How to digitise slides. Recommendations and working lists for the reproduction of a very special artefact

What can be expected from this section on photographing transparent images?

Many websites on the internet contain information about digital photography. They give practical advice on what to pay attention to when buying a camera, selecting pre-programmed settings or about how to rework a photograph. But they are often written in a language which is difficult to understand for those who do not work professionally with cameras or who are busy in the digital industry. These websites, discussion forums, blogs, and also books etc. publish numerous opinions, in many cases contradictory and questionable, and normally about taking photographs, rather than reproduction of slides and other items. To avoid time-consuming research, this part presents information on important aspects of photography which are useful for the reproduction of lantern slides. For some readers the points may be well known, nevertheless we cover all the relevant topics as these pages are also intended for beginners in digital photography.


In order to avoid misunderstandings about the potential of image scanners (see “Scanning slides”)  and digital still-cameras, it is necessary to be aware of their special capacities and to take a closer look at their advantages (or disadvantages) for the digitisation of slides. This section will deal with technical aspects related to the act of digitally photographing objects; it will indicate reference points for the selection of an appropriate still-camera and suggest accessory equipment to support the reproduction. While the processes of digital technicalities are described in the section “Technical processes”  and addresses all interested readers with a range of levels of expertise, the comments, remarks and recommendations on cameras are especially written for beginners as photography in itself is highly complex. The camera market seems like a jungle where one cannot see the wood for the trees, and commercial documentation is full of incomprehensible abbreviations and jargon. The selection of suitable equipment has, of course, to be made by the buyer her/himself, but useful parameters are given here to make the choice less time-consuming and more enjoyable. The information given can be sometimes quite theoretical as a preliminary understanding of the activity is necessary to take proper decisions concerning methods, tools and accessories. Practical hints given by experts can be expected in the sections that deal with the preparation for and the taking of digital photographs. More suggestions on how to photograph slides and practical advice can be found in section “ Practical examples of accomplished digitising projects” (for very detailed project descriptions see e.g. no. 3.1 (Richard Crangle) and 3.5 (Ine van Dooren, Roy Webster).  Therefore, the section “4. The photographing of slides” will be limited to a few technical questions (4. “Some reflections on photographing techniques and shooting parameters”).


This section owns many interesting theoretical and technical aspects to older books on photography (see section “Bibliography”).  This is because many aspects in digital photography derive from analogue photography. As Fotoempfehlungen, published by the Swiss conservation institution Memoriav, states: “The technique for the analogue reproduction of photographic documents, used since the invention of photography in 1839 [sic], is based on several simple principles: quantity of light, kind of light, contrast of the motive and selection and treatment of the emulsion. The pursued target is always the same: to preserve the characteristics of the original, i.e. colour gamut or grey scale, contrast and hue.” (Jarczyk 2017, p. 30)


New books on digital photography were consulted to understand what actually changed with the switch from emulsion and grains to sensor and photo-diodes. The shift is not radical as the manufacturers of the new camera types did not dare to break with tradition. The real difference is that the shots taken can be checked almost instantly and time-scale in that it is no longer necessary to wait for results. And it needs less instinctive feeling and long-time experience to activate the shutter release as the photograph can be retaken immediately, and as a consequence no film material is spoiled.


What was left out from the consulted photography books was their detailed explanation of how to make the most of the many functions a digital still-camera offers: the best methods to frame, focus, illuminate etc. an object are left aside, except when they are of special interest for the reproduction of slides. It is the photographer’s responsibility as to how s/he takes pictures, and conforms to the institution’s ethical standards. It is worth noting that how to handle a digital still-camera is not described either as leaflets accompanying the acquired equipment and manuals about photographing do this much better. Furthermore because handbooks on post production are numerous and widely available, notes on this topic are also mainly not discussed, expect for aspects which are relevant for the argumentation.


The following information aims to be as neutral as possible. It normally leaves out names of products and manufacturers, except in reports written by members of the working group (see section “Practical examples of accomplished digitising projects”)  on their projects; this decision is their responsibility. As this practical section will show, the described projects have a lot of deontological facets in common and share basic camera settings, but as each professional photographer has her/his own ideas about how to take the best picture they have different preferences for technical elements and different opinions on digital standards. Therefore, in this text, only general recommendations are added. The projects organised by experts may give ideas about what to do with the collection and how to approach its digitisation. The bibliography and the section “Links to related websites“  allow to find further details on the subject.


Although the following section will mainly concentrate on photographically digitising slides, some elementary aspects concerning the photographing of optical lanterns are also mentioned as the apparatus and the slides belong together.


The sections will concentrate on:

  1. what to pay attention to when choosing the essential components of a still-camera (“The digital camera and its components”);
  2. further equipment needed to take digital images of slides and lanterns plus accessories (“The digital still-camera’s accessory ‘equipment’”);
  3. some useful advice when digitising slides with a still-camera (“Practical hints given by photographers“).


In addition, text 4 of Sub-Level B5 (“Recommendations and experience reports”) titled “Four models how photographing of slides can be done” give suggestions on standards that can be achieved, while text 3 titled “Practical examples of accomplished digitising projects” present eight projects in which slides were mainly digitised with the help of the still-camera.