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The Easiest Way To Scan Old Slides With A Flatbed Scanner

Christian Cawley 02-05-2012

how to scan slidesEveryone enjoys a good photograph, but over the last few years, images have migrated from paper to screen as portable electronic devices such as mobile phones and tablets have become more popular. It is now quite unusual to find anyone viewing a physical photo album, and many have spent hours scanning photographs to save to disc.


In the furious rush to digitize everything that was once physical, you will probably find that slides are particularly difficult to deal with. You can’t simply place them on a flatbed scanner and capture the secrets of long-forgotten events and family members, as the way the light from the scanner falls across the surface isn’t enough to produce a usable image.

This is why consumer electronics companies have started selling slide scanners – either small scanners that take individual slides or adapters that can be used with typical flatbed scanners. These devices are quite expensive, however, particularly for what might be a one-time only use. Fortunately, there is a cheaper solution, one that will cost you no more than the price of a sheet of white paper or card.

How It Is Done

By heading over to Don Maxwell’s website, you will find out that it is all a matter of angles. A small paper pyramid can be constructed (thick paper, thin card or even foam core board can also be used) to ensure that the light from the scanner is diffused around the slide, thereby illuminating the entire image, rather than a small portion.

how to scan slides

Sadly in many cases, standard flatbed scanners result in scans that are just too dark to be used, although you might find that one or two slides can be scanned that were photographed in brightly-lit environments. In most cases you need a device to act as a diffuser. Rather than spend money on an expensive but simple device, you might just use Don’s suggestion and create one out of a suitable material.


Making The Slide Scanner

Don Maxwell’s site also provides the necessary template that you should open in your browser and print to paper. If you’re using cardstock or foam, you might prefer to print it onto paper anyway, and then trace or create suitable markings on the preferred material.

scan slides

The most important thing for the paper version is that you fold and cut where instructed and glue the sides together; each side of the “backlighter” will have two flaps that need to be secured to reduce lost light and improve steadiness.

Scanning a Slide

When it comes to scanning a slide, the first thing you should do is clean it. A small damp cloth should be enough; often slides have been stored in boxes for years on end, and you want to scan the image, not the dust!


Next, find a means of securing it to the scanner. The best way, as demonstrated on Don’s site, is to use the sticky section of post-it notes or similar. Something like Blu-tack might be easy to get your hands on, too, enabling you to build a small “frame” to place your slides against. Anything you can re-use for multiple slides is ideal.

scan slides

The “backlighter” should be positioned so that the slide is at one end of the construct, which allows the maximum amount of light to be diffused into the image.

scan slides


All scanner software offers a preview function. I’ve used the Windows Fax and Scan tool that comes with Windows 7 for scanning this slide of a baby (me, as it happens) and it is important to use the preview so that not only can you confirm that the image is being picked up but also for you to prepare the main scan.

Due to the properties of light and dark, you need to select only the area within the frame of the slide in order to scan the image. This ensures that the image in the slide is not made too dark and thereby unusable (a similar effect occurs when using a video camera and a bright object near to the lens sends everything else into darkness.)

scan photo slides

When scanning, ensure you choose a lossless format such as Bitmap (.BMP) and select the highest DPI (dots per inch). As you can see here, I’ve set the scanner to capture the slide at 2400 DPI.


One final tip is that it is wise to perform the scan in a dark environment, not least to prevent the black lines on the “backlighter” from being picked up by the scanner.

Repairing The Image

After scanning, you will need to review the results and save them – if you’re happy!

how to scan slides

There are many applications that can be used to repair a photo, from the free options such as Windows Live Photo Gallery to the paid choices such as Adobe Photoshop. You might even choose from the increasing numbers of browser-based photo editors.

Most of these will include the necessary tools to repair a slide, the process of which is pretty much the same as removing blemishes and tears from a photograph. You might also find that you need to adjust the colour slightly.


Scanning old slides need not be expensive; as long as you have the right equipment, you can make sure that those old memories that were once captured on those small, projector-friendly photographs can be enjoyed once again.

It should come as some relief to many that a quirk of physics allows a standard flatbed scanner to be used along with a piece of white paper or card, and that any anomalies in the image such as red eye or optical oddities can be removed using software.

The results that can be achieved using the “backlighter” method might be good; they might be bad. What they should certainly be is good enough for you to decide whether or not the images you have scanned are good enough as they are or worthy of further investigation, perhaps with a dedicated slide scanner.

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  1. Mac Bentley
    October 30, 2019 at 12:42 am

    Didn't work for me. At all. Canon 490.

  2. Anuj Valmiki
    May 29, 2017 at 6:25 am

    Very useful article! Thanks.. Will try this out for the lots of old memories locked away in such slides!

  3. John Schmitt
    May 4, 2012 at 4:56 am

    As founder of http://www.GoPhoto.com, I've seen a lot of ways to scan slides, and this one is pretty neat. But, like all methods, it is very labor intensive, esp. when you include proper cleaning.

    OlPeculier's trick about using compressed air is 100% right-on. Our professional facility does just that. But, using skin oil to remove scratches is something that takes real care, as you don't want to leave oil smears on the media outside of the scratch, and more importantly, you don't want to ever get oil on the scanner itself, as subsequent images could be blurred.

  4. OlPeculier
    May 3, 2012 at 10:49 am

    For Bob's sake, don't start wiping down slides or negs with a damp cloth: get a can of compressed air and blast both sides with that.

    Small scratches can be removed by rubbing your nose and applying the grease to the slide too.

    • Christian Cawley
      May 3, 2012 at 11:32 am

      Excellent advise, thanks OlPeculier

  5. S. Mitchell
    May 2, 2012 at 7:57 pm

    This is a very timely post since I'm expecting to be asked to digitise a large collection of slides in the near future. I was considering buying a second hand slide scanner since these are just cheap enough to be viable, but I'll certainly experiment with this method first.

    I've also got lots of photos which will need to be scanned. If you have any suggestions for ways to speed up scanning photos in bulk with a flatbed scanner I'd be really interested in reading them.

    • Dennis Myers
      May 2, 2012 at 9:40 pm

      When I have a heavy duty scanning job, I use the batch scanning option of IrfanView in conjunction with my Canon MP560. You can pick an output folder and a naming convention with automatic increments. I scanned my old high school yearbook, which was about 175 pages cover to cover, in a little over two hours. Photos would be at least that fast since you wouldn't be wrestling with a hardcover book and flipping images. E-mail me dorectly if you have any questions.