Copying Old Slides, Negatives and Prints With a Digital Camera

Many people are amateur family historians, collecting, organizing and sharing historical images of their ancestors with current (and future) generations. The challenge is making good copies of old pictures when you don't have a scanner, especially for film negatives and slides (transparencies).

Changing of the Guard at Windsor Castle
circa 1978


In a recent article, Rob Sheppard diagrammed an inexpensive and efficient method for creating a "copy stand" to photograph old slides and negatives. All you need is a constant light source, a digital camera with a macro lens or macro setting, a tripod and a holder for the film. You can read how to do this in Rob's article here: 

Easy Way to Digitize Old Slides and Other Film

If you don't have a scanner to copy printed photographs (even an office scanner works), you can use your digital camera again. Just as for film images, you need a constant light source. I find that indirect window light works best. This is a window on the shaded side of your house or any window on a cloudy day. You may need to adjust the white balance in the camera to cloudy to compensate for the blue cast of the indirect light.

You need a flat surface you can place next to the window and a tripod to hold your camera with its lens directly over the print. Just as Rob mentions with slides, it's important that the back of the camera is parallel to the print to avoid distortions. If your print is very large, you can place it on the floor next to a sliding glass door so the light falls directly on the image.

Copying the printed image
Window is to the left

Use a large piece of black mat board or smooth fabric beneath the prints you are copying. The black surface blocks color casts and light flare from the surrounding surfaces. Don't use white for the background as it will bounce light across the surface of the print (particularly glossy ones), causing a haze that reduces contrast.You may need to use a piece of white paper or card opposite the window to reflect light onto the print so there is even illumination across the image.

Windsor Castle Gardens
circa 1978

If you would like more help with copying old pictures and restoring them, check out this new book: Photo Restoration: From Snapshots to Great Shots by Robert Correll.