Personal Project: Digitising My Family Negative Collection

I have been involved in many interesting digitisation projects over the past three years, working with collections rich in history and intrigue. When I found out there was a box of negatives that belonged to my paternal grandparents, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I knew how to do it but I faced the dilemma of trying a DIY approach without access to the professional equipment I take for granted at work.

Before I discuss how I have been progressively digitising these negatives in an ongoing personal project, I thought it would be worth mentioning that digitising this sort of material yourself is time consuming, requires a certain level of knowledge in photography and also requires a decent camera and processing software such as Adobe Photoshop and Bridge. With a professional background in digitisation, this is something I am comfortable with, and as a photographer I already have the equipment necessary to do it according to the high standards of cultural institutions. You need to weigh up your options in terms of your expertise, equipment, time and financial limitations. Decide on the level of quality you are after and outsource to a professional where required.

It is not a picnic without cats! Date and location unknown.
Ideally, the first thing to do before beginning a project like this is to assess what you have. How many negatives are there? What type? Colour? Black and white? 35mm? 120? I have not had the time to go through the entire content of the box I am digitising, but had a quick look through to get a rough idea of the different film formats. Since the act of digitisation involves looking closely at the entire contents of the box, I decided to use the process as a way to provide an inventory as well.

When working with a large number of negatives, using a camera and a lightbox can be much quicker than a scanner. It also has the added benefit of being able to digitise the whole piece of film, including the rebate, and having more control over exposure. This is a process I am very familiar with, having used it at work with medium format cameras and a professional lightbox to digitise anything from small to large glass plates and various other negative formats.

There are a lot of blogs about this process across the internet and there are a lot of different ways you can digitise film in a similar manner. If you are doing this yourself, you need to work out what works best for you. I am going to avoid getting bogged down in the technical details of my process at this point to avoid a massive blog post, but may come back to that at a later date. My equipment list includes:
  • Canon EOS 5D Mark III with EF100mm f/2.8 Macro USM lens
  • Tripod with geared head (inverted so the camera is below instead of on top)
  • Kaiser Slimlite Plano 2453 LED lightbox
  • Computer for tethered camera operation and camera live view
My setup on the dining table.
For the best result, it is recommended that you use glass to flatten the film and black off the lightbox around the negative to reduce flare. I decided not to do this because I wanted to get through it as quickly as possible, and the lightbox seemed to have enough static to hold the film down in most cases. I tried to photograph in batches that were the same size so I did not need to adjust the height of the camera.

It was important to ensure both the camera and lightbox did not move while working on a batch of negatives. I captured two reference images for each batch I digitised. The first is a photo of the lightbox without anything on it. This is important to even out the lighting across the frame using a technique detailed here. The second includes the lightbox itself and the ruler on the side - this is for white balance and scale reference.

Lightbox reference for white balance and scale reference.
For every packet of film there are master files and comaster derivatives in a tif format. The master file is a representation of the negative itself and includes the rebate where possible. The comaster is inverted and has been processed for viewing (with levels in Photoshop). I have also created jpeg access copies from the comasters to pass along to family members.

Master image. Frame includes the full rebate of the film and is a representation of the negative itself. 
Comaster image. Inverted, B&W and levels adjustment in Photoshop (without clipping any details).
While I used a camera to digitise the negatives, I decided to use a flatbed scanner for the packets that each group of negatives were stored in. Ultimately I was not so concerned with the quality of these images, and decided that a scanner was satisfactory. I included a QPcard 101 for colour and scale reference, and scanned each packet inside and out (opened). I also used the packets to catalogue the negatives as I went, giving each a call number to associate the files with (eg, ON 18 shown below, where files were named ON0018_0001, ON0018_0002 etc). This will be helpful in the future if anyone wants to find the original.

Front/back of a packet of film.
Some of the first packets of film I digitised happened to contain photos from my grandparents' honeymoon. How do I know this? I posted a photo on Facebook without any idea of its provenance and a friend told me it was taken at the Conservatory at the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens. Prior to this, I had randomly searched on Trove and found an article discussing my grandparents' wedding and subsequent honeymoon which included a trip to Hobart. Fast forward to March 2017 and I made my way there to recreate the photo on my first visit to Tasmania. This never would have happened if the box of negatives was still sitting in a cupboard.

Conservatory at the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens. February 1948.
Conservatory at the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens. March 2017. 
At this point, I think I have digitised just over half of the box. That equates to 541 images (including the packets) and 80.92GB of data. As I get further through the box, I am starting to come across colour film. This is where the differences between using a scanner and a camera for the digitisation process is a little more complicated. Colour conversion is a difficult process and even in the professional setting there is no specific way to invert colour negatives that have been digitised with a camera. It is ultimately a matter of trial and error as well as a working knowledge of colour. This is where scanning software has an advantage, particularly in the processing side.

The age and deterioration of the film itself means processing of digitised colour negatives can be difficult.
It has been a great experience digitising these negatives, trying to work out who is in the photos and seeing a family resemblance. Once I finish digitising the contents of the box, the next phase of the project will involve fully cataloguing the negatives (with the help of family) and rehousing them in a more appropriate archival storage solution. Perhaps to be continued in another blog post...

The box containining my grandparents' negative collection. 30 April 2017.

If you are interested in reading more about digitising negatives, here are some links you may find useful:

Cover image: Some of the negatives and packaging from my family collection. 30 April 2017.