Most memorabilia boxes I come across usually contain printed photos, and those prints are almost always stored in the original drugstore envelopes along with the original negatives. How many of those negatives to keep or toss is always a difficult question, but even though I’m in favor of cutting down on clutter overall, I tend to hang on to most negatives. Reason? The original photo is always the best quality available, and if you have that, you can always develop it again. This tends to be a hot topic, so this week Cora Foley from SmoothPhotoScanning.com is sharing her best tips and tricks for storing and handling negatives.
Take it away, Cora…
What Exactly is a Negative?
Negatives are an amazing form of analog media that can contain rich history within them, but they’re very sensitive and require proper care to ensure the treasures within them aren’t lost forever.
A negative is considered the “1st generation” of a visible image. It’s produced when an unexposed, emulsion-coated piece of plastic is moved through a camera to the lens area. This causes the film to be exposed to light, and creates a reaction. The film is then rewound back into an unexposed area of the camera. Once the film is chemically developed, an image will appear, creating the negative you find in your photo collection. Based on the type of camera that was used, you might have differently sized negatives; different types include 35mm, 110 format, 126 format, medium format, and large format.
Nowadays, a negative is typically found on a thin sheet of transparent, plastic film, but originally they were made on paper and subsequently on thin sheets of glass. Although it’s important to note that while a negative is always on a transparent material, just because an image is transparent, it’s not necessarily a negative. In black and white photographs, the lightest colors of the image appear dark in a negative, while the dark areas of the photo appear light. Color negatives appear in the complimentary color version of their photo counterpart.
Should I Keep or Toss My Negatives?
There is a lot of debate as to whether or not you should keep or toss your negatives. They are typically small so it’s hard to see what images they contain with the naked eye. This can make it hard to determine which ones actually contain images you wish to view. That being said, they enable you to create the highest quality versions of your photos. A negative will create a much sharper version of your image than a scanned copy of a photograph could, but with an untrained eye, the difference in the quality might be difficult to spot.
- They contain the most image detail – meaning they produce the highest quality prints & digital images.
- Scanning them directly to a digital image increases the clarity and color of an image.
- They are typically small, making it hard to tell what images you have.
- They are extremely delicate and easily succumb to damage.
If a negative is the 1st generation of an image, that makes the printed photo the 2nd generation, and your scanned digital image the 3rd generation. In this derivative process, image quality is lost, so the best way to obtain the highest quality digital images is to scan a negative directly to a digital image. If you have unharmed negatives and room to store them, we recommend saving them until you’re able to scan them because if you can produce a higher quality image, why not do so?
Proper Negative Storage
Storing negatives properly is imperative to their safety. Because negatives are so delicate and the film is so thin, they are at a high risk for damage, including elemental damage (moisture, heat, & light), oil damage, scratches and deterioration. They require special storage to ensure their longevity, or they won’t be able to produce a high quality print or digital image. Some damage may even prevent you from retrieving the image at all.
Here are some tips for properly storing your negatives:
- When handling your negatives, make sure your hands are clean and dry. Only hold them by the edges (the oils in your hands can damage them).
- Make sure your negatives are free of dust & dirt prior to storing them. If you notice dirt and dust, you can use canned air to blow off any debris.
- Put clean negatives in polyethylene sleeves. This kind of plastic is safe and won’t cause any damage to film.
- Make sure to store negatives flat. We recommend you put them into sleeves and store them in a binder or lay them flat in a plastic box made of polypropylene.
- Store negatives in a cool, dark & dry environment where the temperature doesn’t fluctuate much.
- Make sure you don’t hold the negative anywhere but by the edge. The oils in your hands can cause damage to it, preventing you from extracting the image.
- Don’t stack negatives. Any moisture in the air can cause the sheets of negatives to stick together. This could cause distortion and rips, and even completely destroy the film.
- Make sure your negatives are stored flat. Film easily warps, which causes image distortion and makes it difficult to scan (the film can actually crack and fall apart).
- Don’t store your negatives in the attic or your garage (or where the temperature fluctuates rapidly). This increases the rate of decay.
- Store negatives in a low humidity environment. Moisture can cause the negatives to stick to their surroundings (ruining the images they contain and potentially destroying the whole film).
Take Action Now
Regardless of how you store your negatives, they will inevitably degrade, but it’s best to try and store them as safely as possible so you don’t speed up the degradation process. The sooner you scan them, the better. If you notice your film smelling like vinegar or any warping and wrinkling, the natural degradation process has already begun. The only way to slow down the effects of decay are to store the negatives in a cool, dark place. If you have degraded negatives, it may still be possible to retrieve your images, and if so, you can hire a professional to restore those newly digitized images. If you need help scanning or storing your negatives, we (SmoothPhotoScanning.com) are happy to help you!
Editor’s Note: Thanks for your valuable insight, Cora! My personal process is to organize my clients’ negatives like I would organize their printed photos, meaning in archival sleeves, boxes, or binders, but I’m curious to hear what you do! Drop a note in the comments below to let us know if you toss or keep your negatives, and if so, how you store them!
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