André Ruiter Stereoscopy

Scanning Glass Plate Negatives and Diapositives

January 18, 2021
Scanning Glass Plate Negatives and Diapositives - B&W photographer and collector of antique photographica
I have a collection of vintage black & white glass plate negatives and color diapositives. Glass was the main carrier for the negative emulsion until the 1920s. What most people don't know is that glass was also used for creating positive images. This mainly concerned glass slides that could be viewed with a stereoscope or projected with a magic lantern. Scanning glass plate negatives and positives comes with some challenges.

Scanning Glass Plate Negatives and Positives
A vintage positive image, printed on a 6x13cm glass plate
This stereoscopic image of the First World War was produced around 1920 and could be viewed with a stereoscope

Epson V700 and VueScan

I use an Epson V700 scanner for scanning glass plates. This high-quality flatbed scanner has an optical resolution of 4800 dpi for reflective media (photos, documents) and 6400 dpi for transmissive media (film, glass). The optical density is 4.0 Dmax. Epson now has a successor with the V800, but the V700 is still a great scanner that serves me well. To understand more about scanners and resolution, I recommend this excellent article on Imaging Resource.

The scanning software I use is Ed Hamrick's VueScan. I prefer the extensive options and clear user interface over the standard Epson software that came with my scanner.

Scan preparations

To prepare your scan, you need to perform these steps first:

  • Wear cotton gloves when placing the glass slides. It not only protects the sensitive emulsion of your slides, but also ensures that you do not leave fingerprints and scratches on the scanner's glass plate.
  • Remove dust particles from the slides with a blower, followed by a soft brush (only when needed).
  • Place the slides in the scan holder with the emulsion side facing the scanner glass plate to get the best scan results ("emulsion down").

The emulsion side has a matte surface. Sometimes it's difficult to detect, but there's a trick. The deterioration of vintage slides often causes the metallic silver of the emulsion migrating to the surface and it oxidises to silver oxide. It produces a blue or purple glow. It's especially visible in the darkest parts because that's where the most silver is. It can help you to the detect the emulsion side.

Scanning Glass Plate Negatives and Positives
The blue glow of silver oxide at the bottom left, this is the emulsion side

Scan holders

In general, it's not a good idea to place your glass slides directly on the scanner glass plate. You will not get sharp results and glass-on-glass creates Newton's rings. You preferably place the slides in the scan holder, but this can be challenging.

A flatbed scanner usually comes with a number of scan holders for 35mm film and medium format film. The problem is that vintage glass slides can have exotic sizes, like my 45x107mm and 6x13cm stereoscopic slides. You'll have to be a bit creative to place the slides in the holder.

Luckily, the 6x13cm slides fit exactly in the medium format film holder. I also put the 45x107mm slides in this holder, but for this format I've added a little plastic strip to make it fit. Again, a little creativity is needed.

Scanning Glass Plate Negatives and Positives
A 45x107mm slide in the scan holder which rests on the left side on a plastic strip

Holders height

The Epson V700 doesn't support auto focus. You will have to adjust the height of the holder to achieve perfect focus and get sharp scans. The holder has height adjusters that can be placed in different positions to change the height of the holder. With no height adjusters installed, the gap between the holder and scanner plate is 2,5mm. When installed with the arrow facing the plus, the height is 3,5mm and with the arrow facing the circle (default value), the height is 3mm.

I get the best results with a height of 3mm, but you'll have to find out what's the best height for your scanner by doing some tests and compare the results.

Epson V700 scan holder
height adjuster with arrow facing the circle (3mm)

Scanning without the holders

If your glass slides don't fit in any holder, there's still a way to scan the glass slides by placing them on the scanner's glass plate but you should be aware of its limitations and it isn't supported by each scanner. The Epson V700 has a Dual Lens System with two lenses for scanning reflective media and transmissive media. By choosing Transparency 8 x 10 in VueScan, the lens for transmissive media is used and the glass slides can be placed on the scanner's glass plate. It results in sharp scans, but the scan resolution is limited to 4800 dpi and you have to beware of Newton's rings. Try for yourself what works best for you.

VueScan Transparency 8 x 10

VueScan settings

After your preparations and with your slide in the holder you can switch to VueScan. Here's an overview of the most important VueScan settings. You'll find comparable settings if you use other scanning software:

B&W negativeB&W positiveColor positive
MediaB/W negativeSlide filmSlide film
Bits per pixel16 bit Gray16 bit Gray48 bit RGB (16 bits per RGB channel)
Output color spaceGrayGrayAdobe RGB

Good to know

  • Make sure that if you have made a 48 bit scan (16 bits per RGB channel) that you save it as a 16 bit file, like 16 bit TIFF. If you choose 8 bit TIFF or JPG, you will lose the extra bits of scanned information because it doesn't "fit" in these file types.
  • The color positives are mainly black and white images with a color tone. In fact, a color depth of 24 bit (8 bits per RGB channel) should be enough, especially if you don't plan to do a lot of post processing on the scanned file. I choose 48 bit anyway as it does not affect the scan speed and the extra file size is not a problem for me.
  • An output color space of sRGB would be suffice for the toned color positives, but I choose the wider Adobe RGB space. I can always choose a more narrow color space, like sRGB, later.
  • I don't apply all kind of filter settings like grain reduction, sharpening, contrast enhancements or restoring fading during scanning. I do my post processing with Adobe PhotoShop or Lightroom which gives better control of my adjustments.

What's the best scan resolution?

The right scan resolution depends on what you want to do with the scan. A photo which is scanned with a scan resolution of 300 dpi will result in a print with a print resolution of 300 dpi when the printer prints the actual size of the original photo. This is the starting point, as 300 dpi is considered the base resolution for a good quality print. If you want to publish your scans on a website, a lower resolution is usually sufficient. A higher scan resolution is useful if you want to enlarge the original, but it doesn't necessary improve the quality. I scan my 45x107mm and 6x13cm positives with a resolution of 1200 dpi so I'm able to make a descent print if I want to.

It's different for scanning glass negatives. A negative is the source material to be developed. A high resolution is important to squeeze as much information as possible from the negative in order to make a good positive image through post processing. I usually scan my negatives with a resolution of 2400 to 4800 dpi, depending on the size of the negative.

After scanning your glass plates, the next step may be to restore your scans digitally. I share my workflow and best practices in Restore old Photographs.