Scanning Old Film Negatives

October 24, 2012  - by 
Scanned Negative

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 scanned 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.

Here’s what the photo looks like converted in Photoshop:

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  1. I have slides over 50 years. Have Been in a tight plastic container n a drawer. Not taken out. Looks like they may have faded. Are my wedding pictures. Can they be enhanced

    1. There are probably dozens of programs you could use to enhance the slides. An Epson Scanner with slide scanning capabilities comes with enhancement software.

  2. Hello! I have some old negatives that date to around 1950’s. I took them to our Family History Center to scan them on their scanner. It split nearly every scan in half. The sister that was there is an expert in all things scanners and couldn’t figure out what was going on. She tried without the plastic “line up” tray, with it, and different places on the glass. We both gave up and agreed to do some research on what is happening. It’s an epson scanner and hasn’t caused problems before me (haha) My negatives are square and measure about 2X2 inches maybe a little less. Any ideas? Thanks!

    1. This is very likely a limitation of the scanner you used. Without knowing exactly the scanner model and what you did, I cannot be more specific. It is very tricky to do negatives and that is why I built my own setup with a camera.

      1. If I send a photo of the negatives that I have would you be able to help me find a scanner that I could use so I can look at these and put a few on a Flash drive to be able to print later.

  3. Thanks, I’m been working on the family tree, and family albums with all almost 10 yrs.with my research I was able to work on my album from 1800s to 60s I had all my album in the car and everything was stolen. 2 yrs later I found old negatives now I’m ready to start my album every where I went it was to expensive. Hope scanning my negative will help me with out cost so much. I’ll look into the scanner you recommend. Thanks Catherine

  4. Hii
    Such a helpful page ,which you have created…And could you please help me in Selecting camera Nikon, Canon 6D , Canon 5d. Well i have these 3 option and i am totally confused which one is good and prize will reliable rate. Best for still photos , easy to operate , can use for long time .please help me here i will be very thankful to you .

    1. They are both fine cameras. The main issue is the cost of the lenses. Once you start buying lenses, you are sort of forced to stay with one camera manufacturer unless you are independently wealthy.

  5. Looking for a 5 x 7 print from double color slide from 50’s. The double slide is encased in thick cardboard. I can send by email a photo of slides of needed.

  6. Can anyone tell me how to use my Epson v600 scanner with the “skinny” half inch wide negatives? I have the holders for regular sized negatives, but the skinny ones don’t seem to work. Help and thanks.

    1. I saw in an article in another place that using a basic light box, lay them out and use your digital camera to “photograph” the the negative… you can mount or stablize your camera, needed some focus trial & error, but they had good results… it worked for other odd-sized negatives as well.. I plan to also try it with slides.

  7. I have a number of old (early 1900’s) b&w negatives that measure about 4×6 inches as well as a lot of 4×5 negs and transparencies, and also some 5×7 negs and transparencies that I took myself back in the 1970’s. Some of the 100-yr-old negs are of Bill Boeing with his seaplane on the first international airmail flight from Seattle WA to Vancouver BC (he landed in my town on the way). How can I get some these scanned? The really old ones are not going to last much longer.

    I’d be grateful for any help or suggestions. Thank you.

  8. Where can I find a negative reader. At this point I want to be able to identify who’s on the film. Not ready to convert to digital yet.

    1. To flip negatives to positives, you will need some kind of electronics – either stand alone or part of a PC.

      You can find a lot of good ideas if you go back to earlier posts in this thread. At the bottom of the comments section there is a line that says “older comments” that you can click on to see more suggestions. Several posters have asked how to preview their film inexpensively. Some ideas previously posted are summarized again for you below:

      If you just want to look at your negatives, it still might be easiest to just scan them on a cheap (under $50) all-in-one copier/scanner/printer. You will not use any ink to just do a scan. You can lay as many negatives as will fit on the scan glass, scan and save the entire group as one image at about 300 DPI, and you should be able to look at the entire group in whatever default photo software is on your computer. Then take that batch of originals and put them together in a box with an index card noting whatever you saved the image as. Some units will automatically assign a name, and others have you do it. Zoom in on each image in the photo software for a quick idea if it is a keeper. Mark the index card appropriately if you find some of interest. Repeat until fatigue overcomes you.

      You could try visiting your local home supply store and making a cheap light table out of a 2-tube florescent shop light fixture turned upside down, cover the lights with a piece of frosted plastic sheet, lay the film on the sheet and look at the film through a hand magnifier. Total cost should be under $20 for something you can work with for extended periods of time. I went all out and mounted a 4-tube drop ceiling fixture in a frame and then put 1/8″ frosted plexiglass over the top. This 2’x4′ contraption still fits on a card table and I can storyboard dozens of slides or film at a time.

      You can also use a tablet with a backlight and most any recent smartphone together as a previewer. On January 22, 2017, Carol Udart said: you need a way to backlight the negative. I use my iPad, get to an area of just white, and lay the negative on it. Then with my iPhone, in settings, Accessibility, I turn on the Invert feature. Open the camera on the iPhone, and look at the negative with the camera, It will show as a positive image, so you can at least see what it is. You can even zoom the image with the iPhone camera. Then you can even take a picture of the image. I am using this to go through hundreds of old odd size black and white negatives and it works well for me, so I can at least decide which ones I want to get printed.

      Another option is to get an old, cheap video camera with a macro focus setting on eBay, plug it into your TV, set the camera output to negative or invert, and the negatives will come out as a positive on the TV. You will still need some way to backlight the negatives, but no PC is involved. You are not looking for image quality here, only a chance to edit out the junk. Just keep good notes on what you like because you will have to find them later. A shoebox or three and a stack of file cards for separators can be a big help here.

      Only once you have culled the herd is it worth investing in a good scanner and software that can clean up and optimize the images you like. Note that you should first save the images you want to keep as an UNCOMPRESSED file, because whenever you edit a compressed file you will lose quality, and after spending time to scan at the high resolution necessary with a small negative, you do not want it to go fuzzy again just because you saved a little space in the cloud. Yes, I suggest saving a copy of both the original and the final version of whatever you scan to as many places as you can – your computer, your folks computer, your siblings computer, and a couple of cloud services as well. Google allows unlimited free photo storage so save early and save often. Just keep track of what is where, because after a few thousand photos, negatives, slides, etc. it can be challenging to find something when you want it, and that is the whole reason to do this in the first place !

      1. Most smart phones have a feature called Invert Image. This turns a negative image to a positive image and will allow you to see the picture and identify people in it.
        Turn on Invert Image, then turn on your phone camera. Hold the negatives up to a light source with your camera

  9. I have old Brownie box camera negatives from the ’30’s and 40’s. and a Canon MG6120 printer. Can I scan and digitize these on this printer. I could on my old printer, but can’t figure out how to do it on this one. Ideas?

  10. Hello, I have almost 200 pic’s with the larger size negatives, ( 1950 and forward)and some smaller on sheets. All organized ,dated, and matted. I knew the couple and worked for and friends with, unfortunately both have passed. I am trying to get info on how to deal with them. Husband was military and they both traveled in and outside US, several countries! All pics are catorgorized in files, etc. Very beautiful , all black and white. Southern Railway System, Washington , DC , etc.

  11. I have many old negatives. I want to view them before scanning them. I can’t find a viewer that will work with anything larger than 110, 35 or whatever from maybe the 1950s up. How can I view (not scan) these huge negatives?