Cataloging colour slides in a digital world

The problem

Part of the problem

From around 1969 to 1991 I took slides, not photos. Probably earlier that that, as well. The ones I can find are stored in a filing box, in either the original slide box or in proprietary Bell and Howell slide cubes (small plastic boxes with up to 40 slides which one loads into a slide projector). Hundreds, maybe thousands, of slides and practically no way to actually find a specific image, or for anyone to even know that one has that image.

Some solutions

There used to be a service where you shipped all your slides to India, they got scanned for pennies a piece, and you didn’t pay for the ones you didn’t want. Unfortunately I never took advantage of that, and today it costs much more. So, no.

I have an ancient piece of equipment with a slide holder at the front and a bellows between the lens and camera, so in theory I could make high-quality copies of slides. I suppose I still could, if I got a mirrorless camera and a Nikon-Olympus adapter. But it’s still one at a time.

Then again, I have a Wolverine slide digitizer which has a four-slide holder. The images are 2512×1680 pixels (4.2 MP) which is not bad, but not high quality either. Plus, it takes a while to load 36 slides (right way round) four at a time.

Further, I found that my analogue photography was not that great. It was all manual focus, and I didn’t get to check exposure until weeks later. Also, slide film manufacturers had their own ideas regarding colour temperature, saturation and contrast. To make matters worse, there was a period when I was using a no-name film source which delivered both slides and negatives – and very dubious quality.

In other words, the vast majority of my slides would not be missed if they never saw the light of day again. The question was, how to find the exceptions?

I was not going to have enough patience (or money) for this project using any of these tools I’d found so far.

My solution

I found that if I put a box-full of slides on a lighted slide viewing tray and took a photo, I could discern the content of each one. Each slide is represented in about 400×600 pixels on the reference photo, which turned out to be plenty to see what’s going on.

After several accidents where I dropped a slide and knocked four others off the viewer, I devised a way to stand the viewer with the screen horizontal, and set up a tripod to hold the camera at the right distance. It was even possible to make out the slide number on the reference photo, so that I can pick out a single slide at a later date.

Horizontal back-lit slide viewer
set-up for reference photos
Sample reference photo

Triage

There were still a huge number of boxes of slides, so I made a further determination that no-one (including me) was going to be interested in pictures of palm trees at sunset, so, as best I could, I extracted boxes whose labelling indicated that there would be pictures of people in them.

As I placed the slides on the viewer, I threw out obvious duds, but I didn’t need to be exacting in this.

Now there was a more manageable number to deal with.

Individual slide copy

Photos of photos

Before each set of slides was returned to its box, I separated some of the better/more interesting ones, and made a copy. At first, I would run them through the Wolverine digitizer, but later I found that it was faster, and almost as good, to just photograph the slide as it lay on the slide viewer. I was already using a macro lens, so I could fill the frame with the slide image.  In fact, even my phone could take a decent photo of a slide.

Organization

The next issue was to find a way to catalog the images and be able to dig out a slide later on, if a more professional copy was required.

Catalogued slide storage

One folder per slide box

I started by printing a page of sticky labels with the folder name where I would store the reference photos from each slide box. I added a hand-written description (e.g. Xmas 1985) to the label, and stuck it on the slide viewing tray where it would end up in the reference photo. When I was done, the label got stuck on the slide box.

Even if I recorded a box full of slides in multiple sets, each reference photo included the same label.  All the reference photos and any individual close-ups got moved to the same folder after editing and cropping.

(Later on, I found that the lighting in the slide tray was better in the centre, so I would typically load only 16-20 per set, using the centre portion only, so there were now two reference photos per slide box.)

Folder name

There’s probably a better way to do this, but I named each folder NNNN YYYY main subjects. For instance: “0019 1985 Nemesis and Xmas” where this was the 19th box I’d catalogued, the slides were taken in 1985 and the subjects were Nemesis (our cat) and Christmas.

Image name

I didn’t bother too much with this, but I am considering renaming the individual image files “NNNN ### description”, but so far I haven’t done this!

Photo management

In the last step, I change the “date” of each copied photo to something close to the actual date the original slide was taken, and add tags (for instance, “Pets” on the pictures of Nemesis). So now, for I can bring up every pet picture I ever kept, and sort them by date, and the slides of Nemesis will come up in the 1985 group. Or, if I ever wanted to find the 1985 pictures of my wife under the Christmas tree, I could do that too. Or prove that I gave her a deep fryer that year.

Bottom line

While digitizing and cataloging every slide might be nice in some OCD kind of way, I think the compromise I came up with is good enough. I’ve prioritized people photos, I’ve already shared many of the better ones on social media, and they are stored with all of my other photos, catalogued and searchable. Should anyone get interested enough after looking through the digital copies, the original slide can be retrieved and a good (or better) copy can then be made.

Here’s a YouTube video showing the steps in the process:

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