• Scanning your negatives will bring your memories into the digital age: here's how


    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.

    Two types of scanner that I recommend: Canoscan 9000F Mark II and Epson Perfection V700 Photo. Both have older models that are likely just fine.

    2014-09-19 11.30.50

    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.


    Scanning software

    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.


  • You're gonna love this 15 minute video on how to cut a wheel of cheese

    The combination of a huge wheel of cheese, lots of specialized knives, and this cheese expert's unusual manner of speaking makes this a really entertaining watch. If you want to skip straight to the action, the cheese is "broken" about 7 minutes in.

    "We have already explained to the cheese where he must broken." "This is the only way to cut such a cheese."

    How to break open a Parmesan cheese with Carlo Guffanti

  • Video proof of Verizon throttling Netflix

    In this infuriating video, Colin Nederkoorn records his computer streaming Netflix's test video over his Verizon FiOS connection. Then, via a VPN on the same home network, he receives a nearly ten-times faster stream.

    Get out of town. Forcing your internet traffic through a VPN should slow your connection, not speed it up. But here, something (presumably Verizon) is preventing Colin from getting normal speeds without hiding his traffic usage from his provider. So much so that he's installing a router to run all his traffic at home through the VPN.

    Read Colin's full post on his test, then go swear vengeance on something. [Video Link, via Waxy]

  • Tomorrow in SF: Robot Film Festival at Bot & Dolly!

    Hold onto your bots: tomorrow is the fourth annual Robot Film Festival in San Francisco! Join the crowd of robotics researchers and enthusiasts in an all-day marathon of robot-related films, followed by the Botskers award ceremony hosted by Veronica Belmont.

    Above, Moonbot In the Hood, my personal favorite film from last year's Robot Film Festival and winner of the "Most Uncanny" award. "Malt liquor!"

    Robot Film Festival on July 19th in San Francisco

  • Come to the Robot Film Festival this Saturday in San Francisco!

    Last year's Robot Film Festival, co-sponsored by Boing Boing!

    My favorite San Francisco event of the year is coming up this weekend. Here's why you can't miss the fourth annual Robot Film Festival:

    • It's held in Bot & Dolly's studios, the robotic cinematography company that did the special effects for Gravity and was recently acquired by Google. David wrote a profile about them for Business Week, it's an incredible place.
    • People bring their own robots, and it's a total blast. Bot & Dolly demonstrates their massive robotic arms throughout the festival. See the above video for some of the robots crawling and skating around last year.
    • Dirty Robot Brew Works will be serving up their special brewed-by-robots beers!
    • And of course, the films! Lots of creative and brilliant robot-starring and robot-related movies were shown last year, and I can't wait to see what comes up this year.

    Get tickets for the fourth annual Robot Film Festival on July 19th here!

  • Making cocaine in Colombia

    This segment from the documentary "The Cocaine Route" shows the picking, mashing and eventual reduction of coca leaves into a raw form of cocaine powder. The head of the production outfit, Pablo, grinds up the leaves with a weed whacker, mixes in some cement and dissolves everything in petrol. It's a pretty interesting watch!

    [Video link]

  • Surreal oil paintings of a world taken over by giant bugs and flying sharks

    Otter City 1

    Caleb Brown's oil paintings bring us into a bizarre end-of-days scenario where super sharks, massive insects and towering otters take over humanity from every angle. They're beautiful, meticulously-crafted photorealistic representations of an unbelievable surreal world. I found Caleb's work through Reddit's Art section, where it regularly tops the charts. You can easily get lost in each painting. What makes them so captivating? (more…)

  • The Pope says he'll baptize space aliens if they ask him to

    In his weekly homily on Monday, the Pope explored the idea that extraterrestrial beings might want to join the Catholic church and determines that they should be accepted with open arms.

    From the Vatican:

    "That was unthinkable. If – for example – tomorrow an expedition of Martians came, and some of them came to us, here… Martians, right? Green, with that long nose and big ears, just like children paint them… And one says, 'But I want to be baptized!' What would happen?"

    "When the Lord shows us the way, who are we to say, 'No, Lord, it is not prudent! No, lets do it this way'… and Peter in that first diocese – the first diocese was Antioch – makes this decision: 'Who am I to admit impediments?' A nice word for bishops, for priests and for Christians. Who are we to close doors? In the early Church, even today, there is the ministry of the ostiary [usher]. And what did the ostiary do? He opened the door, received the people, allowed them to pass. But it was never the ministry of the closed door, never."

    Pope at Mass: The Holy Spirit makes the unthinkable possible

  • Maker of WordPress raises $160m because they can


    Photo illustration: Xeni Jardin

    Automattic, the company that makes WordPress, announced today that they have raised $160 million– more than ten times their total investment in their decade-old company. This is their first capital injection in six years, somewhat of a surprise for a company that only recently stated it was healthy and making profit. The purpose of raising this money is to accelerate growth, a pretty common reason to pile money on yourself.

    Two things are interesting about this: First, that Automattic can raise this kind of money at this stage in the game, and second that they might actually have to. With companies like Tumblr and Facebook focused on blogging-related activities and supplied with nearly endless war chests, it's nice to see that open-source WordPress can still have a fighting chance. How they'll manage that absurd amount of money has yet to be seen.

    New Funding for Automattic on Matt Mullenweg's blog

  • Dig this awesome Peter Pan pop-up book

    Recently, I spent a weekend out of town with some friends. We rented a geodesic dome vacation house in the woods. One exciting part of renting someone else's house is exploring some of the things they leave out for their renters–like their book collections. This house was throughly outfitted for children to visit, set up with loads of toys, tree houses, playgrounds, and children's books. Peter Pan: A Pop-up Adaptation by Robert Sabuda was far and away the best book there.