What You Should Know About Scanning Negatives

If you have started sorting through your old photo archives in order to digitize them, you may feel a little unsure about the best way to handle negatives. After all, most people – even those who are not serious photography buffs – are familiar with the ins and outs of scanning prints. On the other hand, film – a category largely comprised of slides and negatives – seems both more fragile and complex to try and process without some technical knowhow.

Although you may wonder whether you should even bother scanning negatives, there are a few compelling reasons to do so:

  • Clarity and detail: A negative is a first-generation image, i.e. it’s the closest you can get to the original picture in front of the camera. By that definition, a print that is derived from processing a negative becomes a second generation image. The reason this is important is that there is likely to be more detail available for capturing in a negative than in a print of the same image. Here’s a comparison below to give you a sense for the difference.

From negative

From print

As this example illustrates, you can extract more information from a negative — using a higher scanning resolution — than is possible with a print. The digitized image has more clarity and detail, as a result.

2) Sources of rare images: The second reason to include negatives in your digitization plan is that they may sometimes be the only existing sources of certain images. One ScanCafe customer wrote to us a while ago with this moving account of finding an image nobody knew existed and why this discovery was so emotionally signficant. In this case, he was talking about a memory recovered from a slide but it could also have been a negative.

3) Damage repair: Negatives are easily scratched, even when they are stored away and barely touched. The underlying causes are dust and debris that settle on the surface and cause tiny scratches that become more prominent when enlarged and printed. The best way to deal with this kind of damage is to scan the negatives and repair the digital images using photo editing software.

A note on black and white negatives: Black and white film is particularly prone to scratching because it has a silver halide emulsion that causes a buildup of scratches over time.

Digital ICE, the scratch minimization technology built into most automated scanning software, doesn’t work well on black and white film with silver halide. This technology utilizes infra-red light to detect and subtract out surface defects (e.g. dust and scratches) from the final image. Silver halide grains create artifacts in the scan that are hard for Digital ICE to process in this manner.

At ScanCafe, we have found that we get the best results from scanning each negative and then repairing the scanned image manually. We enlarge each image to 100 percent of its maximum resolution and then proceed to carefully edit out scratches and other blemishes. We also use a wet mount scanning process for negatives that dramatically improves the quality of the scans.

This approach allows us to produce results like the image below (to the right):

If scanned and processed the right way, negatives can yield images that are superior in quality to corresponding prints. So, don’t bypass the gold mine of beautiful memories buried in your stash of film. Now is a good time to start organizing this key part of your photo archives before you start digitizing it.