Restoring Old Film/Slides

I was digging around in a box of old photos and slides and found some really nice pictures I took from the days before digital. It's incredible to think how many pictures have been taken that no one will see because they are not online. Maybe it's just as well for some of them as I've never been a big fan of pictures of myself, especially when I was young. My kids, on the other hand, are fair game. I mean, how am I going to put together a slide show for their weddings if I'm missing the first few years of embarrassing pictures? With that goal in mind, I decided I was going to see if I could figure out a way to easily digitize some of these old photos without spending a ton of money on a specialized negative/slide scanner.  I should also not that I have not seen many good reviews for slide/negative scanners unless you are willing to put out the big bucks.

I figured I might be able to get images into my computer using an old light table I bought years ago to sort slides, a tripod and my Sony A7R (36 megapixels) hooked up to my Macbook. I had to buy an extension tube ($50 on eBay) which gives my 50mm Summicron lens a macro feel and allowed me to get a 1:1 framing - that is, it allowed me to get the full 35mm frame on the camera's sensor (A7R has a full frame sensor).  I also bought a couple of small pieces of glass (I'm sure some purist will tell me that I should use some kind of high end optical glass made in some German lab by harnessing the optically pure tears of unicorns - but hey, $5 at Home Depot) to sandwich the frame so that it is completely flat.   The bonus to using glass is that you can move things around on the light table without having to worry about the film getting scratched up.

To capture the image I set the camera's ISO to it's lowest value (50 in this case), used an aperture priority setting with a pattern light meter setting and used a remote trigger to take the picture - I used Sony's remote camera app which can also be set up to load the images directly into Adobe Lightroom.  In this way, I get the full resolution of the original image digitized minimizing camera noise and any motion of the camera.  The question then becomes one of how much of the original data is being captured - does a 36mp digital sensor capture more than a traditional frame of film?  It's easy enough to test this by loading the frame into a program like photoshop and zooming in until the grain of the film is visible or the digital pixels become visible.  My experience so far would indicate that even with fine resolution slide film like Kodachrome 64, the film grain is visible before seeing the actual pixels.  While it's true that some of the noise may be from the digital sensor and not actually film grain, it's very, very close. 

At this point there is a ton you can do.  In the good old darkroom days, I would project the negative on to photographic paper. There were a number of techniques available to enhance contrast or correct the exposure over the entire frame or just certain areas to enhance or change what was originally captured by the camera.  Many of these techniques (and much more) are available using various software tools and while most of my darkroom experience was with black and white film (color processing in a darkroom is very complicated since you can't use safe lights) I now have the ability to work on color composition from these old photos as well.   This is kind of a big deal when you think about it.  How many times have you tossed a photo because it was too dark or the color was screwed up for whatever reason.  Take a look at the image below which was capture from a roll of Kodachrome 64 (circa 2001).  The first version is 'as shot' while the second image was color corrected as well as a few other simple enhancements like brightening up the faces a bit.

Original, straight out of the camera shot

After a few simple enhancements in Lightroom/Photoshop

Here are a few shots from the first roll of film I ever processed in a darkroom (maybe 1985).  After a little work in photoshop, these look quite good.  These were taken on a Nikon FG using Kodak Tri-X pan (400 ISO).  For these I had to use Photoshop to flip the negative to a positive.  Click the image to get a full size view:

Unfortunately I have a whole box full of this kind of stuff and it will take a while to process all of it.  On the other hand, just knowing how to digitize these images means that I can pull stuff out if I need it for something.   The other positive from this exercise is that it's got me using my old film camera again.  It was kind of fun to pull out the film camera at a shoot the other day and hearing the motor winder winding the film after every shot.  It's odd not being able to see the shot after you take it though, definitely something that will not be that easy to get used to again.  Anyway,  B+W film is still pretty cheap and Ilford sells prepaid mailers ($16) so you can just drop the film in the mail and get back prints/contact sheets or just a CD.  Small scans are included in the price but instead of spending extra money to get higher quality scans, I think I'll just digitize them myself.