Salvage Old Negatives and Slides With Digital Scanning

Those of us who got into photography long before the digital age have boxes of slide and negative film, some going back decades. Among those frames there are a few worth saving but some of the prints have blown out highlights or under exposure that no amount of darkroom magic could salvage. What to do?

The digital darkroom comes to the rescue. No matter how bad the 20-year-old print from the pharmacy or one-hour-photo kiosk is, if there is information in the negative it can be digitally brought out and enhanced to create an excellent image. That is if the negative is still available.

Negatives Keep Detail, Bad Prints Don’t

There must be many photographers like me who rarely throw away film. I kept it in the hope that one day technology will offer a solution to rescue marginal shots that have hidden value. That day is here.

Negative scan

Scan of photo lab print next to a scan of the negative shows how a marginal photo can be saved.

This photo was taken with a point-and-shoot film camera and built in flash. The image on the left is a scan of the print as it came from the photo lab. The subject is blown out and lacking detail. It could have been printed better but in the one hour film days it was what-you-see-is-what-you-get.

The image on the right is a scan of the negative. There is plenty of detail in the subject which was easy to bring out in Photoshop Elements. A bit of sharpening minimized the imperfect focus. The result is an image easily viewable on computer or printed in small format for a photo album. It preserves the precious memory of a first gondola ride in Venice, 1989.

Prints from Slides–Hard Then, Easy Now

Getting a decent print from a negative was relatively easy in the photo lab darkroom days. But a print from a positive slide was a different matter. It involved creating an internegative to print from or using direct positive material like Cibachrome. Both methods had drawbacks usually centered on high contrast and low dynamic range.

For decades my color material of choice was Kodachrome. Like the song says it makes you think all the world’s a sunny day. But if exposure isn’t bang on or the dynamic range is a bit on the high side, getting a decent color print could be very difficult. Today a digital scan makes dealing with positive slides easy.

Kodachrome slide scan

Swiss Alps scanned from a Kodachrome slide retains detail in the bright snow and mountain shadows.

This photo is a scan of a Kodachrome slide. The dynamic range is not extreme but attempts to make a direct positive print were less than successful. It was impossible to retain detail in the bright snow and keep shadow detail in the mountains.

But a scan of the film retains detail throughout and makes an excellent print with very little Photoshop post processing.

Obviously, scanning makes the leap from analog film to digital imaging. But what is the best way to scan? You can either scan the film yourself or send it out to a service. It depends on the volume of images you want to preserve. If they number in the hundreds or a thousand or more, doing it yourself is cheaper but time consuming. It is best to use a multi-image scanner such as the Epson V600. This will do twelve negatives or four color slides at once. It will even scan medium format film as well as flat prints and art.

Using a service such as Photos, Movies & More is faster and easier. The difficult part is sorting through the negatives and slides to decide what you want to have scanned. It’s easy to go overboard and at $0.59 a scan it can add up. But you’ll get all your photos on a CD ready to share, print or process in Photoshop.

So dig out those precious memories on film, slide or photographs and convert them into 21st century digital perfection to share with the world.

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