Scanning Old Film Negatives—Part 3

November 17, 2014  - by 

Among the thousands of photos I have been scanning for the past few years, I have accumulated a large number of negatives. Those of you who are a little older may recall that when you took your black and white film to be developed, you received not only prints from your film, but also the negatives. The negatives in my collection date back into the early 1900s. Up until now, I had no way to get a high quality scan from these negatives, some of which are large from the view cameras used at the time they were made. Except for those made after the advent of 35mm cameras, none of the old negatives are a standard size.

Fortunately, technology has advanced to the point where a high-quality scan of these odd-sized negatives is possible. Although some of the subjects in the negatives are mundane, many of the photos are priceless and the only record of the events depicted. One huge pile of negatives came from my great grandmother, who was a professional photographer.

Above, is a scan

Old Negatives 2
ned image of one of the negatives. I have decided to publish a lot of the older negatives and photos on my Walking Arizona blog.

In deciding how to scan these images, we did a lot of research online. We have had very good results for years from my Epson scanner. The Epson Perfection 4490 Photo Scanner is an example of the more recent kind of scanner. However, we have also had excellent results with Canon scanners.

After considerable review, we decided on the Canon 8800F. I am very pleased with the quality as well as the speed of this scanner. The scanner allows you to scan both in reflective mode and transmitted light mode. I have found the transmitted light mode to be somewhat cranky. Since the quality of some of my negatives is very poor, the scanner cannot detect some of the pictures and sometimes splits one picture into two. However, by working with the position of the negative on the scanning bed, I have solved most of those problems.

Once the scans are made, the scanning software will sometimes convert the image from a negative to a positive image. There does not seem to be any consistency in this conversion, and some of the images come up as negative after the scan. However, this is no problem since I can invert the images in Adobe Photoshop CS5. If Photoshop is out of your price range, you can also try Photoshop Elements.







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  1. A very useful posting. Thank you. I’m always interested in reviewing anyone’s experience with equipment.

  2. I use an LED light pad on a slanted surface, put the large negative on it and take a picture of the negative with my camera on a tripod. Then take the digital negative into photoshop elements and change the negative to a positive. The results are better than original picture printed.

    1. Marguerite Startare I scan my slides as they make the pictures larger. I found it hard to do it with the LED light pad

  3. Negatives are not the only images one may have. In the 1960’s coloured transparencies were popular. I have boxes of these which I found are too expensive to digitize.
    What are the available lower end costs? Bear in mind too that these costs will vary from country to country. I am in the UK. It may be more technique than technology? It would be good to get the photos out of physical storage and into a useable, retrievable format.

  4. Another great option if you’re not able (or willing) to invest the money into Photoshop is to get Gimp (which you can find for free online), or if you’d like to try batch-conversion (doing many images all at once) you could look into ImageMagick but that’s kind of advanced.

  5. I use a flatbed scanner that is able to scan up to 2400dpi and a battery powered lantern that has florescent tubes, a plate of window glass and a thin white sheet of paper, not copier paper however. I place the negative on the flat bed glass, place the window glass over the negative to hold it in place flat. Then lay the paper over the window glass to diffuse the harsh light evenly and stand the lantern and position its movable light over the area where the negative is. I then use photoshop 7 to scan and import the image into PS7 for editing. I then invert the image crop if needed and use photoshop image adjustments to improve the image if needed. I can also use the clone tool to remove imperfections. The process works well but is slow.

    1. Thanks to all who have posted. I have zero experience with image-processing software and was wondering if the software described in the article would also work with color negatives.

  6. I had similar problems with my Canon – inconsistent cropping of the image, and it had a hard time with some of the older negatives.
    My Epson “Perfection” has an accessory that holds the old negatives properly and it then identifies them every time. With the Epson software, I have no problems with conversion to a positive image, nor with cropping.
    I have used it for thousands of old negatives. (By ‘old’ I mean the old black and white negatives that had two images per negative, about 2 inches long each.)
    So with the Epson you won’t have to have Photoshop!

  7. I have a great many negatives from my parents of them and me as a child. I figured out several years ago that is I place the negative on the scanner screen then place a folded sheet og printer paper (so it’s a stronger “white” element behind it) and just scan it comes out well. Most photo programs have an option to “reverse” the colors (which works for colored photos) or to “make the photo appear as a negative” (which then actually makes the negative look like a normal photo). I’ve had good luck with this very simple technique. Hope it helps someone.

  8. OOps looks like I forgot to be clear. After placing the negative on the scanner screen I place the folded piece of white paper on top of it, then scan. The white shows thru and brightens the negative and helps define the image better than just using the supposedly white scanner cover lining

  9. I have several hundred 3.5 X 6 inch negatives that were my grandparents. It’s almost impossible to tell what/who they are of. I need a quality flatbed scanner that will scan these and convert them to positives. The scanners I’ve seen so far have the ability to scan up to 2 X 8 inches, but not wider. I’d prefer a LARGE flatbed – at least 8.5 X 14, but 11 X 17 would be better. Running Windows 10. Need some good advice.

    1. i bought a 3 on- 1 printer (printer, copier and scanner) and it works great.
      I lay the negatives on the scanner glass and put 3-4 sheets of printer/ copier paper on top so there’s a strong WHITE background (not the milky white in most scanner covers.
      Most software that comes with the printer has a photo program which allows you to reverse the image (go from photo to negative look or vice versa so it works fine. then just me sure to save the reversed image only and you’re all set. Did quite a few old negatives i found after n my mom died and it worked perfectly!

  10. Re the 500 or so 3.5″x6″ negatives that I inherited from my grandparents (were these from a Brownie camera or ?), I originally had contact prints made some years ago that were good enough to scan in those days. That cost about $300 to pay someone to make the contact sheets, which I then cut up into the individual prints and scanned. Now, years later, I have purchased the Epson 880 scanner and what a joy it is to see those come to ‘reality’ as real positives that I can edit with Photoshop Elements – clone the scratches, dust marks, and bright spots from flashes or the sun, crop, etc. I had taken them to MotoPhoto as I had done with my 30,000 slides, as they had given me a good price of 19 cents a slide, but they told me this would be a much more arduous job of individually cleaning and scanning each negative, so the cost would be about $5,000. That’s why I bought the scanner, but it is also worth the time to spend seeing each transformation of my parents, me, relatives (some of whom, sadly, I will know who or where). The only problem with the scanner was that it didn’t have a template that took this size of negative, but I solved that by simply taping them with artist’s tape on the actual bed and adjusting the straightness by the preview feature. I store them, along with their previous contact print, in an album of see-through pages. Probably could throw them away now, but better to donate them to a historical society, if possible.