For almost a hundred years photographs were taken on film. Now those photos are molding away in shoeboxes and tupperware containers all over the world. Huge portions of your family history, records of decades and generations are slowly fading. You, crazy future person, have the power to preserve and easily access those memories digitally.
Most collections contain a lot of prints on paper. These are great for easy viewing and sharing, and all you'll need is a simple flatbed scanner to go to town on them. The real treat– and challenge –lies in the negatives you may have. Negatives contain the highest quality image from the camera and are less likely to fade over the years. The quality comes at a cost: while prints are easy to scan in large quantities because they are already exposed, scanning negatives introduces a handful of quirks that can trip you up.
In digitizing my collection of hundreds of century-old negatives I found myself having to redo the scans several times as I learned how to improve the process. Here's what I learned from two years of working and thinking about how to efficiently get the job done.
About the negatives
Negatives have two sides, the emulsion and the film. You can see through both sides, so you should be careful to make sure that the right side is up when you make your scan.The emulsion side will have a dull sheen to it as opposed to the film's shiny side, so it's easy to tell them apart. Generally whichever side is up will stay the same throughout your collection, but if you have prints you can check against those as well. If you do this wrong your negative will appear as a mirror image in the scan. It's easily fixed with a horizontal flip in software, but when dealing with large quantities of images it's best to get it right the first time.
Preparing to scan
Individual negatives are difficult to handle on the glass bed of a scanner. They're very thin, so they can be hard to pick up once you put them down. Loose negatives will stick to each other and rub against one another and your fingers: not good for preservation purposes. They're also hard to organize and manage in individual strips.
After substantial trial and error, the approach that worked best for me was to get transparent plastic pages for binder organization. They're inexpensive, and they come in large format, medium format and 35mm sizes as well as odd sizes for slides and unusual negatives. There's a binder sleeve for almost every type of negative you could want to store.
For negatives, you will likely want a flatbed scanner that can handle several images at once. In a print scan, the scanner shines light against the paper and records the reflection. Since negatives are transparent, the scanner needs a second light in the lid to shine through on the sensor.
The Canoscan is a great scanner if you only have a handful of negatives, and it's the inexpensive option. It's a great place to start out. This scanner can do a normal full page for print scanning, and it has a row for just one vertical strip of 120 negatives at a time. Wider negatives won't be able to be scanned here without multiple scans and stitching in software. The Canoscan can be had for around $150 used and $200 new.
Epson Perfection's lid has a light that covers the entire bed, so it can scan a whole page worth of negatives at a time. This is hugely useful for scanning lots of negatives, and for scanning negatives within binder sleeve pages. These are around $600 new, but you can scan at least three times as many medium format negatives at once.
The Mac comes with a program called Image Capture that does a fine job scanning negatives. It can detect roughly where the negatives are on the bed and do a decent job auto-selecting them. Epson's software is much more nuanced and allows for some in-scanner adjustments, but mostly these adjustments can be done as well or better in post-processing software. Here are the real tricks to know:
Unlike with a print, when scanning a negative the selection area on the software determines the exposure of the negative. For prints you can select any old area and crop it down later. If you select areas that are outside of the negative's actual image, the scanner will provide it with a different amount of light and create an incorrect exposure. If your image appears very light, select a smaller area and the software will correct the exposure.
This introduces an additional problem: Scanning software generally doesn't allow precise rotation of the selection area. You pretty much get a straight square and not much else. If your negatives are sideways at all your selection area will be off and you'll get an overexposed image. To avoid this, you should try to align them to be straight with the scanner.
Here's where the binder pages really shine. Once your negatives are in the sleeves, you can easily push them against the edges of the sleeve and keep them in a straight grid. Stick the page in the scanner and boom, nice straight rectangles for easy selection. Unless you're trying to do very high-quality scans, the transparent pages won't distort or muddy your image at all. This is extremely effective for creating an index of your collection.
There's one big problem with the binder sleeve approach, and it took months to discover how to solve it. When scanning a full page of negatives in a transparent page, you may get these greenish-blue or pinkish streaks throughout your image. They can't be removed in post-processing, and it effectively put me back to scanning individual negatives. Even when I reached out to other experts scanning large collections they didn't think there was a way to avoid it.
When the scanner begins its scan, the first thing it does is calibrate the sensor with the light in the lid. This takes up a surprising amount of space at the top portion of the bed, and if anything obscures it the rest of the scan goes sour. Even the transparent sleeve in this area can cause these streaks through the whole image.
Avoid this by scanning only using the bottom two thirds of the bed. For a binder page you can easily get the top two rows in, then either fold the top row down and scan the bottom one or rotate the page and scan the bottom row upside down and rotate the images in software.
Scanning negatives is an arduous and time-consuming task, but it is also enormously satisfying and important to preserve these photographic collections. I'm not a professional photographic archivist, but I hope this basic information will keep you from making some early mistakes and make your project much more approachable!