Convert Negatives to Photos, Revealing Lost Images
It's every genealogist's dream to inherit boxes of family photos with dates and names on the reverse. Not everyone is that lucky. I was gifted with boxes of negatives, from my grandfather and aunt dating from the early to the mid-twentieth century. How can I convert negatives to photos economically? Selecting which ones to print is difficult. I'm sorry to say, recognizing my grandparents and even my dad as a negative was next to impossible.
There were 1000s of negatives, in every format. There were the common 35mm negatives and those from the older 120mm film. The older negatives turned out to be the real prize. The 120mm film offers better resolution and detail because of its larger negatives.
I looked into using a negative scanning service. The cost/negative was 59-95 cents for a single 35mm negative to $2.25 for 120mm film. Well, that option flew out the window.
My next thought was to stuff the negatives in a closet and not think about them. I couldn't throw them away but didn't know how to retrieve the images. The boxes sat on the floor of our bedroom for months.
Six weeks of recuperation from a hip replacement in January gave me time to find a solution. The results were better than I could have ever imagined. The quality and clarity of the images, some over 100 years old, were astonishing.
The simplest solution was to use a flatbed scanner or buy a slide/negative converter. With so many film formats, I couldn't find a converter that would process all the negative types. Not wanting to spend any money, I nixed the latter and tried the flatbed idea.
I scanned a few negatives at the highest quality (600 DPI) on our HP printer/scanner. Whether it is the age of the hardware or the resolution limitation, the result was not good quality. The images had horizontal lines, which led to jagged edges and less-than-a-desirable outcome.
So, with trial and error, I came up with a solution that worked. I used an iPhone 14, a light source, paper, tape, and a piece of glass. GIMP, a simple, free, cross-platform image manipulation program was used to turn the negative into a positive, photographic image.
The light source used to photograph the negatives was a Utilitech Pro LED light from Lowes Home Improvement. The cost was about $20. Any similar bright diffused light will work. Cover the source of the light with paper, so that only the reflected diffused light is used. I taped it in place to keep it from slipping. This keeps the resulting photo from having uneven exposure from the LED at the center of the work light.
Place the negative, shiny side down, on the light source. This prevents reflection and delivers a reversed image, which can be corrected with GIMP. Putting a piece of glass over the negative keeps it flat, and helps capture the best image possible.
Nearly any cell phone can be used to photograph the negatives. Turn off the flash and deselect the "live" function if using an iPhone. Move the camera as close to the negative as possible. Check there is no reflection of the camera in the image. If you can see the reflection, move the camera further from the negative. Take a picture.
2. Select Colors ->Invert from the GIMP menu. Voila, a 1912 photo of my great-grandfather, August Selensky on his farm. August is standing in the wagon. His farmhand Billy Napiecek is to the left.
3. Since the negative was reversed, select View -> Flip & Rotate (0°) -> Flip Horizontally. This will set the image to its original orientation. Sometimes, as in this case, it really doesn't seem to matter. However, if there are words in the image, they will be backwards. Also, if someone was to return to August's farm, the orientation of the barn and the shed are incorrect.
4. Remove or adjust the outside edges of the image to improve framing. Click on the Crop icon (circled in red below), click, and drag a rectangle around the area of the photo to keep. Release and click the image.
5. Export the file as a jpg image (other file options are available), and hold down CTRL SHIFT E. Give the file a name different than the original, creating a second file while preserving the negative. I called this image Selensky, AugustFarm1912BillyNapiecek.JPG
As I'm finishing this project, I admit that not all negatives were captured and inverted. Weighing what is of value and interest to me and our family was a struggle. Some images were blurry and others were duplicates or near duplicates, those were easy to skip. Still, others were of individuals I didn't recognize. Sadly there's no one left to ask.
All of the negatives were from B&W film, so I didn't experiment with the process when color was involved.
So, now that I've moved early 20th-century media to 21st-century storage, did I toss the negatives? Confession, I did not. Seeing the messages grandpa left on the envelopes to his daughter, Shirley, is keeping me from throwing them away. Perhaps, after a cool-down period, I'll be able to let go of the originals, but for now, they are stuffed in one of my genealogy file cabinets.
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