton
glass over your bigger negatives and transparencies to keep everything
in the plane of focus.)
Figure on these basic elements:
Light pad: $50 to $100
Entry-level DSLR: $400-$600
High-quality 1:1 macro lens: $400-$800
High-quality copy stand: $500-$600
Total investment: $1,350 to $2,100
That's better than spending $1,000+ on a used drum scanner that
might not even work, and for which you may not even be able to get
replacement parts. (And last I checked, some drum scanners were three-hundred grand....)
This has been a look at the gear and some of the methods for macro-scanning film.
My new Film Scanning e-book, available for purchase now,
has even more information. It contains advanced scanning and
color-processing methods to help you unlock more of the potential from
If you found this article helpful, please help me out by purchasing
your photo gear (or anything else) through any of the links on this
Thanks for reading!
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