Scanning negatives

A design school in New Zealand recently asked me for reproduction rights to use this image as a backdrop to some kind of 3D animation thing. I agreed, and quoted them a reasonable price, which they agreed to.

Unfortunately, there is only one existing print of that image, and it is small (printed on 8×10 paper with one-inch borders). Worse still, I could not find that print, and my only scans of it are very small and of low resolution. They needed something of medium- to high-resolution — and they needed it in New Zealand within a few days.

I’ve never scanned negatives before, but that was the obvious thing to do. Fortunately, I located the negative right away (even though I haven’t seen it in about 12 years). While I was at it, I picked out a few other negatives to get scanned, as a bit of a test to see if that is a viable way to breathe some new life into my old black & white photographs.

I’m pleased to report that it works very well. I deliberately chose a few difficult negatives — ones that were underexposed or underdeveloped — as well as some that I simply wanted to work on without having to deal with chemistry (it’s been 10 years since I’ve worked in a darkroom).

The scans I got back were generally low in contrast, but that’s just fine because it means all the information was there. They require a bit of work in Paintshop Pro (which I prefer over Photoshop). I had to remove some dust spots (clone tool), mess with the histogram tool to add contrast, and also use the Shadow/Midtone/Highlight tool to crank the contrast a bit more.

The results were outstanding. For example, below is a photo I took in 1991, when I had three cats. I made one print from this back in the day, but the negative is so underexposed that it was almost impossible to get anything useful from it. In the one work print I still have, you can barely see the three cats — everything is just black. With an hour or so of experimenting and about $10 worth of photo paper I probably could have gotten something close to acceptable.

But with the negative scan, I just spun a few dials and boom, a pretty good result, as you can see. I don’t even consider this to be “finished,” it’s just a three minute test to see what I could get.


From left to right (interior) a very young and very skinny Spiff (1991-2005), a not-yet-fat Larry (1987-2001), and the usually shy Oreo (1989-2001). I don’t know who the cat in the window is, but it’s probably the same as this one, as that photo was taken at about the same time.

I’m pretty impressed with the negative scanning. Watch for some resurrections on the Monday Morning Photo Blog.

Technical Note: Keep in mind that different monitors will show different results as
they are not all calibrated the same way. For example, you should be
able to see a bit of space between Spiff’s right side and Larry’s left
side. It shows how skinny Spiff was.

You can use the image below (from as a test to see if your monitor is calibrated correctly.

Here’s how DP Review puts it: “DPReview calibrate their monitors using Color Vision OptiCal at the (fairly well accepted) PC normal gamma 2.2, this means that on our monitors we can make out the difference between all of the (computer generated) grayscale blocks (above). We recommend to make the most of this review you should be able to see the difference (at least) between X,Y and Z and ideally A,B and C.”

10 thoughts on “Scanning negatives

  1. What kind of scanner did you use? Did you use a regular paper-size scanner and focus in on the neg or did you use a scanner made specifically for negs. I tried once with a paper scanner and got pretty bad results. If you were successful, I’d try playing with it some more.

  2. Frank, I brought them to Contact Image and had them do it professionally. You’ll never get good results with a flat bed scanner. You might do OK with a slide/neg scanner, but they’re not as cheap as the flat bed ones.

  3. The newer film scanners do really well. The question you need to ask is do you want to put all your old negatives into play. Sometimes it’s just better to say that silver ended with silver, and that’s where digital picked up. It’s a choice to be made. I think that scans of silver negatives “printed” are every bit as beautiful as original silver prints. It’s just a different medium…and that’s from someone who (at one time) loved darkroom work.

  4. Jonathan, I certainly don’t want to put all of my old negatives into play, but I’d like to resurrect some of them. In some cases I don’t have prints, or at least not good ones, or the prints I have are large (16×20) and I’m not sure where to get those scanned without it costing an arm and a leg.

    I don’t really see it as a silver vs digital thing. I just see it as images I’ve made that I don’t have access to until I get the negs scanned.

    I doubt I’ll buy a film scanner, but I may do a survey of negs and try to put together a project or two from them.

  5. Glad to hear that it was the lack of quality of the equipment and not user error. But it would have been great to electronically archive the boxes of negatives and photos I have from back in the day. The film scanner prices will likely come down some day.

    Thanks for the tip. I think our wedding photographer took our negs there. I recognize the logo.

  6. This link ( has good info for calibrating your monitor and scanning slides and negatives.
    I got a scanner for negs/slides last month; it’s not the greatest, but at least I’ve digitised stuff that was laying forgotten in my closet.
    A guy at work was praising the $2000 scanners the other day. I don’t have that kind of coin, but I guess it’s worth it if you’re serious about your work.

  7. In my case I’ll probably just use Contact Image. They charge about $4 a scan for low-to-med. resolution, which is all I generally need. I doubt I’ll scan more than a few dozen (although if I get into my slides that’s a whole other thing…).

    Hmmm. I see a bigger hard drive in my future.

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