More about archiving

Interview portrait of Lady Helen Brook, founder of the Brook Advisory Centres which gave advice to young women about contraception starting in the in the 1960s, aged 85 at her home in north-west London. 05 May 1993 Photo: Neil Turner

Here we are in day sixty-something of the UK Coronavirus lockdown and I’m still ploughing through my very old work and trying to knock it into a usable archive. There are a number of stages to the process and stage one has been to make a detailed catalogue of somewhere approaching three thousand rolls of negatives from dates on the negative sleeves married up with my old (Filofax) diaries and a few memories kicking around in my head. Stage one is now pretty much finished. There are a few gaps where I cannot work out the exact details of when and where pictures were taken and there are a lot of sheets of negatives missing where the films were processed in newspaper darkrooms and I never got them back.

What I have done as a first step is to create a spreadsheet with columns for the film number, date shot, client who commissioned the job or if it was a self-funded project, a generic caption for the whole sheet of negatives, specific frames where applicable and the digital filename range of files created. From there I can import any or all of that data into the IPTC metadata once I get to the captioning of those images. There will be some rolls of film that will never be touched and there are others which will be given a lot of attention.

It’s interesting how some film has survived perfectly in tact having being stored for many years in less than ideal conditions (my loft) whilst others have needed to be delicately peeled from their “archival storage” sleeves and re-washed carefully to stand a chance of being digitised without the need for several hours spotting per frame.

Digitisation of the best of the black and white archive is stage two and, like a lot of others, I have found that taking high quality photographs of the negatives using close up lenses and a good light source before reversing them in Photoshop and retouching them is the quickest and highest quality method that makes financial sense. I had expected to use my trusty Epson Perfection scanner for this task but my early experiments tell me that I can do three times as many images in a day using a camera and that the quality of the end product is higher too. I have a cheap copy stand, a Canon EOS7D MkII and a Canon 50mm EF macro lens with a 12mm extension ring all connected to shoot tethered with a USB3 cable to a Mac laptop running Canon EOS Utility software to capture the images and Photo Mechanic to browse and caption the images made real in Photoshop. So far my experiments have taught me the following:

  • To get the exposure pretty close in the camera is a great help and it is important not to allow what shows up as shadows when you shoot the frame – those areas that will become the highlights once the negative becomes a positive in post-production to be poorly exposed.
  • I am shooting everything as Canon CR2 (RAW) files and opening them up in Photoshop and using the “invert” function.
  • Having a blower-brush to hand is important and having an old anti-static device is handy too.
  • There’s a big difference between types of film and the quality of their processing when it comes to how cleanly they digitise (so far Kodak T-Max processed by myself is best and Fuji Neopan processed by one of the newspaper darkrooms is worst).
  • Strips of film stored in Kenro acetate sleeves are fine but those stored in archival acid free paper aren’t always that well protected.
  • Grabbing the digital file with a tiny bit of the film rebate makes judging the exposure easier.
  • The Spot Healing Brush Tool in Photoshop is your new best friend.
  • The lens that I am using is better at f16 than it is at f22.
  • The results are better as de-saturated sRGB files than as black and white ones.

It’s time consuming but rewarding and very interesting too. I reckon that working steadily I may have stage two finished by Christmas.

The same set up works well with transparencies and is pretty good for working with colour negatives too – but those two stages of the project are still to come.

Cybil Marshall octogenarian author of “A Nest of Magpies” photographed at her home in Ely Cambridgeshire. 23 April 1993. Photo: Neil Turner

Technical notes: Pictures of a Kodak T-Max 400 negative taken with a Canon EOS7D MkII at between 2 seconds and ¼ of a second at f16 ISO 320 on a Lightbox held by a copy stand. The film was almost certainly processed using Kodak’s own T-Max developer at the recommended dilution/time/temperture.

8 comments

  1. I don’t have nearly the number of B&W negatives that you have archived. Appreciate you sharing your method of copying but unless I miss, you don’t indicate what you used for a light source? I have a lot of slides for copying to digital and would like to know what to use?

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    1. I have a small Lightbox that I use. The negatives sit in an old strip holder from a Nikon scanner and the rest of the surface of the Lightbox is masked off.

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    1. That looks excellent. Mine is just an old small battery powered light box that I bought back in the late 1980s for judging negatives when travelling.

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  2. Neil, I have been taking time over these last few weeks cataloguing and digitising many of my fathers photos from 1990s back to 1930s, 40s and some even older family photos. The setup I ended up with is similar to yours. I found a cheap neg & slide holder on ebay designed to fit those little stand alone scanners. I am using an A5 light panel again under a tenner on ebay. Camera is fuji XT1 with 60mm macro. If you use Lightroom I would strongly reccomend Negative Lab Pro plug in. It handles inversion very neatly. A blessing if you have to deal with colour print film.

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