Do you have old family photo negatives in your closet? You may be wondering, “can I still get my old negatives printed into photos? What should I do with these old negatives?” To answer questions like these, we’ll need to think through your goals, budget and resources. Follow these 5 steps to digitizing old negatives and soon you may be looking at your family history in a new way!
Don’t Let Your Old Negatives Languish Like I Did
Having just gone through the process of getting my old family negatives digitized, I’m excited to share with you what I learned along the way.
In my case, I inherited photos and negatives from my paternal grandmother. I’m embarrassed to say how long they’ve been languishing in the guest room closet.
After having amazing success getting my maternal grandmother’s old home movies digitized (you can read more about that and listen to the podcast episode here), I became determined to finally address these items. It was time to see just what these negatives were and get them digitized and preserved. I couldn’t be happier that I did!
Here’s just one example of the negatives. This one is actually two photos in a medium size format. Though I’ve never seen these images before, I was pretty sure that the bottom picture was my dad and his little sister in the 1950s.
After professional scanning, I can fully enjoy this image:
Getting these photos digitized has given me the opportunity to collect so many more family stories, like the one my Dad told me about the photo above when I emailed it to him:
“That was our FIRST TV, my mom had to have the large cabinet, I’m sure you understand that. Black and white only of course. I was about 12 years old, so that’s about 1951. First TV I ever saw was when my dad took me to his friend’s house and we watched wrestling. We got one not long after that. The first kids program I recall was Howdy Doody.”
Are you ready to finally digitize your old negatives? Here are my 5 Steps to Digitizing Your Old Negatives:
1. Consider Your Budget Before Digitizing Old Negatives
If you’re on a limited budget, you might be tempted to just do the scanning yourself with a home desktop scanner. While that may sound like a cost-effective option, it may turn out to be problematic in the long run. Here are several reasons why:
Home film scanners are an investment.
If you have an older scanner, it may not be suited to digitizing negatives. This means you’ll need to invest in a new flatbed scanner. While these days scanners like mine (the Epson Perfection V600) can scan film as well as documents, you still may not get the clarity and quality a professional service can deliver.
Scan quality can vary.
Scanning on your own puts your images at risk for being unclear. It can also be difficult to get them to a high enough resolution that they can be enlarged beyond their original size.
Negatives should be scanned between 1500-4000 dpi, with 4000 being optimum. Professional services like the one I used can reach these numbers, but it’s very important to ask exactly what the output will be when ordering. I get all my negatives digitized by Larsen Digital where I can select the desired scan size and I know I’ll consistently get the highest quality scan possible. Visit Larsen Digital here where you’ll also find their latest discounts exclusive to Genealogy Gems readers. For a limited time negatives are discounted with the coupon code: GenGem.
Digitizing negatives can be deceivingly time consuming.
Time spent carefully scanning is time not spent doing other things you love. And digitizing your negatives can only go as fast as your scanner can scan. Confirm the scanning time of any scanner you’re considering using and evaluate the quantity of negatives you have.
In my case, I have a fair number of negatives of various ages and sizes. Once they are digitized I don’t anticipate that I’ll have a need to scan more negatives in the future. Therefore buying a new scanner and dedicating desk space to it was not appealing.
Since my negatives were old family photos, I wanted to ensure that they were done right, so I opted for professional digitizing. In the end the financial investment was about the same. However professional scanning won hands down when it came to the quality of the scans and the time and space I saved. I would rather spend time researching my ancestors than scanning their negatives!
Keep reading because our next steps will help you keep your costs down while still getting your negatives professionally digitized.
2. Make Three Piles to Separate Your Negatives
Since we want to get our negatives digitized in the most cost-effective way it’s important to take a moment to identify which negatives are worth digitizing. We’re going to sort our negatives into three piles:
Pile #1: Digitize
These are the negatives you are going to send to the professional scanning service.
Pile #2: Archive
These are the negatives you want to keep, but don’t plan to digitize.
Pile #3: Throw / Give Away
These are the negatives not worth keeping. (Yes, there are some you don’t need to keep!) It certainly couldn’t hurt to send out an email blast to your family members to see if anyone is interested in keeping them. If not, toss!
As you can see, not all negatives are alike. So let’s head to step three and let’s start sorting in a discerning way.
3. Determine if You Already Have Photographic Prints of Your Negatives
Since digitizing photographs is generally less expensive than digitizing negatives, you will want to check to see if you already have a photo printed from the negative. This means it’s time to take a closer look at your negatives.
Here are just a few easy and low-cost options for viewing your negatives:
Do it the old-fashioned way.
Hold the negative up to a lamp.
Use your phone or tablet.
Here are two simple options:
1) Turn on your phone’s flashlight feature and then turn your phone around to face you and hold the negative in front of it.
2) Use a free app to turn your phone’s screen into a light box.
I downloaded the free Screen Light to my iPhone which is also available on Android. Open the app and adjust the setting to maximum “White” and “Light.” You can then hold your negative in front of it or even lay it on the screen.
I reviewed my pile which included negatives from my own family as well as the ones my grandmother gave me. I knew I had prints of all the color negative strips of the family I raised. In fact, in many cases I had double prints! (Remember the days of the double print developing?)
In the case of the negatives I inherited from my grandmother, I wasn’t so sure that I had photos of everything. The photos were probably printed when the negatives were developed, but I didn’t necessarily inherit all of the photos.
I carefully combed through my collection, making sure that I didn’t lose the context of the order in which they came to me. I knew there was a good chance that they may have been at least somewhat in chronological order. That can be valuable information when it comes time for labeling the digitized files.
Consider purchasing some acid-free negative sleeves or envelopes like these so that you not only have a place to safely store them but you can also make notes about important details you notice and whether or not you have prints, etc. (Disclosure: We include affiliate links in our posts for the products we suggest. The compensation we receive if you make a purchase helps support articles like this one and the free Genealogy Gems Podcast. Thank you!)
In the end you will have a pile of negatives that you do have prints of, and a pile that you do not.
4. Select the Best Negatives and Photos to be Scanned
Now that you have reviewed your negatives, let’s make decisions about which negatives and photos will be scanned.
If you do have a photograph of the negative:
Determine if the photo is in better condition than the negative for digitizing. Again, photos are usually less expensive to digitize than negatives.
Typically, the negative will be in better condition, however over the years they may have been smudged or scratched, so a careful review is worth the effort.
If the photo happens to be in better condition than the negative, your next decision will be what to do with the negative that you will not be digitizing.
If the negative is in good condition and is an image of particular importance to you, put it in the Archive pile.
If the negative is not in good condition, and therefore not likely to ever need to be reprinted from the negative again, drop it in the Throw /Give Away pile. I know it’s hard to do, but the storage space you save can be used for other more important things.
If the photo has some flaws and the negative is in better condition, put the negative in the Digitize pile. You may still want to keep the photo for an album or display, but your digitized image will be created from the better quality negative.
If the printed photo is the item in better shape, but it still has some flaws, don’t fret. These days you can dramatically and easily improve the digitized scan of the photo with the free Adobe Fix app on your phone or tablet. Click the play button on the video player below to watch my short demonstration video:
Learn more about photo restoration on mobile devices in my book Mobile Genealogy available in the Genealogy Gems store.
5. Send Your Old Negatives in for Professional Scanning
Now that you have organized a pile of negatives ready for digitization, it’s time to send them out to a professional scanning company.
I sent mine to Larsen Digital. I’ve met them in person and have been impressed with the quality of their work, and the incredibly wide variety of digitization work they can do.
Visit the Larsen Digital website here. This page has special discounts specifically for Genealogy Gems readers. Click on Negatives and you’ll find many options. I was thrilled to see that they could accommodate the variety of negatives I have like:
You may be a little nervous about mailing your negatives. At first, I was too, but the Larsen staff assured me that their customers safely and routinely mail their negatives. The key is to use a shipping service with tracking. I picked up a small priority box at my local post office. It gave me a little room for a little extra padding inside and I received a tracking number so that I could follow it on the journey. FedEx is another reliable way to go. Larsen was excellent about tracking the incoming and outgoing order.
When the order is complete, you will first receive a link where you can instantly download your digital files. Soon after your original negatives will arrive in the mail exactly as you sent them. Mine even came back in my grandmother’s original envelopes!
The Results that Open Up a World of Family History
Needless to say, I am thrilled with the results of my digitization project! Many of the negatives are photos I have never seen before. (What in the world took me so long to get this done?!)
I just have to share a few examples with you. Here’s a photo of my great uncle proudly posing with his taxi cab in Ada, Oklahoma:
My grandmother was an avid doll collector, so I wasn’t surprised to see my aunt in this photo with dolls. I was surprised and delighted though to spot an important artifact on the wall that held a significance to my grandparents. The framed photo of a ship commemorates one of the many ships produced at the Kaiser shipyards during World War II. Both of my grandparents worked there during the war: my grandfather helped build the ships, and my grandmother worked in in the office assisting with hiring the men and women who worked alongside him.
Although this next one has some blurring around the edges due to the person who took the photo, I treasure this rare shot of my great grandmother, my grandmother and her siblings.
A New View of Your Family History
Following these 5 steps for digitizing your old negatives will not only lead to new views of your family history, but ensure that your family history photos are preserved for generations to come.
If you found this article helpful, please share it with your friends. I can’t wait to hear in the Comments below the discoveries you make in your closets!
Thank you, Lisa Louise. You wrote excellent directions for scanning negatives, step to step. Many good tips of whether you should do this or that in a methodically way! I don’t have negatives from my grandparents, but my father took quite a few slides, so I have all of them!
I think your recommendation having the negatives professionally digitized is a good tip to remember especially if you are the caretaker of all the photos and or negatives of your family. I was given many, many old pictures from the 1920’s of my father, grandparents and great grandparents. They are in pretty good condition but I can see on some photos, they could be scanned and printed for newer and fresher look.
I just completed a project which took me over 1-1/2 years to complete for my 2 sisters and myself. I went through all my photos I didn’t know I had, and had six of them professionally restored in color as they were in black in white. They are priceless and the cost of restoring is expensive but so worth every penny!
I have enjoyed all your articles you have on your website. They are so easy to follow and thank you for that!
You are a wonderful genealogist who shares what you have discovered along the way and writes about the topic.
Thank you so much Sandi, you are very kind! And I fully agree with the value of professionally digitizing and restoring photos as well. Larsen Digital has done that for me too. I think they’re getting to know my family as well as I do 😉
I purchased an Epson Perfection V80 several years ago. It is the best investment I have ever made.
I have some 1″ X 1″ black and white negatives and larger color negativesthat come from my parents’ home. The V800 scanner can scan these very small negatives with enough dpi to have an 11 X 14 size picture with excellent crispness. The larger color negatives are clear and crisp also. Sometime the color is a little faded due to the aging of the film.
This scanner is easy to use. The program scans to the computer . You can next adjust the photo with your photo program.
Yes, the Epson Perfection V800 is an excellent scanner, though a bigger investment at around $700-800. Sounds like it worked out great for you! Thanks for sharing.
I’m a retired 30 yr veteran photojournalist trying to preserve thousands of my family and career negatives, slides and prints, which is a monumental job. I am especially keen on preserving my family’s negs and prints. One thing everyone with a treasure trove of family photography needs to do IS MAKE SURE EVERYTHING IS CAPTIONED with names (Clearly identifying who is who, on each photo’s back – but don’t push too hard so the writing doesn’t imprint on the photo’s face), dates (at least the year) and place. Elderly family members need to be asked for that information while they are still available. So many people I’ve met, including my own relatives, have many pictures but have no idea who is in them. Saving and digitalizing old pictures is useless unless future generations know who is in them.