If you’re reading this, chances are that you have a big box of slides sitting in your basement or attic. Or maybe several boxes. And you’re wondering if there’s an efficient and cost-effective way to turn those into digital files that can then be viewed and shared just like any other modern photos. You can share them with extended family on Facebook or Instagram. Or add them into some family tree research. Or turn them into a photo book. Or just know that they’re going to be in a format that your kids will be able to look at when they get older.
Whatever your plans are, they’re going to be much easier if the files are in digital format.
Getting there—going from analog film slides to digital image files—isn’t hard, but it does require some specialized equipment. There are several ways to tackle this particular issue, and it’s possible you might already have something on hand that will do it in the form of a flatbed scanner. Some, but not all, come with the ability to scan slides and film. And they can often give quite good results. It’s possible to get lens attachments for DSLR cameras that will do it, but there are a lot of variables there, and it takes some setup in both hardware and workflow to consistently get good results. You can send your box of slides off to a slide scanning service. The results will probably be good, but it can quickly get very expensive if you have a lot of slides to scan.
The method I’m focusing on here is using a dedicated slide scanner. I’ve covered some of the simpler and cheaper entry-level slide scanners before. The one I’m focusing on here, the PowerSlideX from Pacific Image, is a higher and more expensive model. If all your slides fit in a shoebox, this is probably not really a cost-effective option. It’s when you’re scanning larger numbers of slides that a scanner like the PowerSlideX comes into its own. That’s mainly because it has an automatic feeder designed to take up to 50 slides at once. So you can load it up and walk away and come back with 50 slides scanned. (At least, in theory; more on that below.)
Pacific Image PowerSlideX
The PowerSlideX is about the size of an old-school carousel slide projector. But instead of the round carousel deck, it has a rectangular magazine that holds up to 50 slides.
In terms of image processing, it has features you’d expect from a higher-end scanner like very high-resolution scanning, automatic and manual image processing, and automated dust and scratch removal.
But it’s important to note upfront that this is a dedicated 35mm slide scanner, and it only works with mounted 35mm slides. In other words, it won’t work with unmounted strips of transparencies, color negatives, or black and white negative film. (But you can switch it between positive, negative, and black and white, if you happen to have mounted negative or black and white images.)1 And it won’t work with medium-format or other film formats.
It also only works when connected to a computer. There’s a dedicated app for it called CyberViewX. It doesn’t come in the box on DVD–you’ll have to download the app from the website; there are versions for Windows and Mac, and it’s free.2
Using the PowerSlideX
Once the slides are mounted into the holder, you control the scanning process through the CyberViewX app.
The app is, shall we say, utilitarian. Which is to say that it does what it needs to do and has a lot of options and features, but it’s not especially intuitive or user-friendly. Some of the icons are not at all self-evident–at least, not to me, and I sometimes have to spend time hunting for functions or settings that are buried in places I wouldn’t expect them to be. But it doesn’t need to be pretty to do what it does.
Something to bear in mind is that the scanner has moving parts. The slide magazine moves from side to side, and the feeder mechanism goes in and out for each slide. So make sure to give it some space on your desk that won’t block its movement. It’s also quite noisy as the slides go in and out and, especially during the high-resolution scan and when calibrating, when it makes a sustained grinding sound. That’s something to bear in mind if you’re using it in a shared office environment or running it overnight when you go to bed.
Basically, it moves the magazine along one slide at a time and feeds that into the main part of the scanner. In there are the light source and sensor.
You can prescan or preview the images. You can do that as a batch or choose specific slides. With the prescan, you can then adjust the crop and color correction before doing the full scan. The prescan is also much quicker than a full-resolution scan. The point of the prescan is to give you a quick preview to use for selecting which images to scan, setting crop marks, and other processing tweaks.
The full-resolution scans are quite noisy and quite slow. You can choose the optical resolution of the scan–if you choose the highest, 10,000 dpi, along with the 16-bit option and output as a TIF image file, you’re going to end up with files around 1GB each. For most users, that is neither practical nor necessary. Chances are, you don’t need that high setting for everything, so it’s worth dialing back the resolution and output settings for any files where the absolute maximum isn’t necessary.
For most applications, the 2500 or 5000 dpi resolutions are going to give excellent, high-quality results while keeping manageable filesizes. For comparison, the 5000 dpi option produces output that’s around 30 megapixels, which is comparable to a high-quality DSLR or mirrorless camera. Any higher than that, and you run into diminishing returns because there’s a limit to how much more detail you can pull out of an analog film original. So I’ve found that the 2500 and 5000 dpi options are the practical ones for my typical usage, and they are the settings I’d recommend starting with if you’re scanning a box of old slides. I’ve got some side-by-side examples at 2500, 5000, and 10000dpi for comparison.
And, again, while it’s possible to output 16-bit TIF files, for most uses, choosing 8-bit is a much more practical option while still giving excellent results.
Scanning Speed. The scanning speed is highly dependent on what scanning and processing settings you choose. If you use the highest settings, it’s going to be very slow. But the reality is that most users won’t need the highest settings for most uses. It’s still not what you’d call blazing fast, though, so if you load up the auto-feeder, you’re going to have to wait a while for it to finish.
Jams. In my experience in using it, this is by far the weakest part of this scanner. And, for me, at least, it’s to the point of being a potential dealbreaker.
I’ve run into a recurring problem with jams. There’s a door on top that you can remove to get the jammed slides out. There’s a short video on how to unjam it here. What the video does not show is what to do if the slide slips down even deeper into the depths of the scanner, which I’ve found it to do sometimes. That requires a pair of long tweezers, feeding tongs, or forceps to fix.
A jam is one thing, but the biggest annoyance is that in clearing the jam, it typically throughs the magazine out of alignment, meaning that all the prescans are now out of whack. Which leads to another round of prescans before you can do the actual scans.
The slides I’ve been using are in good shape, without major warping or wear. Many of them are the cardboard mounts, though, which aren’t as stiff as the plastic mounts.
There’s a very basic troubleshooting sheet that comes with the scanner, and one of the things it suggests checking for jamming problems is that you’re using regular mounted slides rather than very slim mounts. If you’re using very thin-mount slides, there’s a separate tray you can buy to accommodate them (you can find it here. While I haven’t tried that, in my case, I’m not using <2mm slide mounts, so the regular magazine that comes with the scanner should work.
But because I’ve so consistently run into jams, it makes it very hard for me to recommend this scanner as much as I might like its potential and scanning results.
Another issue I’ve run into, although less commonly, is the problem of partial scans. From time to time, I’ll only get a slim part of an image. So I have to check the results and go back and try to rescan that image.
Magic Touch is the name they’ve given to the automatic dust and scratch removal feature. You can, of course, manually do this after the scan, but it’s an exceedingly tedious process.
It works better on standard transparency color film. Results can be inconsistent on Kodachrome and not very effective with black and white film.
Here are some side-by-side examples of the Magic Touch feature. These were scanned with every other setting the same aside from Magic Touch being on or off. No other touchups have been applied in post.
As you can see, while Magic Touch isn’t perfect, it does make a significant improvement on the usability of the image. And it creates minimal softness, which can be an issue with some other dust and scratch removal algorithms.
[caption id="attachment_35560" align="aligncenter" width="678"] Without Magic Touch[/caption]
[caption id="attachment_35562" align="aligncenter" width="678"] Without Magic Touch[/caption]
One pretty neat little feature is that small square on the front. I thought at first it was supposed to be a status screen or to show a preview of the screen. But it’s actually a mini lightbox. Sit a slide in there, and it automatically lights up to give you a better view of the slide. While not exactly a must-have, it’s a thoughtful little feature to include.
Here are some examples of old slides I scanned through, most of them from the 60s and 70s. There’s a mix of standard transparency and Kodachrome. These were scanned with automatic settings, and I’ve done no editing on them. And, of course, much depends on the quality of the original capture; if the original is out of focus, scanning it isn’t going to magically fix that.
You can click on each image to open a full-size version.
Things Worth Knowing
Using the PowerSlideX and its software is not as intuitive as it could be, and the instructions aren’t as clear and polished as they could be. Actually, strike that: the instructions are just plain poor. I’ve used a lot of scanners over the years, but it still took me a while to figure out how to get a simple scan out of it. The first problem was trying to get the magazine inserted into the machine correctly. There is an illustration on top of the unit on how to do this, but it’s oriented back to front (i.e., the diagram is looking from the back of the scanner, not from the front view, which is how you’re looking at the diagram). The magazine does have some small slot numbers etched into it from 1 to 50, but how hard would it be to add a simple arrow pointing to the way to insert it?3 The magazine has to go a particular way–with the slides on their side and the more open side pointing toward the larger part of the scanner. And you push it up next to the feeding mechanism.
Something to note is that the slide carrier is packaged inside the unit for transport. So don’t panic if you don’t see it in the box.
What It’s Best For
The PowerSlideX is aimed at users who have a lot of slides to scan. I fall into that category, and I like the quality of the scans that come out of it. But as much as I wanted to like this scanner, after having used it for a while, I really can’t recommend it.
I don’t have any problem with the scan quality. It gives you a lot of control over the settings and the results are high quality and consistent.
Maybe I had a bad copy, but in my experience, far too much of the time it just doesn’t work as it’s supposed to. (As always, your experience might be different, though.) The problem is the batch scanning feature, which is the defining feature of this scanner. The feeding mechanism is a very weak link, and, again in my experience, it’s an exercise in frustration because the feeding mechanism is just too unreliable. After trying over and over again to get it to batch scan, I could not get it to reliably finish the job without jamming. Sometimes it worked fine, but most of the time it couldn’t complete the batch. It was better if I kept it simple and did a straight scan of every slide from the first to the last. It was far less reliable if I first generated preview scans and then selected only some images for the job list.
That said, if you have a lot of slides you need to be scanned, it’s one of the few scanners available these days that’s designed with automatic batch scanning. And while not cheap by any means, it’s sensibly priced. If it didn’t jam so often, I’d consider it a very good scanner.
Where to Buy
You can find the Pacific Image PowerSlide X at B&H Photo. The MSRP is $1,199, but it is often available for a few hundred dollars cheaper than that.
- In the rare event you have mounted black and white positive transparencies, it will work with those, although you’ll probably get inconsistent results from the dust-removal algorithm. ↩
- I’ve been using it with v.5.18.08 on Mac. ↩
- I suspect the issue here is that it’s using a feeder made by another manufacturer that’s designed as a generic feeder for scanners and projectors. ↩