What Should I Do With My Old Negatives? - Memory Keeping Ideas

What Should I Do With My Old Negatives?


For most of us, it will have been quite a while since we took a roll of film to be developed. Photo negatives have truly become a thing of the past. With all the changes in the way we preserve, look at and share photos, what should we do with our old negatives? Should we keep them or throw them away?

Whether you decide to keep your negatives or not, make digital copies!

Digitizing your negatives is one of the best ways to preserve or back up your photos. Photo negatives can create a higher quality image compared to just scanning your printed photos. Since there are less and less places where you can actually go to have a photo printed from a negative, it will be so much easier to recover your photos from digitized negatives! When scanning old negatives you may even see some new stuff. In the past, some photos were cropped to fit the paper. This means you could discover a previously cropped out extra family member or pet in a group shot!

How to digitize your negatives.
There are really only two ways to get digital copies of your negatives: either have someone else do it or do it yourself. That “someone else” is usually a company specializing in digitizing negatives, slides, photos etc. This will usually come with a hefty price tag. If you have a lot of negatives to digitize it might make more sense to invest in a negative film scanner.

Don’t scan áll your negatives.
Just like you don’t need to keep all your photos, you really don’t need to scan all your negatives. It is okay to play favorites and to pick and choose which negatives are important to you and which are not. If you outsource the scanning process, this may save you some cash, since you usually pay per image scanned. There really is no need to spend money on those blurry shots with cut off heads and fingers on the lens. Nor is it necessary to save all 200 shots of that cute photo session with your baby. Pick your favorites and don’t scan the rest.

Which resolution is best for scanning negatives?
Negatives (and slides) have a very small image surface. This means that if you scan these small images at a too low resolution you’ll get fuzzy photos if you want to enlarge them. Negatives also contain more detail than most photographic prints, and in order to capture all that detail in your digital copy it is best to scan your negatives at as high a resolution as you can afford. High-resolution images take a lot of time to scan as well as a lot of digital storage space. So it really depends on how much you would want to invest in either of those.

Many museums and institutions recommend to scan a negative (or slide for that matter) at 2400-4000 dpi. When choosing to buy a scanner for this purpose, make sure the scanner’s specifications allow for these high resolutions. For archiving and printing, 3000-4500 dpi is the best resolution option.

Which image format is best for scanning negatives?
Saving (and subsequent copying) your images to JPG’s will degrade the resolution of those images over a short period of time. Therefore, the JPG format is not recommended for digitizing your photos or negatives. Your best option is to save your high resolution negative scans to TIFF image format. This way all the original information is preserved and the TIFF file can be used as a master copy to produce any other image file you want, including JPG. TIFF images do take up a lot of digital space, but they will make very good prints, especially when enlarged. Fortunately, (external) hard drives and other means of preserving digital files, are getting cheaper every day.

Digital archiving is new.
It really hasn’t been that long since we switched to save our photos digitally. Theoretically, digital archiving should be able to preserve our precious memories forever. However, the longevity of digital storage still has to be proven. There are many advantages of having your files in digital form, but you have to realize that technology can fail and in order to keep your images safe you will have to plan accordingly. Never rely on just one form of saving your images though, always “back up your back up”, either with multiple hard drives (they can crash without notice) or with a combination of a hard drive and online cloud storage. Professional recovery services are incredibly expensive, so better safe than sorry!

Do I keep my negatives or throw them out?

This is the question only you can answer. A good rule of thumb is to not throw away your old negatives or slides until you are absolutely sure that the quality of the digital copies meets your requirements. Being able to scan your negatives at the highest resolution possible may give you some peace of mind when deciding to throw out the negatives.

Many photographers, librarian and archivists plead for not throwing away your negatives. They argue (as mentioned above) that digital is not a fixed format, and not yet proven to be stable or archival.  On the other hand, negative film itself will degrade over time. In order to combat this degradation you would have to store your negatives in a very precise way (more about this below). You may not be willing or able to do this.

Let’s look at some pros and cons for hanging on to your negatives:

Pros: Why you should keep your negatives:

  • Your negatives are the best originals for your images. Why throw away the most detailed source you have?
  • There may be scanning errors. For instance, the negatives were dirty when scanned or they were scanned at a wrong (too low) resolution. Should your digital negatives turn out not to be scanned properly, you could always just scan them again.
  • Your digital files can be vulnerable. Your hard drive or computer can crash or get lost. You may accidentally delete files. Saving the original negatives will always give you the possibility to replace what has been lost.
  • With ever-improving technology, there may come a point in the future where you might scan all your old media (including those negatives) to a higher, more usable quality.

Cons: Why you can throw away your negatives:

  • Negatives are subject to degradation (although slowly) and require specific storage requirements to keep them safe. You may not have the space in your home to accommodate their storage.
  • It is quite difficult to view negatives as they are. You either need special equipment for this, or a lot of patience.
  • Scanning and viewing equipment for negatives can get obsolete. This means you may end up with either equipment you can’t use anymore or negatives you can’t scan anymore.
  • It is getting increasingly difficult to get your photos printed directly from negatives. Most photo print shops are geared towards digital photos. In future, you might not be able to use your negatives for printing photos at all.

Tips for when you decide to save your negatives:

You should be aware that negatives do degrade over time. Kodak has stated that the lifespan of negatives can be up to 1000 years. Of course, there are some requirements to achieve that high number. You would need to store your negatives at 30-32 degrees Fahrenheit (ca. 0 degrees Celcius), with a relative humidity of 40%. Most regular household will not be able to accomplish this, and a more realistic lifespan for negatives is therefore between 20 and 50 years. How long your negatives will last may depend on your geographic location. Negatives will last significantly shorter in areas with hot or humid weather.

Best way to store your negatives at home.
After deciding you want to keep your negatives, make sure you store them safely to reduce the chance of damage or degradation. Only handle your negatives with clean and dry hands, only touching them by the edges. The oils on your hands can cause damage to the negatives.

Negatives are stored best in special film-safe “negative sleeves” collected in a ring binder or in archive quality envelopes. Keep those ring binders or envelopes in a cool location, preferably below 68 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celcius). Avoid moist locations or locations that have great fluctuations in humidity or temperature (no garages, basements or attics!). An interior closet is usually the best location.

Good to know when you decide to throw away your negatives:

Throwing away your negatives is not harmful to the environment.
Should you decide to get rid of your negatives, what would be the best way to do it and should you consider them to be “chemical waste”? Kodak has a statement on its website that offers advice. They state: “Waste film (…) may be disposed of to landfill without risk of adverse environmental effects.” 

This makes sense, since negatives are almost entirely made up of gelatine, with only a minute amount of chemicals. Unless you have a gigantic amount of negative to get rid of, the environmental impact will be negligible.

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