Old format negatives: how to get pictures from negatives

I was recently gifted a suitcase of old photographs, including some bundles of old Box Brownie negatives.

This week i learned how to process them - without any fancy equipment.

Let's start at the end with the outcome. This is a negative i have processed. It is a picture of Blanche Edmonstone at Dubbo Park, 1919. The photo was taken by her sister, Victoria Edmonstone, with a Box Brownie 2, using Kodak 125 film.

Here are enlargements of the face (a 1/2" by 1/2" area on the negative). The first shows a focus on the surface scratches, which are then dealt with in post processing (potentially a great deal of work).

The second enlargement shows a focus just beyond the surface - giving the entire image a slight blur and removing most small scratch marks.

I am used to looking at old family albums and wishing that they had better cameras. Turns out that they did. The old cameras shot film that still leaves a lot of DSLR images behind, despite all the other conveniences the technology offers us. I was a bit surprised at how much detail is hidden in the old negatives - even a basic phone can quickly catch a stash of old negatives - although a macro lens is useful with good quality images. It is a nice to see the faces in the pictures soften and become real again. Amazing that peoples faces don't change all that much.

So, lets start at the beginning. I was recently gifted a bundle of old Box Brownie negatives. Box Brownies were common as chips. They were sold for almost nothing - the profits came in processing the film. The negatives I got came in two sizes 5 1/2" by 3 1/4" (Kodak 125) and 3 1/4" by 2 1/4" (the more common Kodak 120).

The goal is to process them - without any fancy equipment (a light box). A little while back i spent thousands getting my dad's slides digitized, but all i got for the money was low resolution rubbish. So, i tried something new.

1. Protect the surface of the negatives from the moment you get them. Do not handle with fingers. Negative surfaces are sensitive: they collect dirt and are easily scratched. There are a couple of good guides out to help clean negatives if a camera puffer doesn't work. Old negatives are likely to have tiny scratches caused by the curious or just movement. These cant be repaired before shooting but can provide a valuable focus point if you have a quality macro lens.

2. Do a test with your phone. Lie the negative on a clean sheet of glass and secure in place with cardboard around the bits you want to image. Make sure the negative is flat. Hold the glass into the sky and take a shot of the shiny side of the negative. Hold the phone square on to the negative, and make sure you have clear sky (without the sun) behind the negative. Clear sky works a treat. If your background is trees or buildings or clouds or a light or the tv or a white screen, you will get artefacts in the image (the image demonstrates how different backgounds may impact on the outcome.

Note that commercial digitizers are basically high quality cameras with an expensive lightbox. The lightbox is the tricky bit. The sky is the best lightbox you can find - when you try put it in a box, the light becomes uneven.

3. If you are happy with the outcome, and need to do lots, make a jig with cardboard and set it up so that your camera/phone is also held in place.At first i simply took iPhone pictures of the (shiny) side of the negative, but moved on to taking detailed images with a macro lens on my DSLR.

4. Check the image for focus. If you have a high quality macro lens, you may be able to focus on fine scratches on the surface of the negative :/ or focus into the medium slightly to blur these. The example shot shows some lint and fine scratches on the surface of the medium. Dirt can be cleaned (check http://howtoscan.ca/scanning-tips/clean-negatives-before-scan-alcohol.php).

5. Most image software comes with a convert negative function, so finishing the process is generally just a matter of cropping, rotating and converting. I also convert to B&W.

Sometimes the obvious hides the important. I find cars in a lot of old pictures - in this one there is just enough information (center far left) to tell me that Jack, an old stockman, has driven the girls to town to meet their grandfather.

Of course, you can enlarge areas of interest without difficulty.

I have seen the original postcard sized pictures from some of the negatives i have developed. They tend to wear time poorly. Reprocessing can significantly improve and dramatically increase detail with very little effort. It is a much more satisfactory course than photographing damaged and lower quality developed photographs.

You can probably reimage any negatives you have without needing anything more than a bit of clear sky and your camera gear.


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