(Relatively) quick, easy and inexpensive multi-format slide duplicating

Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava). High gold bronze rupa (statuette), 5x4 inch original.

For over 40 years, from 1966 or 1967 until well into the second decade of the 20th century, I shot transparencies. For much of that time, they were part of how I earned a living, though now I use film only for black and white. I have filing cabinets full of 35mm slides: hundreds of hanging sleeves at up to 24 slides to the sheet. I also have numerous medium-format transparencies and scores of 5x4 inch. This adds up to thousands in total. How to use them nowadays?

Interior, Alabama, from a 35mm transparency, c. 1987. There is often far more information in a transparency than is visible to the naked eye, and Photoshop (or other image processing programs) can dig it out.

Well, as an assistant in a London advertising studio in the 1970s I learned to use a Bowens Illumitran for duplicating. When I went freelance, I bought my own. Recently I dug it out, with the idea of digitizing some of my old trannies. It was more effort than I expected, because it took me a long time to find all the bits. Some I still haven't found, including the power cable: I had to put a new plug in the back. The meter cell had died, too. But with digital, you don't need many accessories. You just check the image (and the histogram) on the back of the camera.

Times Square, New York. Be careful with post processing or blacks may go a sickly green or muddy blue. It's easy to forget how slow films (especially colour films) were: Fuji RSP @ EI 1600. . Leica, 35/1.4 Summilux.

This linked site can tell you a lot more about Illumitrans, but they are basically a box with two tungsten bulbs for focusing and a flash tube for exposing. You could build something similar yourself. You might might even choose to do so, though for exposure control you might find an easier solution than a big knob on the front to move the bulbs and flash tube up and down. Besides, you might as well just buy one anyway. They generally go for £50-100 each, which is probably what it would cost you to build something that wasn't quite as good. The linked site is not just a mine of information: they also also sell stuff, though the prices of the bits soon add up. If you buy an Illumitran elsewhere, you will probably get some or all of these bits as part of the deal.

Superhero Sandwich. A 5x4 inch shot for a book about sandwiches that came to nothing. Linhof Technikardan.

The results are roughly comparable with a high-end domestic 35mm scanner such as my old Konica Minolta Dimage Scan Elite 5400 II: not as good as you'd get from a professional drum scanner, but more than good enough for reproduction, and vastly better than you will get from almost any flatbed scanner; and remember, you can “scan” up to 5x4 inch.

Market, Guanajuato, Mexico, mid 1990s. Colour balance is much easier with digital than with film – this was Ferrania 640T – but only partial corrections are possible when duplicating. Leica M4P with 21/2.8 Elmarit-M. Of course it makes sense to "batch" formats: shoot all the 35mm one after the other, then 6x7cm, etc.

Not only is an Illumitran multi-format: it's also very quick. Put the tranny on the table; frame it (focus remains constant if you're always working at the same reproduction ratio); switch from FOCUS to EXPOSE; shoot; switch back to FOCUS and replace the old tranny with a new one. If you're a slow reader this probably takes less time than it did to read this paragraph and the one above. Even so, there are a few tips and tricks that make all the difference between mediocre or even poor results, and reproduction quality for magazines or books.

Watch. Copied from a 35mm Polachrome transparency. The picture on the right is cropped from the one on the left.

Originally Illumitrans were sold with a bellows unit based on the BPM of beloved memory. You could stick pretty much any film SLR on the top and a good-quality enlarging lens on the bottom. Most modern DSLRs are however too porky to fit on the bellows, so you need a copying stand; or, of course, you can use a mirrorless camera. I use my Nikon Df  on a copying stand. More megapixels than the 16 of the Df  may or may not give you better pictures with 35mm, though it probably will with larger formats. Although you can improve exposure while copying or in post-production, and improve colour to quite an extent, you can't fix unsharp. Going back over the decades reminded me uncomfortably of all of this: lot of my old trannies are technically a bit iffy.

Frances Schultz on a camel. Probably 1990: 35mm, Leica M4-P, 35/1.4 Summilux. I used to carry a separate camera for happy snaps, loaded with colour negative film, but then I realized I might as well just use slide film for the happy snaps too. 

After cameras, lenses. I use an old 55/2.8 Micro Nikkor with an even older M2 ring. This only gives me 1:1, so it includes a tiny bit of the edges of a mounted slide. I'll live with that, for speed and convenience in framing and auto diaphragm, at the expense of a tiny crop. Yes, you are looking at a fair amount of money for a macro lens: £100-200 for a second-hand Micro Nikkor plus £20-30 for the 1:1 ring if it doesn't come with the lens. Equally, though, it's incredibly versatile and very sharp and can be used used for all kinds of other things as well; and unlike scanners, a macro lens won't die of fatty degeneration of the motherboard. If you go for a bellows, you may need adapters at either end, but  as you're working in the range of 1:1 (35mm) to 1:3.5 (5x4 inch), you don't need infinity focus. For adapters of all kinds, SRB of Luton are your friends: Google them. If you use an old 50mm lens, which you can buy for next to nothing nowadays, go for a fairly slow one (f/1.8 or f/2) and ideally reverse it.  

Tibetan temple, Dharamsala. Linhof Technika 70, probably 100/2.8 Planar, 6x7cm.

If you don't already have a copying stand, you can often make one from an old enlarger. Indeed, some enlargers were designed with removable heads so that the column and bracket could quickly and easily be turned into copy stands. Or you may be able to put the camera on a tripod, especially if it has a transverse column. For perfection, a proper copy stand like my Kaiser is unbeatable, and it can also be used for flat copying. Some people make a big deal of aligning the camera  but I've always found that you can get all the precision you need with a spirit level.

To clean the slides before copying, you need a blower, whether an old-fashioned rubber bulb or “tinned wind”; a brush (Kinetronics anti-static brushes are ideal); and if there's any danger of actually touching the film surface, white cotton gloves. Add a Swiffer or similar for wiping the dust off the Illumitran and the copy stand periodically. You'd need all this for high-end copying anyway. With a flat copying table and either roll film or 5x4 inch you will need something to hold the film down and stop it curling: a couple of small strips of metal will suffice.

One more expense may be a Wein SafeSync. I don't know the trigger voltage for the Illumitran, but the site linked above says Nikons can handle it. Canons, on the other hand, may fry. A SafeSync is  £67 in the UK but you can then use any old flash, and I mean OLD: I'd been meaning to get one to use with my c. 1990 Paul C. Buff White Lightnings. Then I called Paul C. Buff and found I didn't need one! Digging out the Illumitran has however tipped me over into ordering one. Meanwhile, I just shoot “open flash” with two cable releases: maybe ¼- ½ second on B on the Nikon, then while the camera shutter is open, firing the flash via an old, separate leaf shutter (there's no manual button on my old Illumitran).  

 Grand Central Station, New York, late 1980s/early 1990s. Scanning slides reminds you just how slow slide films were. Yes, you could shoot available light with Kodachrome 25.  It just meant very long exposures and small depth of field: 35mm Leitz Summilux wide open on Leica M4P. The colour here is better than in the original.

What next? Well, Illumitrans were designed for use with very slow copying film, as low as ISO 6. At  ISO 50, with the tube at the bottom of its travel, I can use a marked f/5.6-f/8, corresponding to f/11-f/16 at 1:1. Stopping down further at 1:1 can result in significant resolution losses from diffraction, but at 0.4x (for roll-film) a marked f/8 is near enough f/11. Or use a neutral density filter or even a sheet of paper below the diffuser to cut down the light. This may make the image so dim that it is hard to focus, but if you are shooting at a fixed reproduction ratio you don't need to focus each time: just frame. Besides, the Nikon focus confirmation dot is unbelievably reliable.

Fire escapes, New York, late 1980s/early 1990s. There's something very New-Yorkish about this style of fire escape; and it's an alarming thought that 1990 is well over a quarter of a century ago.

Contrast can be a problem, because slides can have a very high density range. There are however at least three solutions. One is a contrast control unit, a  subsidiary flash unit that fires into a sheet of very thin glass at 45º to the lens. This bounces a little extra light onto the lens and flattens contrast. Unfortunately I can't find the glass for mine, but they're $15 (call it £12) for two from the linked site. Second, “expose to the right” (highlights at the end of the histogram) and dig out the shadows in post production. Third, use the trick my late gaffer taught me 40 years ago. Put the slides on the 4x5 inch copying box, so flare from the surrounding light reduces the contrast.

Palette. Illustration for a piece on hand colouring. From a 6x7cm transparency, probably Linhof.

That's about it. You can duplicate large numbers of slides quickly and easily. Doing this article has given me ideas for recycling a lot of my old images on this site: happy snaps, historical images, travel, macro, still lifes. Even a cheap bellows/enlarger lens set-up should give results that are more than adequate for web use, but it's as easy for me to go for repro quality and do it properly with a copy stand and a Micro Nikkor. It's still not a fortune. So why don't you go for it too?

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Words and pictures copyright (c) Roger Hicks 2017