Scratching, the invisible threat

Scratched Image This wedding photo from the 1970s is marred by relatively moderate scratches. Almost all the slides and negatives we receive are significantly scratched.

Images, particularly slides and negatives, are easily scratched.

In the days of analog photography, great pains were taken even in the drying part of the development process itself to avoid scratching, and most films contained a special coating of gelatin on the top layer that was intended specifically to prevent abrasion.

Despite these precautions, slides and negatives are easily scratched. (So easily, in fact, that some artists have taken to scratching, or "distressing" them on purpose.)

Scratched NegativeThis photo of an actual negative frame is roughly actual size. Can you see the scratches?

And the images most at risk for scratching — slides and negatives — have an extra problem: the scratches are almost always invisible to the naked eye.

In practice, the scratches usually become noticeable only when the images are magnified to make a scan or print. In some cases, that might be too late!

What causes scratching

Dust and debris are the heart of the problem. While it's possible that you might accidentally abrade the surface with a pencil or paper clip, the leading cause of scratching is when dust or debris on the surface of the film is rubbed into and against the film indirectly. This can happen very easily anytime the negatives or slides are moved and handled. Even the act of cleaning them — done improperly — can scratch them!

What can be done?

  • Get your slides and negatives scanned and repaired.
    Unfortunately, none of the tips for preventing scratches are foolproof — or kidproof, or petproof, for that matter. Having all your slides and negatives scanned (and repaired for the current damage they are likely to be suffering from) creates a "digital negative" that cannot be scratched, so long as you keep the file on a reliable hard drive or solid-state drive.

  • Avoid handling your slides and negatives.
    Tempting as it might be, every time you handle them you are likely to introduce dust, debris, and scratches.

  • Store in an airtight container, if possible.
    The circulation of air over your slides and negatives will introduce dust and debris that can eventually result in scratches.

  • Be leery of cleaning them yourself.
    It can be done, but improper cleaning can actually make your slides & negatives worse. For example, if you find yourself cleaning a slide or negative with a cloth and some cleaner, it's best to wipe in one direction only. Wiping in a circular motion will recirculate some of the dust and scratch the image.
  • Quick Facts

    91%Proportion of slides and negatives we receive that are already scratched. source: ScanCafe

  • Resources

  • Quick Facts

    90% Proportion of slides we receive at ScanCafe that are already significantly scratched.

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