A friend of the family was an avid film photographer. He had thousands of rolls of negatives from across the years, perfectly archived and tucked away. When he died, his family was overwhelmed with the number of negatives and had no idea what to do with them. They threw them all in the trash. It was going to be too much effort to determine if any of them were worth keeping, especially amidst their grief, and frankly pretty challenging for normal people to evaluate efficiently. For many of us film photographers, we only know a negative is a banger when we see it as a negative, because at some point we converted it to a positive and remember it was incredible. I only found out about these negatives after they were thrown away and I was asking for photos of my mom's childhood and learned they were gone forever. It got me to thinking what would happened to the carefully archived negatives of my life if I were to pass. I decided to make it easier for people one day to determine what is important to them and save them from the inevitable File 13.

How I sleeve and store my negatives

Currently, I cut and sleeve my own negatives and pop them in a fully enclosed binder. My 35mm film is in sleeves that take 6 strips of 6 frames each. Because many of my cameras will eek out 37 frames per roll, that does mean that some of the rows have two strips in them. It's a little annoying but is what it is. My 120 negatives are in vertical strips of 3-5 depending on the aspect ratio of the camera I shot (6x6, 6x7, or 645).

Archival sleeves are not easy to review

But archival sleeves, even the full sheet ones, are hard to quickly "flip through" and know what's on them. Negatives are just challenging to evaluate and see in negative form, making me less likely to ever use them. So archiving had essentially become a time consuming and expensive activity I regularly wasted my time on, because I'd never look at the negatives again.

Making digital contact sheets

It struck me one day how to tackle this for future Dani and future Dani's ancestors. I needed to make digital contact sheets of my negatives. I know this was commonplace at one point in time, but it really isn't now that we're not in a darkroom making prints or going to CVS. A contact sheet is a positive of all of the negatives all at once. I'd name and number the preview files the same way I physically labelled them on the film sleeves so they'd be easy to locate. In the future, I would be able to pull up the digital contact sheets to quickly and virtually flip through the negatives, zero in on what I am looking for, and grab it out of my weather-sealed binder. I attempted to make digital contact sheets using 3 approaches.

  1. Flatbed scanning them with a v600 (epic fail)
  2. Digital Camera Scanning them on an old light table with sheet of picture frame glass over top of the sleeve to keep them flat (success)
  3. Making fully digital contact sheets in Lightroom's Print Module (success)

Naming my negative sleeves

It was important to me to label my sleeves prior to scanning them so the scans perfectly reflected how the sleeves were archived. I surmised this made it easier to flip through binders of negatives and find the one you're looking for quickly. Everything's labelled with a black Sharpie and numbered by Year-XXX. I could've gone into finer resolution, but I didn't. This was good enough for me for now. Maybe in the future I'll add months to my schema.

Approach 1: Using a flatbed scanner (Fail)

Using a flatbed v600 to make contact sheets

For many reasons I've already written about, I'm not really into flatbed film negative scans. However, for contact sheets, I thought it would be the perfect solution based on a bunch of YouTube videos I watched that made it seem sooooo easy. I borrowed an Epson v600 from a friend and set out scanning each sleeve. Because the scanner bed itself wasn't large enough to scan the entire sheet of 35mm at one time, I scanned those sheets in two parts. I'd do the first part, then move it up and get the second half of the sheet. I merged the two images in Lightroom prior to converting the whole contact sheet to a positive. For 120 rolls, I didn't need to take the merge panorama approach.

Scan settings

Some labs actually offer digital contact sheets in large enough files so you can crop individual frames from it in printable resolutions. I had no intent of doing this (read: so much time and unnecessary hard drive space), so I optimized the scan settings to produce workable file sizes. I scanned them in Photo Mode, Reflective Surface, as photos on my Mac using Epson Scan 2.

You might wonder why I didn't scan them in Color Negative mode. You can't really do them sensibly as negatives, because the scan area for negatives is smaller than for documents. It's in the center and it's only big enough for a strip of 6x9 negatives on the v600. It would take 3 scans + Lightroom merge to make contact sheets of 36 35mm negatives or 16 645 negatives. That is the opposite of the fast and efficient digital contact sheet making process I was looking for, so it was not something I pursued. The scans looked like this right out of the box.

Inverting the flatbed scan in Lightroom

I tried converting these images of film negatives to positives 2 ways in Lightroom by:

  • Inverting the tone curves
  • Zooming in on one frame of the image, cropping out everything else, and running Negative Lab Pro on that. Both epically failed, and it wasn't because of my Lightroom process.

The flatbed scans were totally insufficient. They were dirty. I was getting a lot of reflection on the curvature of the transparency. It was awful. Now, for the sake of experimenting, I went ahead and redid the scan and removed the negatives from the transparency sleeve to see if that would fix all the weird colors and reflections. It didn't. They were still unusable for how I wanted people to be able to view them. Sure, I'd remember what the images were. But these contact sheets wouldn't enable some third party to review them and choose what to keep and what to pitch easily. I needed another solution. Is it possible I did something wrong? Yes, of course. But it's not clear to me what that is, and I've spent significant time and effort trying to figure it out. At the end of the day, it just simply wasn't the fast and easy answer I was looking for.

Left image is the flatbed scan of 120 negatives in their transparency, archival sleeve. Right image is another roll of 120 negatives, taken out of the transparency sleeve, scanned on the flatbed scanner.

Needless to say, I was very disappointed in the flatbed scanner results. Everyone on the internet made it seem so easy, and that was not at all my experience. I sought another solution to the problem.

Approach 2: Using digital camera scanning (Success)

I modified my digital camera setup

Initially, I thought digital camera scanning wouldn't be a practical solution for this exercise because I needed a way to:

  • Hold the film sleeves flat so they didn't bubble and degrade the sharpness of the contact sheet
  • Make sure no light was reflecting off the plastic sleeve
  • Backlight the negatives with a quality light source that was large enough to scan a sleeve of negatives bigger than a piece of paper (that wasn't $2000)

But after attempting it with a flatbed scanner, I realized how bad the alternative could really get, so I started making some compromises. I used an Artograph light table I have laying around (which doesn't even report the CRI so it can't be 90+), threw a normal 35mm lens on my camera so I could get the full negative in the frame without going all the way up my copy stand, and popped a sleeve of 120 on the light source. The transparency was kind of curvy, so I repeated this process with some dirty picture frame glass I had lying around over top of the sheet.

Converting the digital camera scanned contact sheets

Once I'd taken the images, I converted them with Negative Lab Pro the exact same way I attempted to convert the flatbed scanning contact sheets. They turned out infinitely better than the flatbed ones! You can tell how the frame glass did help dampen some of the curvature of the negatives that I saw without the glass. I didn't scan these contact sheets with the intent of zooming in and having printable images on a frame-by-frame basis. The only objective was to make them easy for someone to be able to look at quickly and evaluate and these did the trick!

Left image is the digital camera scanned contact sheet without framing glass over top of the negative, and the right image is with the framing glass on top of it. There's some dust and stuff, but I don't really care about it for these purposes. Also, had I simply cleaned the framing glass and the surface of the Artograph, that would get rid of 90% of it.

Approach 3: Lightroom contact sheets

Making contact sheets in the Print Module

I realized after I'd started this whole endeavor that maybe it wasn't necessary to make contact sheets from the full, physical transparencies. The benefit of doing contact sheets of a whole roll, all at once, is you can more easily review them to evaluate exposures and the quality of your shooting/ negatives. You're not solely evaluating how well someone subsequently converted and edited the images.

However, making digital contact sheets from the physical transparencies is an extra step. It's more work for someone that's already digital camera scanning all of their negatives as is or already has digital copies of each of the frames. You can also make them in Lightroom in the Print Module.

Here's what I did in Lightroom

I think it's a lot simpler to just watch what I did in Lightroom. Here is a video of me merging the scans, WB, cropping, and converting the whole thing into a positive.

Which do you prefer?

I think from now on I'll just make digital contact sheets in Lightroom as I scan new negatives in. But since a lot of my film I have also was never scanned in with DCS (back when I used a film lab), I'll probably just sleeve those rolls and make contact sheets with my digital camera scanning method. What do you think you'll use?

More contact sheets made with digital camera scanning