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Ten tips to know before scanning your family photo slides

I once saw a sign hanging in a store manager's office. It said something to the effect of this:

"If you don't have the time to do it right the first time, how do you expect to find the time to do it twice?"

These are words to live by and ones I recently told myself after wasting a whole day scanning slides that I ended up having to re-scan. It all started a few weeks ago when my father gave me an old box of photo slides he had picked up at a yard sale. He always keeps an eye out for historical items for me, knowing I'm a history junkie and this was a great find. When I went to visit him, we looked through a few, holding the slides up to a light and straining to identify the subjects because most of them weren't labeled. I was excited to see all the old cars from the fifties in the few slides I sampled. We both wanted to see what the rest of the slides, so I ordered a digital slide scanner from Amazon, and when it arrived a couple days later, I set all my other projects aside and started scanning. The first day, I scanned about 800 slides. Then I took the memory card out of the scanner and popped it in my computer and it was then that I realized I did a few things wrong, which I'll try to help you avoid if you're planning on taking on the task of scanning your old family slides. So, let that be the first tip:

1) Always scan a few slides as a test and view the files before scanning them all

How I wish I had done this! I could have saved myself a lot of time and confusion, but like I said, I scanned 800 slides that all ended up having to be re-scanned and I certainly didn't have time for that, but we do learn from our mistakes, so this error taught me a lot.

Choose a few slides to use in your "trial scans" and scan each one right side up, upside down, and rotated 180-degrees. Then open the images on your computer to observe the various outcomes.

This collection of slides consisted of a couple dozen little boxes, each containing about 20 slides, plus four trays filled with assorted slides. I started scanning them one by one and the scanner assigns a number to each scan, the same way your phone or camera creates a filename for each photo stored. The number is displayed on the screen of the scanner, so I scanned each of the slides and then affixed a small removable label to the border of each slide, writing the scanner's image number on it. That number would correspond with the filename when I uploaded the images and this way I could easily find the slide later, if necessary. (The filenames are actually IMG00001, IMG00002, etc., but I simply wrote "1", "2", etc. on the labels). So my second tip is this:

2) Label the slides with the number from the filename to make them easy to organize and find later

Remember, slides aren't as easy to view as photographs, so you can't just pick one out of a stack easily. If you find you need to re-scan a slide later, you want to be able to find it easily without having to look at every single slide again, so these little labels are very helpful. Of course, you could just write on the slide but I wasn't comfortable defacing items that haven't been modified in the last 50-60 years so I used these labels, which are can easily be removed without damaging the slide.

Before we go on, let's backtrack a bit. As usual, with genealogy we have to step out of our modern world, and consider the circumstances back in a time when things were quite a bit different. This will help maximize the value of our findings. These slides were produced around 1960, and back then, slides and projectors were used to view photos. Yes, they had cabinet cards back in late 1800's, so they did have the ability to print photos, but in the late 1950's and early 1960's society was going ultra-modern. Keeping up with the Joneses was the name of the game and people loved to invite their friends over to share photos of their vacations, parties, and other events they photographed. Instead of posting pics on social media, they would load the slides into the projector, which would project the image onto a screen or the wall. They would advance through the slides telling their stories. It was the original slideshow presentation. When the slideshow was over, sometimes the slides didn't all end up back in the right boxes and slides got all mixed up, which leads us to my next tip:

3) Organize the slides before you start scanning

Viewing individual slides is like viewing one piece of a jigsaw puzzle. The rest of the set, though, the other pictures taken on the same roll of film, would give you a better understanding of the events and memories that were so carefully preserved by whoever took the pictures.

Maybe only one photo in the entire roll of film indicates where the photos were taken. That one photo might help you identify several other unlabeled and otherwise unidentifiable photos if they are mixed up. When I started, I assumed the boxes contained sets, but I was wrong. Almost all the boxes were filled with an assortment of photos from different years and places, yet the majority of the photos were unlabeled with no indication of where or when the photo was taken.

Even if nothing is written on the slides, there are other ways to match them the sets. The good thing about photo slides, is that Kodak (or whatever company processed the film), usually imprinted the month and year onto each slide. Use a magnifying glass if you have trouble reading an imprinted date, because these dates are your only chance to identify a lot of unlabeled photos.

Keep in mind, cameras didn't have timestamps back then, so the date imprinted on the slide was when the film was developed. The photos could have been taken in that month or they could have been taken months or even years before the imprinted date. At any point after the film was used up, people took it to the drug store or mailed it in to be developed. Sometimes people wanted their film processed fast, but sometimes they waited months before getting film developed. Either way, seeing one's photographs was a much slower process than it is today and was quite costly, too. It reminds me of how much easier it is today, when we can view, retake, delete, crop, touch-up, and send photos right from our phones. In the old days before the advent of digital photography, people didn't even know if they captured the moment until they got the film developed. I remember anxiously awaiting the day my photos would be ready, rushing to pick them up and pay for them, only to find the lighting was bad, someone blinked, or worse, I missed the shot altogether.

In addition to printing the month and year on each slide, the developer usually numbered each frame, too, which is a BIG help in grouping the photos. Remember, rolls of film come in various sizes. Typical rolls have enough space for 12, 24, or 36 pictures (exposures). When the film is developed, the first photograph taken would be frame #1 and in most cases, you would find a "1" near the imprinted date on the slide's cardboard sleeve. You probably won't find any higher than 36 in any given set.

Incomplete sets with missing frames are not uncommon. They could have been wasted photos that were discarded, which was fairly common, or maybe some were good photos that were given away to loved ones. Who knows?

On the other hand, you might find multiple slides that have the same year, same month, and same number. Although it can be a little confusing, there are still ways to distinguish between the sets properly, which is my next tip:

4) Use markings to differentiate between slides with the same date and frame number

On these slides dated "May 1962", there are two marked as frame #2 and two marked as frame #3. That means the photographer developed more than one roll of film that month, which wasn't uncommon. If you come across this, you will have to look for other clues in order to separate the two sets. In this example, I noticed that in one set, the date was lightly imprinted and barely visible, while on the other set the date was deeply imprinted. In some sets, the numbers were printed in red, and in other sets they were printed in black. In some sets the date is printed with ink and in others it was imprinted into the slide. If there are no distinguishable differences in the slides, you'll have to rely on the content. Maybe one set has mostly beach scenes, while the other has jungle scenes. Just get them all in sets using the clues you have.

5) Clean your slides before scanning (This is critical!)

A few years ago, a cousin sent me a memory stick loaded with old family photos, for which I am eternally grateful. I was thrilled and cherish the photos dearly, but many of them had black specks and what looked like hairs on the images. He's a clean-cut, intelligent man, so I was baffled as to why the pictures were so dirty, assuming he scanned the old photos on a standard flatbed scanner. I spent a lot of time editing his photos to remove the marks from each one.

It wasn't until I scanned 800 slides and opened them on my computer, that I realized what the problem was. When I zoomed in, I saw the same specks and the tiny hair-like fibers that are not easily visible to the naked eye. Mind you, my scanner was brand new, fresh out of the box and the slides looked shiny and clean at a glance, but once the light is behind them and the image is magnified, each tiny speck of dust becomes a major flaw in the photo. This is why I had to re-scan all 800 of these photos and it took longer the second time because I did it the right way so I wouldn't have to do it for a third time.

I'm sure kits are available for cleaning slides but I had a pack of removable adhesive tabs, which are perfect for removing the tiny particles of dust without scratching or harming the slides. With these I dabbed the dust from the front and back of each slide twice before scanning them and what a difference it made! See for yourself. Click the image on the left to enlarge it if you can't already see the specks of debris in the sky. Then, compare it to the clean sky in the second scan (at right):

This is a critical step, especially if you're planning on printing any of the photos. Or maybe you don't want whoever sees "dirty" photos to wonder just how dirty your scanner was, not realizing they're just tiny specks of dust and fibers from God knows how long ago stuck to the old slide.

6) Scan the slides upside down if the lighting is bad

Notice, also, the difference in brightness. Maybe it's just my device that does this, but I found that scanning the slide upside down or right side up makes a difference in the brightness and contrast of the photo. Notice the difference in the images below. in the image on the left, the slide was scanned right side up. When it was scanned, it had a backlight effect, virtually erasing the buildings in the background, so I turned the slide upside down (not flipped it, but rotated it 180-degrees) and re-scanned. As you can see, in the photo on the right, the difference is astonishing. The foreground came out darker but at least the buildings in the background are visible. Of course, I had to rotate the image on my computer, but each one has to be edited and cropped anyway, so it wasn't really much extra work. Even if you're not planning on editing or cropping them, you can always right-click on a photo file and click "Rotate left" or "Rotate right" to rotate it without even opening the file.

7) Scan the FRONT of the slide - not the back

When editing your scanned photos, recognizing and flipping backwards images isn't as easy as rotating an upside down image, so this tip is an important time-saving one, too. Scanning the wrong side of the slide will result in words and numbers that are backwards, cars driving on the wrong side of the road, and scenery that is in selfie mode. If you're going through the trouble of scanning slides, you probably want the photos to be accurate, so this simple step in the scanning process avoids a lot of confusion and saves a lot of time.

The front of the slides are very smooth and glossy, while the backside is dull and somewhat textured. Notice the difference between the front and back in these next photos. The front of the slide is shown at left and the back of the slide is shown at right. With my scanner, slides need to be inserted with the glossy side up. If you have a different scanner, the test run (Tip #1) will help confirm which way you need to insert your slides.

8) Keep the scanner itself clean

My scanner came with a little tool for cleaning the display area inside the unit. It is important to wipe it frequently because if dust or hairs are on the display area, they will appear on each photo you scan. I went as far as putting tape over the openings for inserting slides when I'm not scanning to prevent dust or dog or cat hairs from getting inside of the unit. Also, be careful not to scratch the interior display because the same scratches will appear in all your scans.

9) Find the right photo editing software

Use an app such as Microsoft Photos (free from Microsoft) to crop, straighten, or adjust your photos. Yes, other apps do these things but Microsoft Photos has a feature called "Spot fix", which allows you to blot out any dots or blemishes that may appear in the photos even after you've cleaned the slides. It's great for touching up your photos or even repairing photos with minor damage. You can download Microsoft Photos from Microsoft for free. Then, in order to open and edit a photo in Microsoft Photos, right click on the image file and click "Open with" and then click "Choose another app". In the window that opens (example shown here), check off the box that says "Always use this app to open jpg files". Then select the "Photos" app and click "OK". Then, you can just double-click on the file and it will open in the Photos app automatically. To change the default app back to another program or app, follow those steps again and choose the app of your choice instead of Photos.

10) Create an index of all the slides to help identify sets

I used an Excel Spreadsheet to create an index of all my slides. That way, I can use the sort feature to sort by year, month #, and film #, which has been a tremendous help in identifying many of the slides I would have never been able to identify without using this method. I have already shared some from this set in my most recent blogs, but I have lots more to share, so stay tuned if you're interested in seeing some great slides from the late fifties and sixties!

If you are familiar with Excel, feel free to use my template, below. Otherwise, you can print the worksheet and write out the index by hand. If you are printing out the worksheets, I would recommend using one page per each 1-2 sets of photos, since you will have to sort them manually. Note: There are columns for the month and year but also for "Month #" to help with sorting the items in ascending order. If I'm not explaining that clearly enough, I think you'll see what I mean when it comes time to put the list to work for you.

Slides Summary Spreadsheet
Download • 11KB
Slides Summary Worksheet
Download • 174KB

So those are my ten tips for scanning your old family slides. If you have more tips, tell us in the comments below! I don't have all the answers, but I wanted to share what I've learned in hopes it helps you.

Subscribe for more and stay tuned for more helpful genealogy tips and be sure to visit my Genealogy Dashboard for thousands of free resources by resource type, by Country, by State, by County or by Town.


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