We’re going old-school with this week’s Ask Lifehacker, where we solve your quirky technological issues. While plenty of people now use their smartphones as their default camera of choice, some still enjoy a trusty point-and-shoot. And the elite among you might even pull out something called film from time to time, or have found a potentially valuable roll of old film while cleaning out your (or your parents’) house.
At least, that’s the situation Lifehacker reader Bob describes in this week’s letter:
“How do you scan negatives on a scanner? Many a mum, dad, grandmother and others saved unprocessed pics as negatives.”
Here’s the good news: It’s easy to digitise old film negatives using a normal flatbed scanner. This might not produce amazing results, depending on the age of your film and how much it might have degraded, but it’s a better option than letting it sit in a box somewhere.
Getting your negatives ready to be scanned
I recommend getting a cheap pair of gloves — cotton or nitrile should do fine — so you aren’t accidentally getting gross fingerprints all over your delicate negatives. Be sure to flatten and clean the negative before you start scanning it, ideally with compressed air, something gentle like a microfibre cloth, distilled water mixed with an agent like Photo-Flo, or a more nuclear option like 98 per cent isopropyl alcohol that you gently wipe onto the negative using a lint-free cloth or cotton swab. (Do not just dip your negatives into an alcohol bath.)
Scanning your negatives
Once you’re ready to scan your negatives, you might be first tempted to just set one on your flatbed scanner, hit the button, and call it a day. That’s not going to work, though. Your negative needs to be backlit.
I really enjoy this approach from Tim Barribeau, a former colleague of mine who also happens to be Wirecutter’s camera expert. Get some silver card stock — it’s not terribly expensive, but you’ll want it to be thick — and fold it up into a wedge.
Position that wedge behind your negative, and the light from your scanner will hit it and reflect off, which gives you a crude (but effective) backlight for what you’re scanning. You’ll then pull up the image in your favourite editing app, invert the colours, and do whatever other corrections you need to do in order to transform your negative into the photo you have in mind.
You don’t really need a flatbed scanner
If you don’t want to mess with all that — or if you don’t even have a scanner to begin with, there’s another option. Dunja Djudjic over at DIY Photography built a super-low-cost setup for “scanning” negatives. I put that in quotes, because she’s actually just taking a photo of a backlit negative, but it’s an easy process that requires no specialised equipment (beyond a decent camera), as you’ll see below:
She’s backlighting the negative using a simple lamp that’s she’s placed behind a sheet of paper to diffuse the light — easy as that.
If you want to blow a ton of money on this process, you could always pick up a scanner designed for dealing with film negatives. However, I think the DIY method should work for most of your needs.
If your negatives are that old or that precious, you can also probably find a camera place around the area or a business dedicated to film scanning that can take care of this for you. I recommend calling them up first and explaining your situation, especially if you have very old (or somewhat damaged) negatives that you’re looking to preserve digitally.