How to Digitize Childhood Memories Trapped in Film

Photography began to go digital about 30 years ago, so if you’re older than that your relatives probably documented a portion of your childhood on film-based formats, like slides or prints made from negatives. Or maybe you have stacks of your old slides and negatives from long-lost pictures boxed up in the attic or garage. While not quite as simple as scanning old photo prints, digitizing that film rescues family history from outdated media and makes it easy to share the restored memories. Here are a few ways to get the job done.

The Smartphone Method

As with prints, you can “scan” a slide or negative with your smartphone by taking a picture of it or using one of the many slide/film-scanning apps. For best results, make sure the original is free of dust, and evenly illuminate the transparency from behind. An inexpensive scanning kit — which provides the backlight as well as a place to rest your phone for a more stable shot — is an option.

Kodak’s Mobile Film Scanner kit ($40 or less) is one option. It works with the free Kodak Mobile Scanner app for Android or iOS. Just put a slide or negative on the battery-powered LED backlight, then focus the phone’s camera on it from above and snap a photo. Depending on your phone and its camera(s), however, you may have to experiment with the distance and focus to capture crisp images.

Kodak’s cardboard film scanner kit works with film negatives and slides, but you may have to fiddle with your phone camera to focus properly.Credit…J.D. Biersdorfer

Rybozen makes a similar smartphone film scanner. You can also make your own slide scanner out of common materials to capture images with your smartphone or stand-alone camera with a macro lens for close-up focus. YouTube hosts several videos on the topic — just search for “DIY film scanner” or similar wording to find several guides from do-it-yourself enthusiasts.

Photomyne’s SlideScan inventive app ($40 for two years; a free trial is available) is another option. You hold the slide in front of a laptop displaying a plain white web page and take a photo of it; the software automatically enhances and crops the resulting image, or you can make manual adjustments. Photomyne’s separate FilmBox app does the same for negatives. FilmLab ($6 a month) is another smartphone scanning app that has Windows and Mac versions.

Photomyne’s SlideScan app captures, crops and saves the image when you hold the original up to a backlight and press the shutter button.Credit…Photomyne

Smartphone scanning has some downsides. You don’t get the highest-quality results, and it can be tedious if you have many images. But it’s relatively inexpensive.

The Scanner Method

Smartphones can be all-purpose devices, but using hardware designed for a specific task often brings better results. If you have boxes of transparencies to convert, investing in a compact film scanner (like those from Wolverine or Kodak) can simplify and speed up the process for around $150; Plustek makes higher-end models.

A flatbed scanner that can handle film along with prints and documents is another option, like the Epson Perfection V600 (around $250 online). Wirecutter, the product review site owned by The New York Times, also has scanner recommendations.

If you already have a flatbed scanner for documents and photos, check your model’s manual to see if it can handle slides and film negatives, as some include that ability. If your scanner is not equipped to handle transparencies, you can make your own adapter out of silver cardboard to diffuse the scanner’s light and illuminate the image; Make: magazine has a free template and instructions online, as do other D.I.Y. sites.

Film originals are tiny, so you need to scan them at a high resolution for quality digital photos. This slide was scanned at a resolution of 3,200 pixels per inch, which makes it suitable for printing, too.Credit…via J.D. Biersdorfer

And be sure to scan the images at a high enough resolution for them to look good at an enlarged size and for printing; 3,200 pixels per inch is common.

The Professional Method

If you don’t have the time, patience or equipment, sending photos out to a media-conversion company like Memories Renewed, ScanMyPhotos or DigMyPics is another option. Most shops charge by the slide — prices can start around 21 cents each.

A good professional photo-scanning company converts those boxes of slides and negatives into folders of high-quality digital images.Credit…via J.D. Biersdorfer

For your money, you get high-quality images. Some companies let you preview the results and even skip a certain number of dud shots in your collection. Your originals are returned after the scanning is done and your digital copies are ready.

Get ’Gram-worthy

Slides and negatives can fade over time, especially if they were stored improperly. Many film-scanning smartphone apps also include basic editing tools to adjust color and cropping. And you can always use Apple’s Photos and Google Photos for mobile and desktop for fast, free photo-editing to get those pictures ready to share.

If you’ve captured your slides and negatives on your phone, you can use photo-editing tools to further clean up and enhance the images.Credit…Google; Apple

Share and Save Space

All the time, effort and (possibly) money that you put into digitizing the old film bring another benefit besides easy-to-share photo files. You can store them in a secure place online as a backup — and as the new archive if you decide to part with the originals during spring cleaning.

When you finally get your old film scanned, uploading the files to a storage site (like Google Photos, shown here) makes it easy to share the pictures — and provides an online backup for those memories.Credit…Google Photos