Scanning Photos and Negatives

Photos and negatives should be scanned to preserve them over time and make them useful in todays digital world.   Besides where can you take your negatives today to get new photos made?   They have to be scanned.  Scanning a negative can often bring out details that a photo did not show.

Photographs deteriorate over time. They fade and go fuzzy.  To preserve them for many generations we need to scan them onto a computer. Then we can archive them on familysearch or other such places you choose. Color photos last about 20-30 years before colors fade or change and Black and White photos 100 years or more.

Scanning photos can be done with a few simple settings. Most any scanner can do photographs. First set the scanner to 300 DPI. Photos are usually no more than 300 DPI, dots per inch when printed. Setting the scanner for more DPI just takes extra time and makes the files bigger.  B&W photos use gray scale not color. It will capture the picture the best. For color photos, color settings can be used if the color is in good shape. If the color photo is faded or has turned funny colors, you will need photo editing software to restore the colors if possible. You may also scan a color photo as B&W. I have scanned color photos that had lost most of their color tones in gray scale and the picture looked great as a B&W picture.

Save the pictures as .jpg. .bmp and .png work, but you can store metadata in .jpg pictures also. Metadata can record all sorts of information about pictures. It’s like being able to write on the back of a photo.  See metadata for information on adding notes to your .jpg files.

Scanning negatives is a more complex.  See nostalgic media for more details on negative formats.   Negatives require special scanners, software and time.  About 10 minutes a picture to scan, adjust color, crop the picture to relevant details and add metadata.

Sending your negatives to a professional scanning company may be a good option for some.  We did this with 8mm films my father in law had.  Much cheaper overall than us getting the equipment to do it.

If you know someone that has experience scanning negatives, get help from them.  You don't want to learn it all the hard way.

You need a special scanner for scanning negatives.   It must be able to project light from the top/cover of the scanner.  To put light through the negative.  The scanner must be able to handle 4800 dpi.    Usually Negative or Film scanner is in the name or description.

Negatives come in different sizes and DPI.  The scanner must be able to handle the size of the negatives you want to scan.  Most scanners that support negatives can do 35mm or 35mm slides.  If you have bigger formats, make sure the scanner can do it. 

 From my experience, this is what I found about negatives.

35mm- 1.4" wide film can be 1200-4800 dpi usually.  Some professional grades were 9600 dpi.  DPI varied depending on speed, color, B&W etc.  B&W usually had more DPI.   Easily made good 8x10 pictures.  Professional grade film could make wall size pictures with good detail.

35mm slides, same as 35mm film, but not reverse image, true image film.  Designed to be projected with a projector.  It was expensive to make standard photographs from slides, but once scanned you have all the pictures you want to print. 

Instamatic film was a  26mm-1" wide film.  Not as high a resolution as 35mm  1200 or 2400 dpi.

"Brownie" negatives.  These were popular in the 1940's-1960's.   They had a larger negative, 1.8" wide, but lower DPI.  about 300 dpi.  They don't make good pictures bigger than 5x7, not enough detail.

Pocket instamatic film.  About 12mm-1/2 inch wide. These were cheap cameras with cheap film.   300 dpi.  a 3x5 picture is as big as it gets and still looks good.

When scanning negatives, the shinny side goes down.  If you look closely at a negative, there is a shinny, flat side and the other side is where the "chemicals" are that make the picture.  Shinny side down gets the best results.   Only touch on the sides.  Scanners will pick up oily fingerprints on the film.  Too much cleaning can remove the "picture" material from the back side.

You will need good scanning software, especially for color negatives.  Why? color film fades and the cheaper the film the faster it fades.   Also many of the overnight photo processors in the 80's did not do a great job and the negatives fade.  

Photoshop is software often used for fixing photos.  If you can get a scanner with "free Photoshop"  it should be good enough for home use. 

Who owns your pictures?  Copyright laws are complex and I am no expert.  They vary by country.  Scanning pictures will not give the copyright to you.   It usually belongs to the photographer for many years after their death.  Scanning then posting pictures done by a professional photographer could be a problem, even if they were of your own family. 

A good place to get copyright free photos is U.S. government web sites,  .gov sites.  Government pictures are owned by the people.   In the UK, the country or a Royal copyright applies and are not free to use.  As I said, complex and I am no expert.

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Page last update Apr 11 2021