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Consumer Slide Scanners: To Buy Or Not To Buy?

November 28, 2011

It’s the holiday season once again. Many of you may go to a store like Best Buy and find a small device called a “Slide Scanner” on the shelf.

Hmmm. You say to yourself. I’ve got a lot of slides in my closet that I’d like to digitize. Perhaps I should spend $100 and buy one of these things.

Our best professional advice here at Priceless Photo Preservation: Don’t.

Don’t just take our word for it. With our side-by-side comparison below, you’ll be able to see for yourself the huge difference between these consumer slide scanners and the professional ones we use.

First, a little vital information: These mostly plastic devices aren’t really scanners. They are digital cameras that take 7 megapixel photos of your slides when you insert them in the holder and pass them through the apparatus.

As such, they are not very large files and their resolution is very poor, compared to true photo, negative and slide scans. Typically, the JPEGS generated by our scanners (after we convert them from uncompressed TIFFS) are about 700-800 megabytes in size. The consumer scanners are less than 2 mb, or roughly 350-400 times smaller.

Why does this matter? Simply put, if you want a print of a scan from one of the consumer models, you’ll be lucky to get a 3 x 5. The images from the pro scanners are so full of detail and resolution that you could blow them up to 11 x 14 or more. Which is pretty important if you find a long-lost visual slice of family history that deserves a spot on your picture wall.

But perhaps most importantly, the pictures generated by these cheap scanners almost never resemble the slides themselves. The colors are off. Important details are missing or washed out. In other words, there’s a reason why many of the scanners you see on the shelves look as if their boxes have been opened. Very few buyers are happy with the results – and return them to the store as quickly as possible.

But let’s stop with the words. And let the pictures speak for themselves.

Below is a scan of a slide from the late 1970s we just completed for a client, using our professional carousel slide scanner. (We have done some initial dust and scratch removal, and cropped them in Photoshop, but have otherwise left the pictures relatively untouched)

Here is the same slide, “scanned” by a another common slide scanner.

Huge difference, right? The colors in our scan look more natural. The lack of contrast in the other scan makes everything seem washed out. Many features that appear to be blurs in the “other” scanner are brought out in sharp detail with our scan.

Another one: Temporarily ignore the fact that the consumer scanner failed to capture the entire slide. Just notice how many little details pop out in our scan.

Our scanner:

The other:

Admittedly, it’s the indoor shots with flash where the other really falls short. But even in outdoor shots, dominated by natural light, this scanner just doesn’t do the job in terms of preserving and presenting life as it really happened.

Our scanner:


The Other:

Again, you don’t need to be a professional photographer to figure out which one looks more natural. Which picture is the one where the shadows don’t bury the expressions on the girls’ faces. Which one reflects the actual color of the swimsuits. Which one makes the two lovely ladies look like they just went for a spray tan?

To get an even better idea of what I am talking about, I suggest you click on the pictures to view them at full size. You can also email us if you wish to see further examples.

For more information about how we, as professional archivists, can preserve your family’s most precious memories at Ann Arbor’s Priceless Photo Preservation, go to our web page, subscribe to our Twitter feed and become a fan of us on Facebook.

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