Diving into the archive

For some years now I’m been meaning to digitise my archive of photographs that were shot on film. I even made a start, using a Nikon LS-9000 scanner. But it was dreadfully slow going and I kept giving up in despair.

Then I realised there is an easier way. In the past couple of months I have digitised around 10,500 transparencies and 3,000 negatives (B&W and colour). The solution, it turned out, was to simply take pictures of my pictures using something I already had – a digital camera.

I was inspired by an acquaintance of mine, David Hoffman – as fine a social photographer as you are likely to encounter. As a lifelong professional, the task he faced was much more daunting than mine, running into tens of thousands of images. He solved the problem by adapting the venerable Bowens Illumitran slide copier, mounting his Nikon digital camera to it.

This rig solved several problems that I’d been thinking about. It provided a stable platform, with which the slide or negative would be flat-on to the camera. And it gave a reliable, consistent light source. However, the adaptation ended up costing a fair amount. I went a different way.

I simply bought most of my rig off the shelf. The Nikon ES-2 adapter kit is designed to mount on to a macro lens (I chose the AF-S Micro Nikkor 60mm f/2.8G ED, for those playing along at home) and has holders for slides and film strips. A diffuser is built in.

It’s suspiciously simple, but is well built and works extremely well.


Let there be light

The next step was a light source. I toyed with the idea of flash but in the end built something of my own.

I mounted rows of LED strips to a large (100x80x30mm) aluminium heat sink.

These aren’t any LEDs. They have a high colour rendering index (CRI), which is a measure of how much of the spectrum the LED produces. Although an LED might appear to be ‘white’ and have a specific colour temperature, it may not be putting out light at certain wavelengths. The CRI scale measures what percentage of visible light wavelengths the LED produces – the ‘completeness’ (to coin a phrase) of its spectral output. CRI 100 would be perfect, but anything over 90 is good and the 96 of the LEDs I’m using is more than enough for this purpose.

Seven rows, each of 24 LEDs, also produce a lot of light, which turned out to be useful. They are powered by a standard 24V LED power strip driver.

Next, I encased this in a kind of light box arrangement made from white plasticard sheets, with the pieces held together with the sort of head-spinning solvent used by modellers plus generous helpings of hot glue. I’m not the least bit talented when it comes to craft projects and the result was a tad ugly, but functional.

The final step (or nearly) was to mount everything together. I chose the kind of rail system used for video work, with a tripod bushing screwed and glued to the bottom of my light box. That wouldn’t have been a cheap solution if it wasn’t for the fact that I already had all the bits from some video projects a few years prior.

(And before you ask – no, I have no idea what this little contraption cost me in the end, but it wasn’t much. That was a key criterion in the whole deal).

Finally, the whole shebang mounts on to a very solid tripod.

I was pleased with the finished result. It didn’t fall apart or catch fire. And it is a doddle to use. But for some reason I then did nothing with it for some considerable time. Why? We’d probably need a trained therapist to get to the bottom of that one.

In action at last

Finally, though, I got off my arse and got to work. First, I added a thin sheet of plasticard between the light source and the slide holder. I was concerned that, even with the ES-2’s thick diffuser, the light from the LEDs might still be a bit too sharp and tend to emphasise scratches or imperfections in the images.

I started with my transparencies, which were huddled in storage boxes.

I use compressed air (a standard airbush driven by a small compressor) to blow off any obvious dust. For the most part, that would prove to be enough, as the transparencies have been stored in archival quality filing sheets. I have a couple of brushes and lint-free cloths to deal with anything more stubborn.

The Nikon D-800 is set to live view and configured to shoot three bracketed frames (-1, 0 and +1 stop) each time I hit the release. I shoot in raw mode using aperture-priority auto-exposure and the lens set to ƒ/10. This is enough depth of field to cover curvature in the film but without bringing the diffuser into focus. With the average transparency, this gives a shutter speed of around 1/125th (I told you those LEDs are bright). I also use autofocus.

So the process is:

  • Dust off the slide, insert into holder and position in front of lens.
  • Check the slide positioning in live view.
  • Press the button.

Yep, that’s it. On occasion I use exposure compensation to deal with particularly unusual tonal distributions. But for the most part, the bracketing and the forgiving nature of the raw format gives me a perfectly usable image to work with.

Working just a couple of hours a day, within a few weeks I’d digitised thousands of images. Of course, there’s post-production work to do, including dealing with the odd scratch or dust mark. But it’s immeasurably faster than scanning.

Finally, my archive of images – some dating back more than 45 years – is in a form where I can actually use it. And I’m making many discoveries (as well as encountering a few mysteries). I’ll be posting here about some of these pictures over the coming weeks. I’ll also detail the special treatment needed with negatives, once you’ve got them into Lightroom.

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