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   Digitizing Old Slides
Digitizing Old Slides
By Justine Dorton

My father went through a phase in the late 70s. He took all his pictures on slides. Thousands of them, all told, reside in a box in my basement, patiently sitting there waiting for attention. I've wanted to rescue all those slides from certain death for several years, after all, making them all digital would stop the slow slide of quality erosion they were currently undergoing.

How to do it - that had tripped me up for years. We had once, several years ago, tried an attachment that fit onto our flat glass scanner, but the image quality suffered enormously in the conversion, giving me impossibly small files that could never be enlarged enough to actually print. I had given up on any re-attempt, waiting for technology to catch up with my need.

It seems to be getting there.

I snagged the Digital Film Scanner, by VuPoint, for around $120, and had less than stellar expectations. I had too many disappointments in my past to hold out much hope. I found the scanner to be a pleasant surprise - it just took a little wherewithal to get there.

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I popped the scanner out of the box and plugged it straightaway into my Mac. I quickly learned that it didn't like Mac's. I slowed down a bit and got the manual out to read the instructions (something I probably should have started with instead of worked up to). There I read quite clearly, "Requires Windows XP".

So, this being a product test, I went right to the oldest computer we've got in the house, to see how tough this little black box was going to be.

After installing the driver and software, I plugged the scanner into a USB 1.0 port (the instructions state you need USB 2.0). The software popped onto screen, and there was a picture of me in plaid pants, plain as day. The USB 1.0 connection definitely slowed down the scanners ability to do real-time scanning changes, and the scanner ate up every spare inch of RAM on my 6 year old computer, which made the system jumpy and particularly slow, but I was impressed with the tenacity of the scanner to work on such an old dinosaur of a PC.

I decided to give the poor scanner a break. I moved onto the newest PC we've got, installed drivers, installed software, plugged that scanner into a USB 2.0 port, and we were off and humming.

It is worth noting at this point, that this scanner comes with attachments for use with both slides or negatives, and as I discuss my experience with these slides, you can apply all I mention to the use of negatives, as my experience was similar with both.

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The scanner itself is easy and straightforward to use. I opened up the ArcSoft Photo Impression software and went straight to the large button that said, "Get Scans". This in turn opened up the scanner itself, which only required me to understand four simple options: "Snap Shot", "Transfer", "Format", and "Exit". The first and second options are the ones I obviously utilized the most. "Snap Shot" captures the image you're looking at, and "Transfer" moves the image into the Photo Impression software for you.

The scanner works in real time, which just means the camera inside the scanner works more like a video camera than a still camera. As you slide an image into the slot, the picture on the screen changes and moves with you until you rest on the centered image of the slide. Once in position, the scanner makes some adjustments to the picture's light reading, and comes to rest at a finished scan. I found that some of the slides I was working on needed to stay lighter than the scanner was making them, while others seemed to need less light than the scanner was giving them. However, there was an easy fix for this.

Once you have moved a slide into position, you can click on a "Snap Shot" button to create your digital image. I experimented with clicking the "Snap Shot" button while the light readings were still changing. The results were that I ended up with several digital copies of the picture in various stages of lightness and darkness. I think this could be particularly helpful if you are interested in additionally editing your pictures, giving you the ability to modify the light levels of each picture to your particular needs.

There is no clear way to open the scanner to clean the lens, a problem if there is dust on the lens. I encountered a few dust specks dotting my pictures, and after a few attempts to extract all the dust I could from the slides themselves, re-attempted to scan the picture. There were still some black spots on my pictures, but for the purposes I was scanning them, I could live with the minor imperfections. After all, we must remember that the business of digitizing old slides and negatives will never yield the original quality and luster of the original.

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As I mentioned before, the live action of the scanner's camera does use a lot of RAM, so the operation was slightly jumpy on even my newest p.c.

Once I had captured the images I wanted, I transferred them into the Photo Impression software by just clicking on "Transfer" after highlighting each photo I wanted. The images won't appear in the Photo Impression software until after you "Exit" the scanner, so after exiting, my images appeared in the Photo Impression window. At this point, all you have to do is click the "Edit" button, and whatever photo you've highlighted will open into an editing window.

Within Photo Impression's editing program, you can adjust color levels, automatically remove red-eye, crop and adjust image size, straighten or adjust the lay of the photo, and even blur or harden the background and edges of the photo, which is something that can create a more artistic feel to your image. Once my images were in the program, I did notice a small amount of vignette effect on the image. This simply means that the center of the picture was slightly lighter and brighter than the outer edges. This probably occurred as a result of the scanner bulb as it was capturing the image. The effect was minimal, and may only be noticeable to a carefully watchful eye.

I played around in Photo Impression's editing program for a while, and was able to successfully create the image light quality and style that I wanted. I then easily moved the photos into my own professional editing software for comparison purposes. My professional software was, obviously, more powerful, but I found that for the functions available in the Photo Impression software, the two were comparable in their ability to manipulate the color and size, etc.

So the good news is you don't need to own a $700 software program to digitally enhance or touch-up your newly digitized slides. And if you don't like the functionality of Photo Impression's editing program, there are several free downloads available that can do red-eye, cropping, color levels, and other standard edits. Adobe has a smaller version of their popular PhotoShop, Google has a free photo editing software through Picassa, and there are likely other excellent choices out there. I found Photo Impression to be comparable in scope to most, if not all, of those choices.

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To give myself some comparison to other products on the market, I tested some slides with my trusty traditional document scanner that had a slide attachment. The differences were remarkably stark. The VuPoint scanner out-performed the traditional scanner by leaps and bounds. The traditional scanner gave me a very dark grainy image that was, at it's best, only a darker version of the original slide. The image size was very small, and attempting to enlarge the file to a traditional 4x6 image made the photo a complete blur. The VuPoint scanner, on the other hand, automatically enlarged my slide to a reasonable size, and provided me with a picture I could actually print (and still tell who was in the picture!)

Overall, I was pleased at the ease of use of this product. I was slightly disappointed in the photo quality. My ideal would have been receiving photos as crisp and clear as the original photos had been, but that was clearly an unrealistic expectation, even for the more advanced and pricier scanners on the market. The jumpy camera operation made for slow going, but at this price, I was happy to be patient! There are several other high quality scanners on the market that will set you back close to or over $1,000, so for just over $100, this product is a great entry product into the market. It provided usable, color rich digital images that were ready to fiddle with, print, and store!

I guess I'd better get busy on that big box in the basement. After all, those slides aren't getting any younger!

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