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Electric Slide: Bring Your Photo Collection Into the Digital Age

Electric Slide
A reader asks: Well, it finally happened. My parents sold their house, and have ordered me to trash everything in their basement, including a couple boxes worth of slides spanning half a century. I would love to digitize them, but having tried to do it myself, I've realized it would take me forever. I know there are pricey bulk scanners you can buy (which scare me), and then also online services (which just bewilder me). My plate is full, so make a tough decision for me, and Just Tell Me What To Get!

Dear Reader:
We happen to be awaiting the onslaught of that particular tidal wave of unwanted responsibility ourselves, and so you have our pity and sympathy. Situations like these are a potent reminder of how difficult the transition from analog to digital can be, and of how many media formats many of us still have lurking around, yet to be addressed.

Your particular conundrum is, we believe, universal, and, thankfully, the market and technology have progressed enough in recent years to offer a palatable, if not ideal, solution.

As to dealing with presumably hundreds -- if not thousands -- of slides by hand? Fuhgeddaboudit. You are officially relieved of duty. The question here is really of scale, and, as you quickly learned while scanning negatives, slides or photos, the undertaking is intensely time-consuming. If you had a few dozen or a couple hundred slides, we might consider it a weekend project that you spread out over a few months. And, while some might suggest you drop several hundred or even a few thousand on a bulk scanner, even those have issues; they sometimes jam, tearing up slides and negatives, and, even when automated, require you to monitor their operation. In your case, we'd recommend going with a pro. A number of services, from local to national, can accomplish your task with ease, and offer excellent results -- all without putting too big a dent in your wallet. (Not to ruin the surprise, but your wallet is going to get at least a little scratched, no matter what.)

We always prefer supporting a local store where possible, so a first step for you would be to call around or visit any local photo places to check out their services and pricing. Then, compare those with the more or less standard services offered by the bevy of national mail-in providers to see how they fare. (We'll recommend a few we like below.)

For starters, you'll need to determine the format you've got on your hands: black-and-white or color slides; black and white or color negatives; 35mm, 110 or medium format (or some other standard size); color prints; and so on. Typically, prices vary depending on what is being processed, so go through what you have, and separate them into labeled Ziploc baggies or boxes. There doesn't seem to be a consensus to how much organization of your media is required on your part, though overall you'll get a better grip on how much things are going to cost if you take a little time to sort through everything first. Of the various services we looked at, some require that you count everything, and pay in advance while using specific shipping materials. Others require that you prepay a percentage in advance, and offer the opportunity to preview and discard up to 20 percent of the scans you don't like, free of charge, before the final payment. A couple services will go through unorganized boxes, sorting and scanning everything for you, but that can potentially set you up for an unexpectedly high bill in the end if you aren't careful. So, unless you're confident you have a good idea of what's in the box, we'd avoid the temptation to simply ship 'em out.

Once you've figured out what you have, you need to figure out what you want to do with your scans, and how quickly you'd like them. Will you just keep them tucked away in cold storage on a DVD or backup hard drive and forget about them, or do you intend to make prints and albums, perhaps even printing some large formats like 8x10? That decision will make a huge difference price-wise, as higher-resolution scans take more time to produce, and also use up more space (possibly requiring multiple DVDs or even a hard drive) . Of the national services we reviewed, the typical standard scan sizes were fine for creating normal-to-large prints (8x10 or larger), based on 2000 dpi (dots per inch) scans of slides and negatives, and 600 dpi photo scans. At those resolutions you could comfortably enlarge a slide or negative by seven times, and double the size of a printed photo, without seeing degradation in image quality. All of the mail-in services offer the ability to upgrade the resolution, usually for a few cents per scan. Still, unless you're going for pro quality, you shouldn't need to splurge. Oh, and if you were planning on sending prints but still have the original negatives, you'll get higher quality results by sending negs than you would by sending aged, tarnished (and possibly dusty, dog-eared or scratched) photos.

No matter what company you choose, expect scans to take at least a couple weeks. Depending on the volume of material you're sending, and how busy the service is, it may even require a month or two. For a set price, a few places offer 7- or 8-day processing for orders under 400 scans. Regardless of which service you choose, if time is a factor in your purchase then be prepared to plan ahead as bulk scans simply aren't an overnight business.

When it comes to technical requirements, you'll have plenty of decisions to make. Do you want your images' borders to be automatically cropped or not? Do you want your images to be color-corrected or not? (Virtually all services use Kodak ICE software, which removes scratches and dust automatically, and most offer basic retouching.) Would you prefer to have images processed as TIFF or JPEG files? (TIFFs offer better quality since they aren't compressed.) And do you want the final scans delivered as TIFFs or JPEGs? Most services will send your final scans on a set of CDs or DVDs, and some will put them on a hard drive for an extra (and correspondingly larger) fee.

Virtually all of the mail-in services will put your photos online as they scan them, and may require that you select the ones you want to keep. Check to see if the online galleries are shareable with others (who may also want to order prints), whether they're high- or low-resolution, and for how long they'll stay online. A few services offer to host your galleries for a set annual fee, or offer to transfer them to an online photo sharing site like Picasa. One service,, will host your photos indefinitely for free, and even allow you to organize images into galleries and upload photos from your digital camera.

If you're sending off hundreds of slides that you haven't previewed, odds are you're going to find ones that aren't worth keeping. Before you choose your service, check to see whether or not you'll be able to discard the scans you don't want. For instance, of the services we reviewed, only and allow users to discard up to 20 percent of their scans without being charged.

There are few times in life (thankfully) when a random stranger is entrusted with what is quite possibly the entire visual history of your family line stretching back generations, so we encourage you to not take this casually. Granted, houses burn down, basements get flooded, and crazy things happen that can put your material goods in peril without leaving your home. Still, we'd recommend erring on the side of caution when dealing with such personally valuable material. Before packing everything up, consider sending a test pack of slides or photos (ideally duplicates) to a couple of services in order to gauge their quality, customer service, timeliness and prices. If you're happy with their product, then send another large batch over. If you can manage it, you might want to break up your shipments so that, if anything were to happen, you won't have lost everything.

All of that paranoia aside, we checked out a handful of low-priced but high-profile sites that have excellent reputations, and should satisfy your needs easily. While most of them offer very similar services, they all vary enough in pricing or options to warrant comparison.


Scan Cafe
Fairly or not, ScanCafe has been vilified by many of the other mail-in scanning services because its business model is particularly New Economy; all of your slides and photos are boxed up, shipped to Bangalore, and then individually hand-processed. Not surprisingly, ScanCafe offers the cheapest prices by far, starting at 29 cents a pop for slides, negatives and photos (although B&W is substantially more expensive, at 68 cents). All of your slides are manually scanned and include color correction, cropping and dust/scratch removal. If you go with the Value Kit, which has a minimum order of $130, the per-scan price drops as low as 22 cents (but you lose the option to discard scans you don't like). Uniquely, Scancafe scans slides and negatives at a higher resolution (3000 dpi), however, unless you opt for a 19 cent upgrade, you'll only receive images as JPEGs and not TIFFs. Shipping and processing times are a definite factor with ScanCafe, with most orders taking four to six weeks. Still, Scancafe offers very high quality scans at very low prices.


Dig My Pics
The apparent archenemy of ScanCafe, based in Mesa, Arizona, DigMyPics got a tragic karmic comeuppance several years ago: After having publicly chided ScanCafe for not admitting to the supposed "danger" of shipping photos to India, DigMyPics' factory burned to the ground -- taking some customers' photos with it. Still, the company rebounded, and, by all accounts, offers a terrific product with excellent customer service and a real mom-and-pop feel. (The website especially is full of useful, conversational FAQs, how-tos, scanning 101 tutorials and the like.) Scans of slides, negs and photos are 39 cents a pop, and, for slides, DigMyPics uses the cutting-edge Nikon Super Coolscan 9000 instead of the older Nikon 5000 favored by the competition. Essentially, DigMyPics and ScanCafe offer very similar services. However, DigMyPics turns things around in as short as five business days, and is slightly pricier. ScanCafe is a little cheaper, but takes a long time.


Unlike the other services, which can accommodate virtually any film or negative size, Fotobridge exclusively deals with 35mm slides and negatives, as well as photo prints (and 8mm and 16mm film and video). Fotobridge is all about the streamlining; you order by lots (up to 250, 500, 1000, and so on), and pay a flat fee. At the low end, or $90 for 250 slides, it works out to a reasonable 36 cents per slide -- and a ridiculously cheap 2.28 cents for negatives and photos, although photos are scanned at just 300dpi (return shipping is included in the price). Upgrades allow for higher-resolution scans, the inclusion of untouched TIFF files, DVD slideshows, and so on. Low-res samples of your scans are available online for up to two weeks, but can be transferred free to an online account that has an annual fee after a trial period. Depending on the order size, scans are ready online within a few days of
being received.


Scan Digital
Somewhat like Fotobridge, Scandigital recommends popping everything into a box and letting them sort it out for you. Again, we recommend you at least do a little back-of-the-envelope math before doing so, lest you end up with a really high bill -- slides cost a steep 68 cents a pop, while negatives are 58 and photos, at a lower resolution 300dpi, are 48 cents. So if you inadvertently chuck 1000 slides in box -- which is as few as 30 rolls of film -- you're looking at a nice $680 surprise if you aren't careful (discounts are available for pre-paying for orders of more than 1,000). Nicely, Scandigital manually color corrects all your images in addition to dust and redeye removal, cropping and flipping them in the right orientation. And we especially love that your shots are available "for an indefinite time" for free (or presumably as long as it takes for the entire world to scan all its slides and this business model disappears). Ordinarily Scandigital claims they can turn scans around in days not weeks, however as of this post there is a 3- to 4-week backlog.

Tags: analog, cameras, DigitalConversion, features, justtellmewhattoget, NegativeScanning, photography, PhotoScanning, ScanningService, SlideScanner, top