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New Year’s Resolution

For photographers with years of accumulated images, there's no time like the present for curating your archives
Overwintering Monarch Butterflies by George Lepp

Overwintering Monarch Butterflies. Now, much attention is being paid to the monarch butterfly’s annual North American migration between Canada, the U.S. and Central Mexico. But in 1978, when Lepp photographed hundreds of millions of monarchs at their overwintering site in Michoacán, he was among the very first to do so. Today, the numbers of this critical pollinator have greatly diminished. Lepp has preserved these important Kodachrome II images in digital format by way of a high-resolution camera copy using the 50-megapixel Canon EOS 5DS R and Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens, employing a process described in this column.

I’ve recently taken up a project that has been weighing on me for 15 years, and I’m guessing that there are a lot of this column’s faithful readers in the same boat. I stopped using film in 2002, when the Canon EOS D60 became available, so I have a collection of transparencies and black-and-white negatives — I’m estimating well over 100,000 — acquired over a period of some 40 years. As I’ve moved around the western U.S., they have moved with me, demanding their space, muttering in the background, sending up ghosts of the past, craving attention. Are they treasure or are they trash?

There are three reasons why you and I need to buckle down and edit our old images, digitize those worthy of retention, and discard the rest.

  1. Kathy Said So. We as photographers are not archival! We will reach our expiration date at some point, and our survivors will be left to deal with a big liability: all those drawers and/or boxes of images stuffed in a closet or stacked in the garage. In the case of professionals, these images could be the subject of expensive court proceedings to determine their sure-to-be-inflated value. I can only imagine the aggravating and expensive problems my wife will face if I predecease her and leave all these containers of images sitting around. Unlike Kathy, I’m not getting any younger; I’ve got my orders.
  2. Longevity. Slide film isn’t all that stable. Kodachrome, which is black-and-white based, is probably the closest to being archival, and Fujichromes are a close second. In the latter years of my film days, I shot exclusively Kodak E100 VS film, and I have no idea “yet” about its longevity. But heat, dust and moisture will easily destroy any slide, and that’s another reason to get those transparencies digitized. Note that black-and-white film is very stable but is still susceptible to moisture, scratches and curling because it is not protected by slide mounts.
  3. Storage. My film images are stored in hanging page files that are supposedly archival but which actually have demonstrated a limit to their viability. The file boxes have lids to protect the contents, but multiple moves have tested their structural integrity. Of course, they take up a lot of space, especially compared to digital files that can be stored by the thousands on a single computer hard drive.

The Project

OK, now we know why we need to undertake this project, but how should we do it? There seem to be so many options, and some of them are expensive. Here’s a plan.

Organize By Subject. Most of my slides (and digital images) are organized by a set of letter/numerical codes that correspond to specific subjects. So, for example, all of my slides of bald eagles are grouped together, no matter at what time over the years they were captured. Every image of Yellowstone I’ve ever taken carries a code for location Yellowstone. Many hobbyist photographers have organized their images chronologically, but that makes it very difficult to select the very best images of a particular subject. Before you begin to edit, you’ll need to group similar subjects together.

Edit And Edit Again. Now you’re ready to select the images that are worthy of immortality among your digitized files. One would like to think that at the end of each project or trip, the resulting slides would have been edited and the good separated from the bad. The typical scenario in my studio back in the day would have been my coming back from a shoot, rushing the film to the processor, reviewing the results a few days later, and quickly gleaning the best images to send to the client or stock agency. The out-of-focus and junk images were quickly discarded, but the remainder were coded and stuck into 20-slide hanging pages for “future” editing. The future is now.

I estimate that this first edit will reduce my slide count to 10 to 15 percent of the originals. A second edit will weed them further to yield the images that deserve to be kept and digitized, due to their uniqueness, historical value or extraordinary composition. This is really hard to do; we all have emotional attachments to our photographs. As a professional, my criteria must also consider what is already in my files, and what is available at image stock agencies. In this age of micro stock, will it be worth the time to prepare them for the agencies when they pay pennies for their use? For those editing only for your own hobby, the decision may be a matter of keeping images that are technically good and have significance to you and your family. And we all need to identify and preserve, especially, those landscape, wildlife, architectural and other subjects that may no longer exist.

Digitize. OK, you’ve narrowed them down. Now it’s time to convert those silver grains or dye spots into ones and zeroes. I’m not calling this process “scanning,” because there are other methods.

I own four quality scanners. From Nikon I have the venerable Nikon CoolScan 5000 35mm scanner and the CoolScan 8000 that will handle medium format images, both with upgraded software from SilverFast. (Nikon no longer supports its scanners, and the software that came with the scanners will not work with today’s computers.) I have a Plustek 35mm scanner that is higher in resolution than the Nikon 5000 but slower. And finally, there’s a Canon flatbed designed to scan flat artwork; it has the capability to do a batch of images at one time. The Canon is faster and has pretty good resolution, but doesn’t extract information in bright and dark areas as well as a film scanner does. All of these will work, but they take a long time. I think there’s a better way.

Digitizing In The RAW

Following a fruitful conversation with my colleague Mike Verbois of Media 27, I’ve now set up my own slide conversion system using a digital camera, a copy stand, and a light source. I simply photograph the slides to gain a digital file.

The sensors in our digital cameras, at 20MP or higher, have excellent resolution. In RAW format, you capture a lot of detail and have the ability to hold information in light areas and open up dark areas. For this project, add a lens that can focus to near-life-size (1:1 or 1x) with accessories such as extension tubes.

To maintain the camera in a stationary position above the light source, use an inexpensive copy stand or tripod that works at a fairly low height.

To illuminate the slides or negatives that are being copied, you’ll need a bright and even light source, preferably LEDs, because their light temperature is close to daylight. I found one I like with very uniform light, the Artograph LightPad, in a 6×9 inch version ($68).

You’ll need to come up with some way to hold the slide mount or negative in place; I’ve borrowed a slide holder from a film scanner and masked it off on the light box to eliminate any flare. Use canned air to blow the dust off each image. Be sure to use a cable release so as not to add vibration to the camera. It might be best to work with Live View mode (if available) to see what you’re getting on the back of the camera; use a loupe on the LCD to ensure the focus. My exposure is usually about 1/8 sec. at ƒ/8.

Photograph the slide/negative at 1x in RAW format, then bring the file into editing software such as Lightroom or Photoshop. It will take some time to clean up dust spots, open shadows and hold back highlights in the digital file. But the end result is excellent digital captures and new life for those old images.

Going The Extra Mile And Dollar

I’ve embellished my system a bit so I can work more quickly, and that will cost some extra dollars. I’m using a CamRanger and my iPad, so that I can work remotely to center the images, check exposure and perfect the focus without touching the camera. With the CamRanger/iPad setup, I can achieve a higher magnification perspective to view the actual grain of the film being photographed. And I’m using my 30-megapixel Canon EOS 5D Mark IV or 50-megapixel EOS 5DS R as my capture tool to achieve maximum resolution on the transparency or negative. (Know that this is far more resolution than needed, and a 20MP camera will do just fine.) The files generated by these two cameras are quite large, and after doing the cleanup work in Photoshop, I bring the file down to 8-bit from the 14-bit RAW that I started with.

All of this is labor intensive when you have a lot of images to digitize, but it’s much faster than working with a scanner that takes several minutes per image. I believe that these are the highest-quality digitized copies of slides I’ve ever been able to achieve, and well worth the trouble and initial investment. Some photographers have outsourced this process to local or foreign services with reasonable results, but I am not ready to take the risk of losing anything in transit.

Now, Get To Work

I have to say that, now that I’m finally seriously into this project, I’m enjoying it. There’s the chance to review a large collection, to relive the feelings of joy, risk, discovery and awe experienced by my younger self when photographing in locations that others had not yet discovered, and to rescue from oblivion some of my most unique work. And there’s the satisfaction of knowing that I am freeing up storage space and finishing an assignment that has been nagging at me for years.

Bring on winter! I’m not a skier, so I’ve got plenty of time to spend traveling around the world, right here in my office, as the snow falls.

One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.