Convert Negatives to Photos, Revealing Lost Images

Negatives and supplies used to convert negatives to photos digitally
Negatives and supplies used to convert negatives to photos digitally

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.

 

A negative captured using a flatbed scanner.
A negative captured using a flatbed scanner.
Utility light turned on showing intensity at the center source.
Utility light turned on showing intensity at the center source.
Negatives
Top negative with shine side up, bottom negative is flipped, allowing less chance of reflection.
Negative ready to be photographed.
Negative positioned on light source, ready to be photographed.

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.

Connect the phone to a computer and download the image(s). Download and install GIMP on your computer. Other photo manipulation software options will work as well, but I went for free and easy.

To begin the conversion:

  1. Launch GIMP and open the image to convert.
Negative of August Selensky and Billy Napiecek circa 1912
Negative of August Selensky and Billy Napiecek circa 1912

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.

Invert negative using GIMP
Invert negative using GIMP
Negative inverted using GIMP
Negative inverted using GIMP

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.

Flip image horizontally
Flip image horizontally
Image flipped horizontally
Image flipped horizontally

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.

Crop icon circled in red. Draw around the desired area then cllick inside the selected are to crop.
Crop icon circled in red. Draw around the desired area then cllick inside the selected are to crop.

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

Export and rename photo.
Export and rename photo.
Final cropped photograph
Final cropped photograph

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.

One of the notes to Shirley from her dad
One of the notes to Shirley from her dad

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.

Don't miss any of my musings, subscribe to the I Hunt Dead People Newsletter and get notified of my next blog post. If you're curious about your family history but don't have the time, energy, or experience to do it yourself, contact me and I'll be happy to assist.

1 Comments

  1. Doug Foster on February 23, 2023 at 10:25 AM

    What a blessing to have the negatives and to (affordably) turn them back into photographs again. As we mentioned when you got started – the images are rewarding, but the hints a picture can reveal are sometimes the real treasure.

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