Preserving my 35mm negatives, my story.

Why?

I have been an avid photographer since I was about 13 years old. I started with an old range finder camera that was pretty basic, it had a light meter and you had to adjust the shutter speed and aperture by hand. the term range finder indicates that you had 2 lenses, one for taking the picture and another that you would use to look through to frame the picture.  I had this for ages and it served me well over the years but then I graduated to an SLR (Single Lens Reflex).  For those who don’t know this is where you look through the actual lens that will take the picture; mine was the Canon AE-1.Canon AE-1 I loved this camera (I still do) and l have it sitting on a desk upstairs, I can’t bear to part with it.  I have a selection of lenses (70mm-210mm, 28mm, 50mm and a 2x extender), flash, tripod, mini tripod etc.   It has been to all the places I place dear to my heart and has taken some absolutely awesome pictures over the years.  It’s like it wa

s my memory machine while I grew up and visited extraordinary places, it kept my memories for me (the brain eventually forgets so much).

Those damn negative …

So, I had a dilemma, what do I do with all those negatives that I have been carefully storing for all those years, the pictures from those negatives were distributed to family, friends and photo albums many years ago, any pictures that were let in those packets from the chemists were probably the ones that were no good (you know the ones out of focus etc.).  In addition to the 35mm negatives I also have some colour slides, I even had a shot at printing from slides back in the day, wow it was complicated.

Canon ELPH2      APS film cartridge

Then there was the batch of APS film from my wifes Canon ELPH2 camera that we got when we came over to the States; she called this her spy camera, apt because it has the drop in cartridge for the film, it was extremely small and took wonderful pictures.

I started researching film scanners hoping to find one that would handle all the different types of film that we had acquired over the years, damn it was difficult.  It seems that I was late in the game for film scanners, most of the major camera manufacturers (Nikon, Minolta, Canon) made scanners back in the day but they have all left the business (except Nikon).  It’s not surprising really because the explosion in cheap good quality digital cameras has made film all but obsolete, also considering that literally all phones (smart or otherwise) have a camera it made sense for the companies to exit the space.

Scanners, scanners everywhere.

canoscan_fs4000us

I must have spent months trying to find a scanner that would meet my requirements, there was nothing out there except the Nikon unit which retails for over $6,000, too rich for my blood.  The one I wanted was the CanoScan FS-4000US made by Canon, this handled 35mm negatives and slides and had a cartridge for scanning the APS films but it was not in production.  When it was available it retailed for around $1,000, a lot of money but I would have paid it if I could find one.  I must have tried 100’s of web sites that claimed to have them in stock but never did.  So, I was resigned to the fact that I would not be able to scan the APS films; crap!

I then did a ton of research on negative scanners from various companies, my conclusion was that these units were mostly garbage, some were going for around $30-$100, the sensors were small and not high quality (based on reviews), the DPI was low, some as low as 1000DPI, this sounds good but remember that a 35mm negative is not much bigger than an inch wide.  Some would state the megapixels which made it very difficult to compare different units.  The higher priced models looked good but the reviews were so wide ranging that it was a crap shoot as to what you were getting.

fs4000_aps_holder

I had my mind set on a couple of units and then found that only one of them had auto feeding of negatives.  This does not sound like a big deal but imagine that you have a strip of 4 negatives and you have to align each negative to the scanner, pre-scan, adjust colours and cropping, perform the scan and start again for the next negative.  This would have driven me crazy considering the number of negatives I have; this meant that I had to have auto feeding. The bottom line was that I was not happy with any of the units that I found (and I found a lot), at this point I had (sort of) given up and was ready to buy anything to get the project going; then Christmas 2011 happened and we went back to the UK for a (well earned) holiday for a month.

Got it!

As you can imagine after about 2 weeks of basically having fun and doing very little I was getting bored so I decided to look again, this time I decided to use eBay to try to find that CanoScan unit, to my utter delight I found one on sale (used of course) for $300.  I contacted the seller to make sure he had the APS cartridge (he did) so I bought it on the spot (I made it a birthday present to me from the missus, 2 birds with one stone).  Now I am happy as Larry and chomping on the bit waiting to get home to see what this thing could do, damn that was a long 2 weeks.

Getting home and starting scanning.

So I was home, the scanner was in the box and I was ready to start work on some test runs to see what the unit could do.  This is where I fell into another trap that would bestow anyone acquiring ones of these old scanners, the software.  The seller did not have the software. not surprising really and he didn’t indicate that he was going to send it anyway.  I tried the normal route of going to the company web site but there was nothing there to download, just patches etc.  On further inspection I saw that the software was never updated for Windows 7 and there would probably never be one, again, not surprising considering that the unit was out of production.

After much searching (again) I found the perfect piece of software that was designed exactly for someone in my position, i.e. you have an old scanner with no software and you want to use it on the latest operating systems.  This is called VueScan from a company named Hamrick, it is just a dream.  I downloaded the trial version (it works just like the registered version but it adds a watermark), plugged in the scanner to the computer with a USB cable (it supports USB 1.1), the software detected it and gave me settings specific for my scanner, WOW! I scanned a few negatives, screwed things up a bit at first and then got the hang of it, the pictures were very clear and I could adjust the colours and exposure to my hearts content.

I then tried the APS cartridge and the thing was just awesome, I pre-scanned 25 negatives, adjusted the exposure and colours, set the cropping, set the grain reduction mode and pressed the button, a couple of hours later there were 25 pictures on the hard drive, all of them looked great and it was so easy.

Now the fun begins.

There was one problem with using the unit, it was USB 1.1, this was (practically) the first implementation of USB which has a terrible throughput, this meant that during the scanning process the scanner would pause while it transferred the data to the computer.  This made the scanning process much slower than I would have liked and much noisier as the scanner stopped and restarted over and over again.  Luckily there was a solution in the fact that the scanner also supported a SCSI interface (Small Computer System Interface), the problem was that I didn’t have a SCSI card in the machine.

I quickly made a decision that it would be a good idea to use an old computer that was retired and sitting in the basement to start scanning, I got on eBay and found a used SCSI card for $10, it was cheap because it had one of the old card interfaces (some variation of PCi), I got a cable, configured the scanner and everything was up and running.  Considering the PC was and old Dell 2350 with a Pentium processor, 1GB of RAM and a 60GB drive it was not long before the hard drive was full and I was getting frustrated with the time it was taking to scan, time for a new PC.

I did a ton of research (again) this time looking for an i7 machine, I got one of the 3rd gen i7 Dell XPS machines with 8GB of RAM and a 1TB hard drive and a 23″ HD monitor running Windows 7, this was soon upgraded to Windows 8 when it was available (also it was ony a $15 upgrade to Windows 8 Pro.  Now the fun really began because the old SCSI card would not fit the new machine.  The PCi slot that it would have gone into was taken by the ATI video card, doh!.  So began the frustration of having to spend more money and find a card that fit, eBay to the rescue again, this time $100 for the card to fit into PCix1 slot that was available, a lot of money for a second hand card but new ones were $300.

So I get the card in the post and try to install it, should be easy (right), wrong!  The bracket on the card was one of those slimline ones, my machine took full height cards, this meant that I have to find another bracket, I eventually got one from Adaptec (for $10) but only after making one myself from spare parts (that was not fun at all), during this time I also realised that the cable would not fit, SCSI is notorious for changing the connectors, they have loads of different ones for the different versions of SCSI, so I had to shell out another $30 for an adapter.

The pay off was that everything just worked, VueScan recognised the scanner, the speed a little better (remember that scanning speed is controlled by the scanner), there is no lag while it scans an image, in fact the computer is not doing much while it is scanning because most of the work is to just pass data from the scanner to the computer.  Once the scan is complete the time taken to post process all the data and write the image to the disk is greatly reduced due to the speed of the i7.  You could say that I am happy, you are wrong I am ecstatic!

Slogging through the workload.

This is where your patience and tenacity come in handy, don’t expect to scan a box of negatives over the weekend, it will takes weeks and weeks to get through them.  You do have some choices you can make to speed up or slow down your progress, there is always a trade-off that  you can take to save time, space or quality.

The VueScan software allows you to control the number of passes it takes when scanning a negative, this can be a single pass or multiple, a single pass is quick but you won’t get the best quality because it cannot apply post processing to the captured image.  If your scanner supports an infra-red scan to get rid of dust spots (mine does) this will take even longer, I decided that since I am probably only ever scan these negatives once in my life I am going for the Full Monty, multiple scans with different exposures, an infra-red with medium processing on the image.  This means that a strip of 4 negatives can take about 20-30 minutes to process and file sizes are around 15MB per negative, image size is around 5800×3800 pixels, I save them in JPEG format with 100% JPEG quality (this means that images are not compressed too much).  I did consider using a lossless format to save the images but I don’t think that I would get much better quality than what I am with these settings.  Also, saving them at this quality gives me the opportunity to scale them down for posting on Facebook etc.

So the slog began, I already had some rolls done on the old machine and noticed that they were not as good as the ones that I had done on the new machine, then it dawned on me, the old ones were not cropped to the image and they had a white border around them.  What had happened was the software exposed for the border as well as the image (makes sense really) so it got the exposure wrong, I had to go back and do those 8 rolls again, worth the effort; I was not going to make that mistake again.

My plan of attack was to put on a strip of 4 negatives, pre-scan then and make sure they were cropped and exposed correctly, hit the scan button and walk away (or do something else on the computer like writing a blog), come back and repeat and repeat and repeat.  I alway put on a strip before I go to bed and I do the same first thing in the morning before I go to work, when I get back from work I do the same again.  Therefore, at a minimum I do 12 frames per day, that does not sound a lot but that means that I can do 84 frames per week which equates to 2.3 rolls of 36 frames or 3.5 rolls of 24 frames.  In practice I do more on the weekend and a little fewer during the week but it does mean that I am steadily getting through my negative.

As of today (2 October 2013) I have scanned 201 rolls of 35mm and 71 rolls of APS (various numbers of frames per roll), not bad for about 20 months of work, also consider that I was down for about a month with the new machine and there were those pesky holidays back to England for month here and there.  As I said before, this is a one shot deal, once they are scanned they are done and will never be scanned again, do it right first time and never look back.

Storing your negatives.

So what do you do with the negatives once you have scanned them, well, I used to do black and white and on those days I had negative sheets that ended up in a folder, so that is exactly what I am doing with my negatives.  They are moving from those paper packets through the scanner, into the negatives sheets and into a folder.  They are numbered (these match the numbers of the pictures on the hard drive) and (where possible) dated (also date the images using the software.

What next?

At the moment I am in gathering mode, get all those negatives onto the computer and make sure I have a backup (or 2 or 3), then I need to do something with the archive that makes sense to me and the family.  At minimum I will be distributing some of these pictures to family and friends.  I am also thinking about putting them on a web site so that family members can download them, I am not 100% sure about this because these pictures are precious and I do not want them to be distributed outside the family.

Conclusion

I remember talking to a friend a couple of years ago when I mentioned that I was going to start this and he thought I was crazy.  I argued that it needed to be done so that these memories were preserved for my family and (hopefully) future generations, I must admit that he was right it is just crazy.

I have found some absolutely incredible pictures of many things, obviously pictures of departed relatives and friends are the most poignant, there have been many moments as the pre-scan is taking place that I have tears in my eyes remembering the situation and the people.  I have also discovered some pictures of myself that I didn’t even remember existed, damn I was thin back then.  Other ones just evoke memories of places and other people that I have experienced and it makes for a great trip down memory lane.

My advice to anyone attempting to do what I have done (and am still doing) is to just start, yes there will be times when you think that there is no way you’ll be able to get through all the negatives and pictures you have but, if you never start you will never finish.

Have fun!

 

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One thought on “Preserving my 35mm negatives, my story.

  1. Great article.Seems a lengthy process but the enjoyment one must get from looking at pictures that they probably had forgotten and also
    up some great memories.

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