How to scan 35mm color transparencies

Updated February 21, 2017

If you have been involved in photography for longer than 10 years you probably have some collection of 35mm color slides. If you do, it is pretty easy to create digital images from these color treasures if you have the right equipment, some knowledge and a lot of patience. If you have a flatbed scanner you may be able to buy an adapter to scan slides, but in my experience the results are not comparable with a dedicated slide scanner. Transparency scanners range in price from about $4,000 to under $100. Regardless of how much you spend on a scanner, the process for scanning transparencies is basically the same. The more expensive scanners have built-in light meters and batch loading options providing speed and accuracy. In this article I will demonstrate the ION FILM 2 SD 35mm Film and Slide Scanner (which costs about $130 as of this writing) and is simple enough for anyone to use. When selecting a slide scanner keep in mind you need at least 5 megapixels of resolution, since most 35mm transparencies have a range of somewhere between 5 and 6 megapixels. Read on to find out how easy it is to convert your old memories into digital images.

Select your slides and load them carefully into the slide holder, which holds three slides at a time. Load the film emulsion down. You must load all slides horizontally, which you can rotate in your image-editing program after capture. Although many systems allow you to rotate and flip the images during the scan process, I recommend you do this after capture in your image editing program.

Clean the slides thoroughly and carefully. Use canned air to remove any dust from both sides of the transparency. If the slide has something stuck on the surface you can use a Q-tip and some film cleaner or grain alcohol to remove it. Use the canned air again after removing the artifact. Do not rub too hard since you can scratch the emulsion.

Once the slides are cleaned, immediately load the holder into the scanner. Make sure the scanner is set to COLOR SLIDE. The ION device and most scanners can scan color positives (slides) and color and monochrome negatives. Then click OK, which will scan the image and present a menu allowing you to save your image to the SD card. It takes under a minute to actually scan and save the three images. Once you have filled up the SD card you can connect the scanner to your computer and set it to USB mode. Your computer will recognize the device as a camera and allow you to upload your images and delete them after upload. Of course, if your computer can read SD cards, you can just pop the SD card out of the scanner and insert into your SD card reader

No matter how hard you try to eliminate dirt and dust, you will need to bring your image into an image-editing program. Old slides may have faded and gained in contrast depending on their age and how they were stored. In an image editing program you can clean up the artifacts and adjust the exposure and contrast as well as crop your photo memories. Not all slides will scan well. Slides with false colors, specular highlights and faded dyes may not look good no matter how much you edit them. So far I have about a 75 percent success rate on "keepers" from the 300 or so scans that I have done. It is fun, easy and doesn't have to be expensive. This picture of me at work in the '70s was lost and now it's found. What treasures are waiting in your attic?


The hardest part of the process is cleaning the photos and mounting them for scanning. The more expensive scanners have light meters built in which will give you a higher success rate and more accurate color. This is important for commercial applications.

Things You'll Need

  • PC or Mac computer with high speed USB connection
  • ION FILM 2 SD 35mm Film and Slide Scanner
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