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How To Convert Film Negatives To Digital Pictures

With digital cameras, all your images are saved as digital files that you can directly print on a computer or transport using a thumb drive. It’s easy and convenient (especially for amateurs, hobbyists, and other non-professionals), so it’s no surprise that digital formats have almost completely eradicated film in mainstream use.

The path from shooting a picture to printing it is a lot more involved with film cameras. Film negatives used in analog cameras need some processing before you can frame the photographs up on the wall. Plus, negatives are irreplaceable, unlike digital images which you can back up many times over. 

Thankfully, you can digitize these images so you’ll always have a backup ready to print or enlarge at any time. Keep reading to learn why it’s important to scan negatives to digital and how.

If your newly-scanned negatives could use some photo restoration, Image Restoration Center is more than happy to help.

What Are Film Negatives?

Negatives are images printed on film strips when you shoot using an analog camera. These rolls of film are called negatives because they’re the exact inverse of your final picture – the black parts are white, the white parts are black. Here’s how it works.

When you shoot something with an analog camera, you expose the film inside to light. Light causes chemicals on the film strip to react and capture the image. Developing these strips inverts the image, resulting in a photo that displays the colors as you took them. Negatives are what’s left of the chemical development process.

Most consumer cameras use the 35mm film format, which is relatively small and portable. Many people also use medium format films that are 60mm-wide. An entire roll of negatives can be cut into several strips for easier handling. Some cameras also capture images onto film slides instead of rolls. 

Think of negatives and slides as a picture’s “master file”. You can print more copies of these photos as long as you have these items. But if you lose the negatives, you can’t make any more prints.

Why Digitize Negatives?

Even when stored properly and given special care, negatives and slides are still very prone to damage. While you can’t stop time from ravaging your negatives, you can preserve them by creating digital scans

Here are the two key reasons why you should digitize negatives.

Avoid Natural Degradation

Storing your negatives and slides in cool, dark, and dry places can help stave off their natural degradation. However, you’re just delaying the inevitable.

Digitizing your negatives helps halt the passage of time. This ensures that you always have a backup copy of the negatives in prime condition, even if the original version ends up deteriorating over the years.

Reprint Photos Easily

Reprinting your negatives usually involves taking them out of their safe storage spaces and bringing them out to a photo lab. This exposes them to the elements, and accidents that may happen during the printing process that could further damage them.

Converting them into digital images allows you to reprint the photographs as many times as you want. Moreover, your real negative strips will be safely tucked away in their storage spaces for when you really want a reprint of the original version.

Converting Negatives To Digital Pictures

There are many ways to digitize a photo negative. Some of these require specialized equipment, while some others use gadgets and devices you may already have at home.

Here are six options you can look into for digitizing your negatives and slides.

1. Slide Scanner

Slide scanners or negative scanners are specialized tools you can use to scan film. You basically feed a strip of film into the scanner, up to six frames at a time. The film scanner will then automatically scan the strips or slides, saving them as images to your computer. 

However, they tend to make contact with the negative more than other devices while scanning. This may cause some damage to your negative if you don’t keep a close eye on the scanner while it’s in operation. 

Slide scanners are also specialized devices, meaning that you may not have them on hand and need to buy one. However, some photography shops may rent them out if you can’t afford them or only need them to scan one batch of photos.

KODAK Slide N SCAN Film and Slide Scanner

2. Drum Scanner

Drum scanners are an advanced type of film scanner used in professional photography service shops. They produce a higher-quality scan with excellent color and detail. 

Unless you’re planning to scan film professionally, we don’t recommend getting a drum scanner. Drum scanners are best used if you plan to make very large prints of your scanned images. If you’re only scanning to preserve the negative and print photos to display at home, drum scanners aren’t worth the high price tag.

Plustek OpticFilm Film & Slide Scanner

3. Flatbed Scanner

There’s a good chance that you already have a flatbed scanner handy. Among all scanning devices, they are considerably more affordable than more specialized products. 

Using a flatbed scanner to scan a negative works much like scanning regular photos. You place the film on the scanner bed, then use scanning software to record the image.

Since your negative needs to be illuminated from behind, your scanner may not give the best outcome. However, you can make a cardboard adapter to improve scan results. You can also retouch the scanned file on Photoshop or other image editing software to make them look better.

Canon CanoScan Lide 300 Scanner

4. Slide Projector

If you have a slide negative but don’t have a scanner, you may need to get creative. Use a slide projector to project the images onto a screen and take a photo of that image using digital cameras or smartphones. While it may not give you the best scanned image, it’s still a decent alternative to preserve your negative until you can get it scanned properly.

Rybozen 35mm Slide Viewer

5. Digital Cameras

If your negative comes in film strips, there is another creative solution to digitize them without scanners. To do this, you’ll need a lightbox and a macro lens. You’ll use the lightbox to illuminate your negative, so you can shoot the image with your camera’s macro lens. 

When digitizing your negative with a camera, it’s a good idea to block out unnecessary light with black cardboard or foam. Too much light around the negative will create flare and make it harder to take good photos. 

Make sure your camera settings are adjusted properly – use the lowest ISO available and use a shutter speed that provides good exposure. You also need to fill the entire film frame using your camera lens to capture the entire image.

6. Photography Shops

If you don’t have the equipment or are afraid the more “creative” solutions won’t look good enough, you can always take your negative to a photography shop. A photo lab usually has professional equipment to digitize film in a high resolution & DPI, meaning you’ll likely get good-quality photos out of your slides.

Tips To Get The Best Scan Results

Scanning negative slides yourself can be a very fulfilling – and affordable – method to preserve your film digitally. However, if you don’t know what you’re doing, you could end up damaging the film beyond repair. 

To help you keep your negative slides safe and get the best scan results, follow these three tips.

Clean Your Negatives

Even when properly stored, your negative strips aren’t completely protected from dust. Make sure your film is as clean as possible before starting the scan

Any dust on its surface should be cleaned using compressed air. Never touch the negative using a cloth or tissue paper, because it might result in more damage.

Dust Off Your Scanner Glass

A dirty scanner glass can cause a problem with your scanning process and damage your negative strips. Wipe the glass down using a dry microfiber cloth or handkerchief before scanning. 

If you find persistent smudges, dampen your cloth and try wiping them off again. If you’re scanning multiple rolls of film, wipe your scanner glass down between batches to keep it clean.

Scan In Color

Whether you’re preserving B/W or color film, scanning in color allows you to save all the details of the image. Gray shades are still created from a mix of red, green, and blue – if you scan in color, you’re preserving much more color data than if you were scanning in grayscale.

Take Notes After Scanning

The first scan usually takes the most time because you’re still figuring out the ideal settings to preserve your negative strips. To save time in the future, take notes of what you learned after your first scan. This way, you don’t need to Google optimal settings again the next time.

Frequently Asked Questions About Scanning Your Film Negative

Scanning your film negative to create digital pictures is a great way to futureproof your old family photos. However, there are some things to know if you’re planning to do so yourself. 

Here are three of the most commonly-asked questions about preserving negatives digitally.

Can I Scan Negatives With My Phone?

Since most modern smartphones have good cameras, you can apply the same scanning method as digital cameras. However, since smartphone cameras can’t use a macro lens, your scan quality may be slightly lower compared to using a digital camera. Because of this reduced quality, you may need to do a lot more retouching when scanning a film negative using your phone.

Can You Convert Negatives To Digital In Walmart Or Other Superstores?

You can convert negatives to digital in WalgreensWalmart, and many other stores that offer a photo scanning service. At a glance, they may seem like the best option because stores like Walgreens and Walmart are everywhere in the United States

But you need to take into account that these stores don’t specialize in film negative scans – you might not get the best result. If no other options exist, you can go to them as a last-ditch alternative.

What Is The Best Way To Scan My Negatives?

The best method to scan your negative, quality-wise, would be with a drum scanner. However, unless you’re running a professional photo preservation company, they’re prohibitively expensive. For hobbyist photographers who shoot with film often, we recommend getting a slide scanner.

If you’ve just found a collection of old 35mm negatives in the attic and don’t have immediate access to a slide scanner, flatbed scanners will do the trick. However, you can always use the digital camera trick if you don’t have any dedicated scanning equipment handy.

Closing Thoughts

Backing up your film negative strips into digital form is the best way to futureproof them. While physical film strips may deteriorate, your digital backups won’t degrade in quality and you can make as many prints as you want without worrying they’ll be damaged. 

If you need to restore and retouch your negative scans to make new prints, Image Restoration Center is more than happy to help you do it.

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