“Off-the-Wall” Secrets: Tips for Transferring Film, Slides and Photos to Videotape

There’s no doubt about it; videotape is slowly (but surely) becoming THE medium of choice for saving cherished personal images. Film, slide and print-to-video transfers are very popular these days, and there’s good reason why: they’re convenient! Instead of finding –thena hauling out –the movie projector, darkening the room, fumbling with the screen and dealing with breaks, splices and dirt on old, brittle family films –or messing with hundreds of old slides or envelopes full of unedited and unidentified photos –you simply can pop a videotaped transfer into your VCR –and enjoy it again and again. You can freeze frames, scan forwards or backwards, and enjoy your old home movies and images without having to worry about destroying them in the process.

This article will show you the correct procedure for easily and inexpensively transferring film, slides and prints to video. We’ll discuss the various equipment setups you can use –from the simplest, to the most complicated –and tell you which methods work the best. Most importantly, we’ll be sharing many little-known techniques and time-saving tips from the transfer professionals.

Equipment requirements for film transfers

The equipment requirements for film-to-video transfers are pretty basic. You need a film projector; a screen for the projected image; a VCR and camera, or a camcorder; a monitor and a tripod.

Depending on the type(s) of film you wish to transfer, you’ll need an 8mm, Super 8mm or a 16mm film projector. A basic consumer-type projector can be used, but because the speed — 18 or 24 frames a second –is not synchronized to the video format (30 frames per second), the difference can cause an annoying flicker in the transferred image.

Some projectors have variable projection speed controls which can be adjusted to match frame rates more evenly. The best projector is a “synchronized” one, which features a special three-bladed shutter, rather than a regular 4-blade shutter. This mathematically and mechanically synchronizes the projection speed more closely to the video format of recording at 30 frames per second, and thus eliminates flicker or flutter in the transfer.

Projecting the image –where does it go?

The first “projection option” is to use a telecine converter with your projector. This is a simple metal or plastic cube-shaped box that throws the projected image onto a ground glass screen. To use it, you aim your projector at an opening on one side, and an internal mirror reflects the image onto a glass plate. The projected image is picked up by aiming the camcorder at the glass plate. You’ll find these devices advertised everywhere. But are they the answer? Well, yes and no. The converter are it quite compact and they’re relatively inexpensive –usually around $50. But we’ve found that the unit is hard to align correctly, and the corners and borders of the projected picture aren’t as clear –or as bright –as the center of the image. It’s what transfer pros call “the Telecine Tunnel Effect.”

A step up: the “Multiplexer.”

Professional transfer operators occasionally will use a “multiplexing unit,” a more elaborate converter which accepts both film and slide projectors. Its’ biggest advantage is a built in “field lens” that disperses the images’ light and color more evenly. Personally, we feel that a multiplexer picks up some of the film grain and amplifies it a bit too much. But the multiplexer is a widely-accepted piece of equipment, though relatively expensive at $1,000 or more. So what are your other options? Well, you could also use an actual projection screen; either a glass-beaded model, or a lenticular screen. The main disadvantage is its size and bulkiness. And the projected image is usually quite bright, which is great when you’re watching movies, but not great for transferring film.

The “off the wall” secret to success.

Surprisingly, one of the best screens to use is simply a piece of light-colored paper! You’ll need to experiment with various finishes and surface treatments, however, because some types of paper amplify grain and reflect back too much light to the camera. But this is the exact method many professional transfer shops use to efficiently transfer millions of feet of movie film every year.

Other equipment considerations…

There’s no sense tying up a very expensive tripod for film-to-video transfers. A simple one will work, since it’s used to hold the camera in a fixed position, and no real camera movement is required.

It’s recommended that you do not use a tube-type camera for your transfer work. It will work, but excessive motion in the film might show up in your transfer as unsightly “trails,” because the image lags somewhat. The best instrument for transfers is a CCD chip camera. It doesn’t have to be super-elaborate; a one-chip camera works just fine .

It’s also best to select a camera with manual adjustments, rather than using a more automatic “point and shoot” model. Manual controls –such as focus, iris and blue/red adjustments –come in handy when you’re fine-tuning your transferred images.

You’ll also need a VCR to record your images. Basically, any make or model will work, here. If you’re making additional copies it’s a good bet to record your transfer on SVHS or Hi8 tape for optimum quality. You might wish to use a VCR with “audio dub” capabilities in case you wish to add music or narration tracks later.

Of course, a camcorder can also be used in place of a camera and VCR. Again, if you use a camcorder, try and find one that provides you as much manual control as possible –especially manual iris.

You’ll also need a monitor setup to make sure your transfer looks okay. A monitor, with audio and video inputs, is best; but a regular television set can also be used. Be careful when you select your monitor to make sure it provides a true picture of what’s in your camera viewfinder. If your monitor is off, you don’t want to trust it during a transfer because you may leave an unsightly edge on either or both sides of the final image.

You’ll also need the proper cables to connect your equipment. There are various plugs and ends used for video equipment –such as RCA jacks or BNC connectors, Most electronic stores carry adapters so you can plug everything in properly.

A nice option to have on hand is an inexpensive character generator hooked into the system. You can add titles right on the screen as you do your transfer.

Now, let’s set up for an actual transfer of film to video –and do it by the numbers!

  1. Set up your equipment. Make sure everything is accessible. You’ll need to get to the camera iris, the projector focus knob, and the VCR controls for hitting record and pause. If your VCR has a wireless or wired remote, so much the better. You can keep the switch right by your hand. (Just make sure it doesn’t get in the path of the camera lens.)
  2. It’s critical to keep your equipment clean, and you should check all your gear carefully before beginning transfers. Dust and dirt can build up on the projector framer, the gate, and the sprockets.You might find dirt and fingerprints on the camera lens; if so, clean it carefully with cleaning fluid and lens paper. Check and clean the projector lens, too, if it needs it!
  3. Turn on and aim the projector at your screen material so the projected image is relatively small –approximately 6 – 12 inches across. Any larger and you begin to get a grainy picture. Any smaller, and the camera might not be able to frame the entire picture.
  4. Hook your system together. If you’re using a camcorder, connect the RF modulator to a regular television set; or connect the video output directly to the video input of a monitor type set.
  5. Align the projector. You should set the camera slightly above the projector, shooting downwards more than side to side. This produces less distortion effect on the picture. When the picture is on the screen, focus the camera.
  6. Roughly focus both the projector and camera. At this point, you’ll see a picture on the TV or monitor. If you have a varispeed projector, set it now to eliminate as much on-screen “flicker” as possible.
  7. Frame up the projector. It’s important to get both the top AND bottom of the picture as close as possible. Make sure you have the top of the picture at ALL times, so you don’t cut off any heads on the footage. In a pinch, however, you can always cut off their feet! (Note: Since film has a different aspect ratio than video, you’ll have to crop approximately five to 10 percent from each side of the image. Pan the camera slowly from left to right, and pick out the center of the action.)
  8. Set your camera adjustments; first, the white balance. If your camera has automatic white balance,use that. If it’s a manual adjustment, set the balance on the brightly lit screen, when there’s no film running through the projector.
  9. While film is being projected, set the iris for proper exposure. You can also use the manual iris –while watching the monitor –to fade in from black at the beginning of your transfer, or fade from the picture to black at the end of the transfer.
  10. While the film is still running, use the monitor to check your camera focus one more time. Here’s a hint: if the film was shot somewhat out of focus and it’s hard to get a proper image, focus on any noticeable scratches that might appear on the surface of the film!
  11. Select the proper length videotape cassette for your transfer. A good rule of thumb is to remember that 1,000 feet of 8 mm film will equal about one hour of videotape. And NEVER use cheap videotape! For a few pennies more, buy premium tape. It has less dropouts and provides a better signal-to-noise ratio.
  12. Arrange individual film reels in the order you want to transfer them. Also have an area set aside to put the film you’ve already transferred; that way, you won’t lose your place. (It’s a big help to label the film containers or reels with numbers or letters.)
  13. Adjust your TV set or monitor, generally increasing the brightness just a little bit higher than normal. This will help get any high contrast areas out of the transferred film.

We’re ready to transfer!

Now thread the film into your projector. Get it all cued up and ready to go. If your room lights are on, make sure there’s no glare on the screen. Keep the lights dim, if possible; that way you can see what you’re doing, and you won’t have to worry about reflections. (A little room light will also help to defeat the high contrast and auto iris on your camera, by allowing some illumination to show through when there’s black or blank spots of film being projected.)

Next, turn on your VCR or camcorder, and record a “black” signal. You do this by turning down the iris, and recording about 15 seconds of black. At this point, you can insert an opening title, if you desire.

Start the projector, and use the iris to fade up from the black to the film image. (If your camera doesn’t have a manual iris, you can first hit pause on your camera or camcorder, then start the film, then hit pause again to begin recording the image.)

If the film breaks –don’t panic! These things happen; splices break or old, brittle film occasionally breaks. When this happens, simply stop your VCR. Recue the tape to the existing video so you don’t get a glitch on the videotape.You have two options here. First, you can either resplice the film, or you can just run it back through the projector, PAST the break. By re-running the film back into the projector, you may lose a few seconds of a scene, so it’s better to resplice the film if you have a splicer on hand.

When there’s no picture on the film, it might run all white or black –depending on whether the film was over- or under-exposed. When this happens, pause your VCR, but let the film continue to run. Remember, there’s a three minute limit on the Pause function of most VCR’s; after that it’ll cycle automatically into the Stop mode, so the heads won’t be damaged. So if you have more than three minutes of black or white film running, you may have to recue your video tape.

If your film has an image, but it’s quite dark, turn the gain up –but remember that this will increase the film grain as well.

Finishing details…

When the transfer is done, you may choose to end with a title. If you do this, use a fade or a cut to black when the title has been on the screen for seven or eight seconds. You can fade down with your camera iris, or use a special effects generator, if you have one in your system. The fade looks much better than an abrupt cut to black. Finally, lay down about a minute of black on the end of the transfer videotape.


The first thing you’ll need to transfer 35mm slides is a slide projector and some sort of screen. Used projectors are easy to come by and reasonably priced. Again, I don’t recommend purchasing one of those little telecine transfer boxes; they’re just too much fuss and bother. Instead, simply project the slides onto a piece of heavy paper tacked or fastened to a wall! A light gray, slightly textured paper works well as a screen, as it cuts down excessive contrast on the projected slides.

The same equipment guidelines discussed for film transfers apply for transferring slides and prints; namely, a camcorder or camera/VCR , tripod and monitor. When you set up your monitor, always check the slide register against your viewfinder. You’ll want to be watching the monitor rather than checking each slide by peering into the viewfinder, and you need to make sure you’re getting a true picture.

If you’re using a camcorder, connect its RF modulator to a regular TV, or hook the camera’s video output directly to the input jacks of a monitor TV. Set the slide projector up so your screen image is relatively small –between 6 – 12″ across is best. Level the projector, then set up your camera slightly above the projector, so it’ll shoot slightly downwards. This minimizes any distortion or “keystoning” on the slides. Then, simply project a slide on the screen, line up the camcorder, and focus both it and the slide projector.

At this point, you’ll see a picture on the TV. Frame up the slide by moving or zooming the camcorder. It’s important to get both as close to the top and bottom of the slides as is possible. If you can’t because of the way the photo was composed or shot, then make sure you have the top of the picture in your viewfinder, so you don’t cut off anyone’s head on the videotape!

Keep yourself composed!

Remember, slides and photos have a different aspect ratio than video does, so you’ll end up cropping some material off the slides. Your best bet is to center on the most interesting portion of the slide, moving right or left, or zooming in or out to get the most interesting shot.

After your picture is framed, you must set the iris for proper exposure. Use the manual iris to fade up from black at the beginning of the transfer, and fade to black when you’ve finished all the slides, recording black for about a minute at the end.

It’s very important that you set your white balance to make sure your camera picks up true colors from the slides. Do this by simply aiming your camera at a white piece of paper and pushing the white balance button.

Finally, properly load the slides in the projector. It’s best if you number slides and prints so they can be transferred in the proper order.

Adjust your monitor and dim the lights. Now with each slide, you’ll need to frame the image, check your focus, set your iris (and white balance, if necessary), hit the pause button to record the image for six to eight seconds, and then hit the pause button to stop recording. And index the next slide, and repeat the procedure. Remember that you have about three minutes to set up your next slide before your deck or your camcorder will “lose pause” and shut off. If that happens, hit the play switch, then go back and recue the video so you don’t get a glitch between pictures.

A final note: since slides (and photos) are still images, you can enhance their look with your own careful camera moves. Try panning left to right for photos or slides of large groups; zooming in (or out) to catch selected highlights, or even tilting up to get the full view of a large, vertical structure like the Eiffel Tower. It’s always best to start your move while your tape is paused; that way, you’re less likely to bump or wiggle your camera, too.

How to make prints charming.


What makes film different from video, anyway? And how do you identify film types?

Film and video are two vastly different mediums. Film is a series of transparencies which are projected, one after another, at speeds of 18 frames a second or more. This conveys to us the illusion of movement, when the individual frames are projected onto a screen. Videotape is, of course, a magnetized tape stock –and the images captured by our video camera are electronically digitized and stored on the tape…then projected onto a television screen in a series of hundreds of thousands of tiny dots called “pixels.”

The three most popular types of amateur film are 8 millimeter, Super 8 millimeter, and 16 millimeter.

Eight mm film –sometimes called “regular 8” –was popular in the 1940’s and ’50’s. It was made by splitting 16 mm film stock in half, lengthwise. Most 8 mm film was color stock, but occasionally you might run across black and white regular 8 film.

Super 8 film was introduced in the early 1960’s, and it relegated regular 8mm projectors, editing equipment and cameras to their well-deserved graves by providing the user with a larger, more colorful image. Some Super 8 cameras were built with “sync sound,” where a thin, magnetic tape strip on the film stock could be used to capture live sound via a built-in microphone, or used to carry music or narration tracks which could be added later.

16 millimeter film is considered “serious amateur,” or “professional” film stock. It has been around for over 50 years, in both color and black and white formulations, and projects a clean, sharp image.


On the trail of the elusive film projector. “Where do you FIND these things??”

One thing that stops many videographers from rushing headlong into the film transfer business (or preserving their own family memories on video) is the seeming lack of suitable film projectors. Don’t let that stop you –they’re still around! 16mm projectors are still being made by Elmo Manufacturing (800-947-3566). In addition to autoload and manual 16mm models, Elmo also offers a synchronized projector (Model TRV-16G) which is designed expressly for transferring 16mm film to video via a built in CCD chip. It’s expensive, however: list price is around $4700.

But it’s not necessary to buy a brand new projector to transfer film. If you don’t mind using rental or second-hand gear, 16mm projectors abound. Try garage sales, educational supply houses or schools, camera shops and a/v rental companies. In most cases, used 16mm projectors are in reasonable shape, since they were built more ruggedly than 8mm and Super8mm models, which were aimed at the amateur market.

While the major manufacturers have discontinued making home movie projectors, an import dual-8mm projector with variable speed control is still available. “Yelco” brand machines are distributed by Matrix Video (616-944-9525) at approximately $475.

If you’re not ready to make an investment in a new projector, you should be able to find used “Dual 8 projectors” –units which handle both types of film –by searching in your local newspaper classifieds, or even attending garage sales. If you’re planning a one-time transfer of your old home movies, ask your local photo shops if they rent such projectors, or have any used ones for sale. While it’s unlikely you’ll find a “synchronized for transfer” projector, you should keep your eyes open for one with a variable speed shutter.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

Related Content