Preserve Old Family Media — 4. Photo Film
Updated: Jun 26, 2020
Preserve Old Family Media
A Six Part Series
Part 4. Film
Part 1 Restore & Digitize — an overview of: (1) types of old family media; (2) why & how they are being destroyed; (3) why & how they should be properly stored and digitized.
Part 2 - 6 — specific preservation information for each family media type:
Part 2 Photographs — loose and in old albums
Part 3 Paper — handwritten letters, important documents, newspaper clippings etc...
Part 4 Film — negatives & slides
Part 5 Movie Film — film reels
Part 6 Videos — VHS videos & and camcorder videocassettes
1. Old Family Film is...
For the whole of the last (20th) century, before the start of the Digital Revolution , we recorded our still and moving images on some type of film:
— rolls of film in our cameras that were processed to produce negatives, slides, and prints.
— home movies first recorded with movie cameras using film reels... just like motion pictures.
— then towards the end, we moved to videoing on magnetic tape housed in cassettes.
We needed separate equipment to make the images (cameras, movie cameras, camcorders)... and to view them (projectors, VHS video-recorders )
We still have plenty of these types of film in our homes holding precious memories. The problem is that over time film is very susceptible to deterioration... shrinking, warping, curling etc... They can be damaged by being handled, the containers they are stored in, or the 'play-back' equipment to view them — if we even still have those!!
Our "still' single image film present a different set of preservation and digitizing challenges to our multi-frame 'motion picture' film .
2. Photo Film Types are...
The standard 35mm film used in cameras consists of a long perforated strip of cellulose coated with a light-sensitive emulsion spooled into a light-tight cassette. "Taking a picture" (say cheese!!) involves exposing a frame to light with a click of the camera shutter.
Chemical development of these strips in a dark room produces a series of negative images... the areas that are supposed to be light actually appear dark and visa versa and even colors are switched to their exact opposites. Photographic processing then involves projecting the negative image onto photographic paper or photo film (slide) to produce the visible (positive) image.
When the roll of film in our camera was full (24 or 36 frames were common) we rewound it before taking it out of our camera. We then took our film rolls to (usually) the pharmacy to be developed. A few days later, we picked up freshly developed prints tucked into photo development sleeves, with the negatives cut into strips of (about 4 - 6) frames separated from the prints in their own sleeve.
If we wanted extra prints or enlargements, we had to figure out which negative frame number (printed between the perforated strip edge) it corresponded to and write the number on the re-order form that we sent back in with the relevant negative strips.
These negatives have to be handled and stored with special care to preserve these mini-master images.
As well as fingerprints 'smudging the images, oils from our fingers can breakdown the cellulose.
Before PowerPoint, the definition of a slide was a physical 35 mm (usually) photographic transparency framed in a 2×2 inch cardboard (or plastic) mount.
As a student, I sat through 'many' slide presentations. One time a lecturer nodded off when 'manning' the carousel slide projector for a guest speaker who asked for " next slide please"... when the current slide stayed put, and only after a ripple of suppressed laughter— and a quick nudge from another audience member — did the next slide appear!!! The memory still makes me smile!!
After Kodak introduced the Kodachrome color film in 1935, slides became more popular than printed photographs for family collections — the process to produce color photographic transparencies was easier and cheaper than developing color negatives and producing prints. Also the color quality of the prints wasn't very good to begin with and fading and discoloration of the photos sometimes became noticeable after several years. By contrast, the slides show exactly what was captured on film with lively colors, contrast, sharpness, and really fine grain. .
Slide projectors then came onto the scene, so that these little photo gems could be 'enlarged' and shared. Early slide projectors used a sliding mechanism to manually pull the transparency out of the side of the machine, to be replaced by the next image. Then in 1965, Kodak introduced the first carousel slide projector which quickly became the most popular projector for photographic slides.
Around about the same time I was thrilled to get a Give-A-Show-Projector as a Christmas present. It needed 3 size D batteries to power the lamp and came with a set of fun photo slide strips to push in front of the lens to project vivid images anywhere!! There were also the Viewmaster goggles, which had a circular disc of slides to scroll in front of the goggles' back-lit lens.
Eventually, print quality improved and prices decreased... by the 1970s, color negative film and color prints had largely displaced slides.
3. How To Handle & Store Photo films
Negatives and slides should be handled carefully as they can be damaged by fingerprints 'smudging' the images & skin oils breaking down the cellulose. When we got negatives back with our photos, they were likely encased in extra protective sleeves. Slides, of course, were always framed by their mounts. If well- stored, slides that have sat in a box for over 40 years, will still yield a vivid image without any loss of color, contrast or quality.
Archival Storage of Negatives & Slides
The best option to ensure the continued 'good health' of negatives and slides is to store and protect them in archival-quality ring-binder multi- pocket/sleeve pages specifically designed to house and organize them. Slides can also be stored in archival boxes which have dividers to help organize them.
4. Digitize Negative & Slides
Digitizing slides and negatives can bring back images that may not have been seen for year. Precious photos that have got lost or damaged may still be reproducible from properly stored negatives. There is a reason that you had to provide the negatives to get extra photo prints and enlargements — the negatives have more 'image detail'. Even if you have a 'decent' print, you will get much better results from scanning the negative because of (1) printing quality improvement over the years; (2) photo paper deterioration; (3) no contribution (texture) from the paper stock. You may also recover more of the picture — cropped out of the original (especially smaller) print.
While slides may still be in perfect condition, a slide projector is needed to view them and some of these old images will yield photos of today's digital quality.
For negatives and slides....
.. the bad news is that — unlike old photo prints and documents — they cannot be digitized using readily available at-home equipment (all-in-one printers ) ... the good news is that — using the same reasonably priced equipment—there are D-I-Y options for digitizing negatives & slides.
DIY NOT All-in-One Printers
Our newer All-In-One Photo printers can do a lot of things.... scan, copy, print etc... but digitizing slides and negatives is not one of them!! This is because film needs to be illuminated from behind and the scanners in today's printers capture light that is reflected off what they’re scanning, hence the white back screen. I did come across a couple of 2011 articles: one gave details about building a home-made triangular wedge cardboard adapter and the other suggested using a cell phone or tablet screen to provide the necessary back-lighting, to turn a flat-bed scanner into a film scanner.
DIY Flat-bed scanners
It wasn't that long ago that printer's just printed documents and you needed a separate flat-bed scanner. Some of these came with a special compartment and transparent media holders for film/slide scanning.
There are still plenty of flat-bed scanners on the market but only Canon & Epson have home-use models that can scan slides and negatives . These are bulky and tend to be on the pricier side ($200+). However they do offer very high resolution scanning... for photos too.
DIY Film Scanners
Portable Film Scanner Units
More recently, dedicated film scanners have come onto the market that are also high resolution but more portable. Googling will pull up models and reviews of these. Some are under $100, with most in the $100 - $150 range.
The Petapixel site that shows HOW-TO convert a regular flat-bed scanner also provides a tutorial on constructing a DIY rig to digitize slides & negatives using a Smartphone. More recently, a few Smartphone Film Scanner units (Lomography, Rybozen,Kodak) have come on the market. They include an accessory that back-illuminates the film and includes an APP to digitize negatives & slides with a smartphone camera. These cost $30-$40-ish.
2. Go Pro
Most, if not all, professional digitizing services will scan your negatives and slides. With all different options for providing digital files (thumb drive, cloud, Google Photo etc..) AND always returning the originals.
See Resources page for film/slide equipment manufacturer and professional service links.
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The information presented in this Blog is an accumulation of my own experience and internet searches. I am not affiliated with any of the institutions, services or products that are mentioned.