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Digital Proofs for Old B&W Negatives

This post started with an email from a friend, Carole, who I hadn’t heard from in… well, decades. She wondered if I still had the negatives from a shoot we did together in December of 1977. Of course I had them. The challenge was how to easily see them digitally. Anyone who has old black and white negatives in shoe boxes can now make view-able digital files. The files can be cataloged in Lightroom. I’ll cover how to work with those orange color negatives in an upcoming post.

Glassine negative pages

Glassine looks like wax paper. It’s a glossy paper that resists water, air and grease. You might have seen film negatives in these holders. I used them back in the day to sleeve and store my 35mm negatives color and black & white. Surprisingly, the same Paterson binders and pages I used in the seventies are still available from B&H.

2917-0051
39 years ago, I labeled this sheet of negs: Carole #4, 12/10/77. The 0046 is my new digital number.

I’d been thinking about cataloging these negatives for quite a while. Two things stopped me. First I wanted the photos to be large enough to easily see the subject. Second I thought I’d have to re-sleeve hundreds of pages of negs in clear plastic. That was a job I wasn’t the least bit interested in doing. When I bought my 50 megapixel Canon 5Dsr, the first issue was solved. On a whim, I setup an old Knox light box (I found one on Ebay for $34.95, about what I bought mine for in the ’70’s.) I put the ultra sharp Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art lens on the 5Dsr aimed down at the glassine page.

2917-0050
The neg shooting set up. The lights in the background are off for capture.

RAW negatives become positives

Shooting this way results in getting a RAW file of the negatives. Everything is inverted. Blacks are really whites while the light areas are in the final print the shadows. Sigh. It’s easy to change this in Photoshop. Open the file as pixels then type Command (WIN: Control) + I. Done. Who whats to have a set of RAW files and another set of either TIF or JPEGs?. Not me. There is no obvious Invert command in Lightroom or Camera Raw. There is, however, a point curve. Here’s how I changed negatives to positives.

  1. Open the photo in Camera Raw or Lightroom’s Develop Module
  2. Open Curves
  3. Click the Point Curve tab
  4. Drag the upper right hand point all the way to the bottom
  5. Drag the lower left hand point all the way to the top
  6. White Balance by clicking on the space between two frames
  7. Adjust Exposure, Whites & Blacks to taste. REMEMBER EVERYTHING IS REVERSED. Adding Exposure (slider moves right) makes the image darker. Subtracting Exposure (slider moves left) makes the image brighter.
  8. Save the settings with Camera Raw’s Save Settings from the fly-out menu or make a Preset in Lightroom

The surprise

I was thrilled when I moved the Clarity slider and all of the detail in the negative appeared. I thought the glassine would obscure the images. There’s a pattern as you can see in the underexposed frame below. The frames next to it are just fine even with the slight amount of pattern from the glassine. The film is Kodak Tri-X Pan. Its characteristic grain is apparent even through the glassine pages.

Carole Kanizar 03 12-10-77_1

Cataloging

I am in the process of making 50mp RAW photographs of each page of negatives in my archives. I’ll share the cataloging process in a future post. By the way, the lead photograph for this post is the one Carole wanted. I scanned it with a Hasselblad scanner. The grain is all Tri-X. No digital additions involved!

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