How to Archive 7,000 Vintage Photography Negatives on a Budget

Today I’m taking a little break from the archiving to write a little update and to explain to anyone whom is curious, just what I am doing exactly. The archive process is pretty simple, but in this post I’ll try to break it down for you. First, let me say that this is not a science and I do not consider myself an Archivist — real archivist are trained professionals and are probably rolling their eyes at my even mention of the word. Second, the following process is the result of much trial and error. When I started this processI had no idea how to go about it. I’m still figuring it out. So, without further adieu… the archive process thus far:

Step 1 — Organize negatives

The seven boxes of negatives are roughly organized into years. One box usually has about three years of work inside. I go through each box as I come to it. I start by simply organizing all of the individual envelopes of negatives, or jobs, into chronological order. This is usually pretty easy since almost every job was dated.

Once the entire box is in chronological order I’m ready to move to the light box.

Step 2 — Shoot negatives

I figured out early on that the quickest way to digitize the negatives and still retain a good quality was to photograph them individually on a light box with my digital camera, as opposed to a scanner, which can be expensive and slow. The only downside to this is that the digital files aren’t print-ready quality, which I’ll eventually need, but for my purposes now it’s not necessary.

Let me explain. It’s important to understand my goal in the first phase of this project: Make a digital archive of every single image in Joe’s portfolio. The second phase is to design a book, but we’re talking about roughly 16,000 images total. All of those won’t be able to fit in a book, at least not a single book (wink wink). All I need for this first phase is an easily accessible catalogue to assist me in selecting final images for the book. Quality isn’t a huge concern at this point. It will be, and I’ve got a plan for that.

Shooting the negatives is pretty straight forward. The key is in the set up (see photo above), which is as follows:

  1. small light box
  2. small piece of glass
  3. digital camera
  4. small tripod
  5. cable release
  6. archival 5"x7" sleeves for the envelopes
  7. archival 4"x5" sleeves for the negatives
  8. archival three-ring binders for the sleeves
  9. white gloves
  10. anti-static brush
  11. extra camera batteries
  12. a good podcast
  13. a nickel

Image by image, I work my way through the pile. My average these days is around 350 negatives per day, which is up from about 300 a few months ago. Trending faster.

It goes like this:

  1. Remove negatives from envelope
  2. Place envelope in archival sleeve
  3. Carefully place negative on light box
  4. Place glass on top of negative
  5. Press cable release to capture the image
  6. Place negative in archival sleeve
  7. Repeat

This is all done while being constantly aware of the capture process (i.e. Is the negative framed correctly in the viewfinder? Is it in focus? Did it capture?)

Camera settings: ƒ/5.6, 1/250, ISO 100

Step 3 — Edit digital files

Once or twice a day, when I’m digitizing, I dump all the files off my memory card onto my hard drive. All the unedited files go directly into a Dropbox folder that I label with the capture date (i.e. 20160318). Dropbox acts as a safety backup for all the files since it’s in the cloud, and you can’t mess with a cloud.

My editing process is as follows:

  1. Open all original files from a days batch in Adobe Lightroom
  2. Batch edit images by inverting, converting to black and white, and correcting lens distortion
  3. Export the whole batch to a new folder in Dropbox with the addition of an “-edit” tag at the end of the file name
  4. Use Photoshop to crop each image to a 4x5 ratio and correct levels of tone (make blacks black and whites white)
  5. Save, close and repeat

Step 4 — Label sleeves

I wish I could stop at step three, but in order to make it easier for me to match the digital file to the original negative, a necessity once I get ready to print the book, I need to continue organizing.

Using the original job envelopes as a guide I transcribe each handwritten job description onto a clear Avery label along with the corresponding digital file number(s). This takes awhile since Joe’s handwriting is sometimes illegible.

Each label is then applied to the archival sleeve containing the original negative.

Step 5 — Add metadata

Last, but not least, I go through the digital files and add metadata, or key words that summarize categories of images. For example, a photo of a wedding couple eating cake might would contain key words like wedding, love, people, food, portrait, 1956. This will allow me to search for a term such as “food” and get results for every image in the archive that pertains to food. It’s going to be a key part of the digital archive.


So, there you have it. If it sounds like a lot of work, well, it is. At the time of this blog post I’ve digitized almost half of all of the negatives. Steps 1–3 are practiced regularly. I’m saving the indexing, steps 4–5, for last as this will give me another chance to go through all of the images again before I start phase two of this project, the selection process for the book.


This story was originally posted on shippstudio.com on March 18, 2016

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