Last night we had dinner with a friend who had just brought home boxes of old photos and negatives to sort and share with his family. He was wondering whether or not he should keep the negatives with the selected prints. It's a good questions. Now that most of us use digital photography, film negatives have become nearly obsolete.
But before you throw out that old color or black and while film, it might be worth considering what you will be losing.
Film negatives are to photography what HD is to television. Sharper, richer, better.
I found this image a few years ago with a batch of negatives from my grandmother Arline. The detail from the scanned negative is impressive:
U.S. Military Unit. Negative. Digital image. Privately held by Denise Levenick, [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE,] Pasadena, CA. 2008
A new print made from a clean, well-preserved negative will produce a much sharper, better image than a print made from a digital scan of a photo.
The negative is the 1st generation version of the image seen by the eye. The print made from the negative is the 2nd generation.
When the print is scanned, this digital image becomes the 3rd generation. Print it out, and you will be holding the 4th generation.
A better solution is to make a digital image directly from the negative.
Digital technology can capture much more information than is visible on that 2nd generation print. A "digital negative" can be manipulated for restoration, enhancement, and enlargements. It can be stored in multiple places to insure preservation in the event of disaster or damage to the original. It can be owned by multiple people.
How to Scan Film
Negatives and slides contain more detail than most photographic prints, so you will need to scan film at a higher resolution to capture all that information. Many museums and institutions recommend film scanning at 2400 to 3200 dpi in TIFF format. This creates very large files, but will make very good prints.
If you plan to enlarge the image to poster-size, you will want to increase the resolution even further.
Many flatbed scanners will accommodate film and slide scanning with the use of a special film adapter. Be aware that it can be time-consuming to scan film at high resolution.
It's Okay to Play Favorites
Any photo scanning project can benefit from thoughtful selection. For most collections, it's not necessary to scan every single image. Choose the best of several, choose the representative photo that captures the most people, or choose highlights from a particular year or decade.
Skip over photos that are unfocused, cut off heads or limbs, or show endless frames of endless desert.
After you've scanned the negatives to make digital copies, preserve the film in specialty archival negative pocket pages in a negative binder, or vertically in special negative boxes.
Store film in a cool location, less than 68 degrees if possible. Keep out of the light. Avoid excess moisture and fluctuations in humidity. An cool interior closet is a good location.
All modern film is Safety Film, manufactured from non-combustible materials. Older film may have a vinegar-like odor; this is a clue that the film is unstable and dangerous. Isolate the offender and take it to your local professional photo supply for advice. The best solution may be to digitize the film as soon as possible and destroy the original.