Film negatives. Also old home movies.

If there was one declutter task I was keen to do once I returned from the Middle East, with a bit of spare cash in the bank, it was to finally, once and for all, get my old negatives and home movies digitalised by a photo service. For one, to declutter negatives, cassette tapes and photos. Two, in case of any emergency or loss, I had a copy. Three, because I wanted to add them to my photobook project, someday that I would tackle that. Unfortunately, it didn’t prove as straightforward as I’d hoped. But, what I did learn was useful because if you’d like to do the same, I’ve got some tips and tricks for you.

  1. Decide if you are going to spend the money on a service or spend the time on getting it done yourself.

It’s the age old question of paying in time or money.

Me, I knew I had a lot of photos, because a) I was an avid photographer, and on a trip to the US with my best friend, I took 6 rolls of film to her 1 roll, and b) I lived life large, always, but especially in those 5 years I was an adult before I got my first digital camera, I took weekend trips most months and went either overseas or on some big trip at least once a year. Plus, with young siblings and a nanny job, I took a lot of happy snaps of children. There was just no way I was going to dedicate the time required to get the job done. I knew I would need a service.

You can do it yourself if you are willing to dedicate time each day or week to work on it, and you have a smallish number of images. There are high quality scanners with negative holders available to help you do the job. I did actually buy such a scanner, the Epson Perfection V370 Photo, in case I needed it for any project, knowing I’d get very high quality. Whichever scanner you go for, look for high picture quality and an included negative holder to help you line up your strips.

  1. If you choose a service, do your research for quotes and attention to quality.

This is really important. Start with looking at large camera shops and google negative scanning services to look into quotes. In Australia, my quotes varied between $1-2 per image (NOT per strip). In Melbourne, I was looking at Michaels, who for $2 per image would scan each negative individually, ensuring images were free of dust beforehand. In Adelaide, where I was destined for a two month stay, I looked at Hutt St Photos, who charged $1 per image but scanned strip by strip in bulk. Worth noting they would take a box or bag of unsorted but clean and unmarked negatives or slides, but I didn’t want a bulk scan. In the end I went for a happy medium, Big Egg Media in Adelaide who for $1.50, made sure negatives were dust free, scanned the photos image by image, and then also took my home movies on video cassette and digitalised them for $8 a tape (note they do not digitalise professional content like store-bought movies and tv shows due to copyright). There are also additional services available for touch-ups on scratches and other wear and tear. I did not require these.

You need to decide what your priority is. Quality or price?

  1. Count and separate your negatives.

This feeds directly into step 4, whether you will DIY or pay for service.

You want to have some idea of how many images they’re going to scan so you can estimate your total cost. That will definitely influence your service choice. As you go, I strongly recommend dividing your negatives into like-with-like categories. Put them into envelopes or ziplocks by category. It definitely helped me to have my US holiday pictures in one envelope, Europe or Antarctica in another, and so on. It made dividing so much easier once I had a few categories going, and then could see if there were strips missing either from memory or because I was double checking them against my photo albums.

If you are scanning them yourself, having a number and groups of negatives in place breaks down the total project and the overwhelm into manageable chunks. Do you have 50 images of Christmas 1992? Try allocating a few hours this Sunday to the first 25 and next Sunday for the next 25. It would be useful in your first scanning session to note how many you can scan in one hour, to help you adjust your overall time allocations for the project. 

  1. Make a list of folders you’d like them saved in, if relevant.

This goes with step 3. Once you’ve divided them into categories, and envelopes or ziplock bags, you want to label your categories because either as you do it yourself or when you give it to the service, when they are digitalised, you can have them saved into a corresponding folder on the hard drive. Unless you’d like to be given an unorganised folder with 1200 images ready for sorting?

To me, it made more sense since I was looking at strip after strip, to categorise them and ask the service to kindly save them in specific folders. I took a further step of buying dot stickers in multiple colours to stick on the plastic sleeves strip by strip and putting the corresponding colour for that category next to my list of folders so that they could be sure blue stickers were for the Antarctica folder, for example. If you are putting them in envelopes, this may not be necessary. I handed mine over in a big box with card separators, so I kind of made more work for myself in this sense.

  1. Estimate 5MB per image and decide if you need a hard drive or USB thumb drive for storage.

I had about 1500 images. Multiplied by 5, this was about 7.5GB. This would have easily fit on a thumb drive, and you can ask your service provider if you need to provide the USB or if they will include it in the final price. In my case, I also had video tapes, and I had no idea how many MBs they would take up. So I supplied a brand new hard drive to my service for them to put all the content on the one device.

If you are doing this at home, consider if you have enough space on your computer, hard drive or chosen storage method. You could even put them in the cloud as you go! Just make sure you have the space available. No good getting stuck in and then running out of storage right when you are in the swing of things!

  1. Hand them over or get started!

Once you have your collection of images, divided by category, thumb drive or hard drive at the ready, and plenty of cash in your wallet, you are ready to go! It will depend on how many images you have, of course, but expect the service to take at least 2 weeks or more for individual image scanning. Strip scanning can be quicker, but this is not a same day service at all. Leave them to it, and look forward to the day they call to say it’s all ready. I did. I confess, I haven’t thrown out my negatives yet, because I want to go through them properly with the hard drive versions and check them out. But in theory, once you get your hard drive back, you can declutter your negatives finally!

The cassette tapes, fyi, were each one continuous stream of footage, so I do need to go into those files and break them down a bit into smaller movies and label them.

If you are doing this yourself, good luck! Remember, divide it up, keep it small and achievable and learn how many minutes or hours you can do at once before you get tired of it, and allocate similar time slots daily or weekly to keep at it until it’s all done. It is a massive job and takes a lot of concentration and dedication to save yourself the money and pay instead in labour.

***

Even if you use a service, prepare yourself for the time it will take to get everything ready to handover. It did not take me a night or a weekend. This whole process was a couple of weeks of going back to it. Organising. Counting. Losing count. Giving up. Needing to move to another hotel or location. Trying again. Not having a permanent dedicated space to divide and leave them and divide further added to the time it took me. I tried really hard to count and get a decent estimate on price but in the end gave up and hoped it wouldn’t cost me the whole earth. I wound up paying something around $2500 AUD for about 1600 images and 8 cassette tapes and it took about six weeks with a Christmas break included, before they called me for collection. But I didn’t care. Going back to my 3 reasons at the top. They were done. And I never need to worry about losing those precious memories again.

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