Tips & Tricks

The Positive Side of Negatives

By Eric Napier

Of all the questions I receive about digitization, there is one that echoes frequently throughout the community: are negatives better than photo prints?

It is a great question that has a complicated answer, so I’d like to address it as best as I can with you today.

A few months back I received an email from a client. She posed this question to me again, but with a twist. With her permission, I have included the body of her email.

“I keep hearing Ambassadors say that negatives (if stored properly) are better than photos.  I had the opposite experience last year. All of my negatives were processed at the same location and stored exactly the same, but about half of one year came out very yellow.  The only difference in the rolls was that they were sent in to be developed at different times.  My question is more about the fact that the chemicals and processing can affect how they age.  Since they are developed and prints made right away, the prints look good, but if the processor didn't neutralize the negatives correctly, couldn't that cause the negs to discolor over time, while the prints remain in good quality?  It's not possible to check the negative quality, but easy to check the photo quality.  I'm kind of thinking out loud here but wondered what your thoughts are on this topic.” - Lisa Hemstreet

I have always said that if your negatives were stored and handled properly, they will produce a better-quality image than a photo print when digitized. And in most cases, this is true. A negative is sharper and clearer than its positive counterpart, and with today’s technology, we can digitally capture the image better than ever before. But as Lisa mentions in her email, what if the negative was improperly processed? And how is one to know if the colors have degraded due to this reason or any other? After all, it is a negative, which makes it impossible to see its current color quality without converting it first.

The simple answer to this lies in today’s best technology. With millions of professional and amateur photographers digitizing their own private collections of negatives every day, color correction software continues to improve to meet market demand. Here at our facility in Green Bay, we use the best software available, both for converting the negative to a positive and for final color correction when needed. In almost every case, we can bring negatives (and slides) back to their former glory. We offer “bulk” color correction services for large collections, as well as “single-image” color restoration.

So, if you are on the fence about whether to send in your negatives or prints, I recommend the following:

Photo credit: Michael Dales

Visually inspect your negatives (with a magnifying glass, if possible) for scratches, water damage, and heavy dust or dirt (we cannot “wash” negatives or slides). Then, visually inspect your prints for scratches, tears, water damage, and fading. Make an assessment as to which format is in the best overall condition, and send them in for digitization.

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