When I help clients go through their prints to get their photo collections organized, we will often find negatives and slides mixed in with their prints.
My clients usually ask me, “What should I do with these? Should I transfer them all over to digital format? How do I do that? Then what should I do with the original slides and negatives, if I digitize everything?”
These are complicated questions, and the answers I give my clients always depend on a lot of factors. In this post, I’m going to give you some tips about digitizing and organizing your slides and negatives, talk about the pros and cons of hanging on to the originals, and explains how to store them safely.
Should You Digitize Your Negatives and Slides?
Let’s start with the first big question: Is it a good idea to digitize all your negatives and slides?
The question I always ask my client is, “Are these photos already printed or digitized?”
If the images are printed, you can digitize the print instead of the slide or negative – which is often considerably less expensive. If the images are not printed, my recommendation is that you digitize the images first, then consider whether or not you want to keep the original negatives or slides.
The best way to digitize your slides and negatives is to find a reputable company to help you. I recommend Memories to Digital (they have stores in Boulder and Lone Tree, Colorado) and FotoBridge. If you would like help managing this process, I can oversee the project so the scanning company has all information needed.
But here’s the problem: Digitizing slides and negatives can be expensive, especially if your slides are old. If you take a large collection of slides in to a conversion company and have them scan all of them for you, you will be charged for ALL the images you give the scanning company – even the badly composed or poorly lit shots.
If you aren’t on a tight budget and/or don’t have that many slides or negatives to scan, I’d recommend just scanning all of them – it’s simpler and easier. However, if you want to be discerning and only scan your very best shots, you’ll need to view your slides or negatives in advance to choose the ones you want to digitize.
How to Select the Best Slides and Negatives to Digitize
Here are some options for viewing your slides and negatives:
- You can do it the old-fashioned way, and hold your slide or negative up to a lamp or overhead light in your home. This is a bit cumbersome, but it still works!
- If you’ve got an iPad, there’s an app called Light Pad that you can buy to use your tablet as a negative viewer. It works with both slides and negatives.
- You can use a light tracer (yes, one of those devices we used to use as kids, that artists use to trace images) to lit up your image. The images you’ll view will still be tiny if you use this method, though.
- You can use a low resolution scanner to scan a temporary file for viewing and selecting the best negatives or slides to send to the digitizing company. This will let you see a larger, more detailed version of the image, which will help you in making your digitizing decisions. Amazon has several models that are affordable and perfect for this process.
When shopping for low-resolution slide and negative scanners, look for ones that are compatible with your computer. Often, a device designed for PCs won’t be Mac compatible, and vice versa. Also, look for the option to import your scans to a computer so that you can view from your computer screen. Otherwise, you might be viewing the scan from a small screen on the scanner – which is really not much better than just holding your slide up to the light in your living room!
Important note: If you’re going to go the scanner route for viewing your slides, I don’t recommend that you do the final scanning yourself on this type of equipment, because inexpensive scanners will scan your slides and negatives at a low resolution. That means your digitized images won’t be clear, and you won’t be able to enlarge them past their original size. Typically a slide or negative is best scanned at 1500-4000 dpi, and you’ll usually need to go to a professional scanning and digitizing company with top-notch equipment to get that quality.
If you want to do your own scanning, you can purchase a high-quality scanner (again, look for the dpi quality listed above), but keep in mind that it’s a tedious, time-consuming process.
How to Get Your Slides and Negatives Organized for Your Scanning Company
Once you’ve selected the slides and negatives you want to scan, try to put them into a logical order so that the company will scan your images in order of timeline and event. Otherwise, you’ll have to do some digital organizing once you get your digital images back – and I think it’s easier to do this organizing at the beginning of your project.
Ask your scanning company about what resolution they’ll use to scan your images. If you plan to print a photo that’s 5×7 or smaller, or if you’re going to email the image or put it onto a web page, I recommend 1500 dpi. For the highest quality for archiving and printing, 3000 to 4500 dpi is best.
You may have slides where the owner or photographer wrote some information about the photo directly onto the slide frame. In this case, ask your slide scanning company if their scan can include this information. These details will be helpful for naming your files.
For example, the scanning company may just name your image files using your name, followed by the image number (“Smith-001.jpg”). After you receive the files, you can rename specific images with the detail written onto the slide frame (for example, if the slide says, “1960 family picnic,” you can name the file “1960-Smith-Family Picnic-001.jpg”).
The Pros and Cons of Keeping Your Slides and Negatives
Wondering whether or not you should hang on to your original slides and negatives? Here are the pros and cons of keeping them:
Pros of Keeping Your Slides and Negatives:
- Your slides and negatives are the originals of your images, and they contain all the information needed to digitize.
- Digital files aren’t completely fail-safe. Hard drives can fail, we can lose our computers, and sometimes we accidentally delete files. By saving our original slides and negatives, can always go back and replace what’s been lost.
- Sometimes, there are scanning errors (wrong dpi, slides are dirty when they are scanned, etc.). If the digitized version isn’t done properly, you can always go back to the original and rescan it.
- Technology is always improving, so at some point in the future, we might invent a device to scan old media in a higher quality.
Cons of Keeping Your Slides and Negatives:
- Your originals can take up space in your home, and you’ll have to make room to store them long-term.
- Slides and negatives can be difficult to view.
- Your slides and negatives can be more expensive to scan than your photo prints.
- The support for scanning equipment for slides and negatives may not keep pace with technology, so you might end up with equipment you can’t use or slides you can’t scan at all.
How to Store Your Negatives and Slides and Keep Them Safe
If you decide you’re going to keep your negatives and slide, you’ll want to store them safely to make sure they don’t get damaged or degraded.
For negatives, you can store them in archive quality envelopes, or get sleeves that can be stored in a 3-ring binder. There are also sleeves or file boxes made especially for slides. You’ll need to choose the right storage method for you, based on the amount of storage you have to work with – just make sure your storage containers are always archive quality.
Here a note from the National Archives, about choosing storage methods for your negatives, etc.:
“Negatives and transparencies can be stored the same way as photographic prints, using the same high quality papers and plastic which pass the ANSI IT9.16 Photographic Activity Test (PAT). (The PAT was developed by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and is a test that determines whether or not a storage material will cause fading or staining in photographs.) There are paper and plastic enclosures and storage boxes designed for film formats available from most manufacturers. Like prints, negatives and transparencies should be stored in a cool, dry location.”