Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Old Negatives? Scan, Invert, Enhance!

My wonderful sis-in-law sent me a big envelope of black-and-white negatives and a few prints from the early decades of the 20th century. 

All were taken by my late father-in-law, Edgar James Wood (1903-1986). He became a photo buff at the age of 14, when his parents gave him a camera. 

Although his negatives are in decent shape, it's much easier to figure out who/what/where when viewing a photo. I had a very good guess about the people in this negative, but I couldn't be sure.

Old process: contact sheet

In the past, I selected the most promising negatives and asked a local photography place to create a contact sheet. This enabled me to take a magnifying glass to each photo, identify the person/place/date if possible, and then decide whether to order any prints to share along with family history. (I described this process in my book, Planning a Future for Your Family's Past.)

These days, my process for working with negatives is faster and cheaper--and the results are even better.

New process: scan and invert

My new first step is to scan each negative at a high resolution, so there is flexibility to enlarge and tinker.

Next, I import the scanned negative into photo software so I can invert the colors. With a click, "invert" changed black to white and white to black. Nearly every type of photo software will do this. Once my negative is a positive, it looks just like an ordinary photo.

**Also try this alternative method from librarian Tess: "I learned a trick last year which involved putting the negative down on the screen of my tablet which was open to a blank white white, full brightness, and then taking a photo. The light behind it exposed the negative."

Now enhance and adjust

I almost always do something to improve the inverted image. Sometimes I adjust the contrast so the dark areas are darker. Sometimes I lighten the light areas. If I want to go even further, I either use more advanced functions OR upload the inverted image to to use its photo tools.

In this case, I used the MyHeritage enhancement tool to sharpen the features and improve the overall look.

Then I downloaded the "after" version and used my own photo software to adjust the contrast one more time. 

No longer trapped on a negative, I could compare the faces to photos already captioned and pick out familiar faces from hubby's family tree.

Hello ancestors

Knowing who snapped the photo, and when it was taken, gave me great confidence in my identification of the two adults as James Edgar Wood and Mary Slatter Wood (hubby's grandparents). The two boys are the photographer's younger brothers (hubby's uncles). 

This negative reveals a summer jaunt with family, captured by my dad-in-law shortly after his 16th birthday, nearly 102 years ago!

-- This is my entry in The Genealogy Blog Party for June, 2021! 


  1. What a great idea for viewing negatives. Technology has given us so many more tools for finding all the details, whether in words or pictures.

  2. Don't you just love the ability to scan these old negatives!

  3. Agree, ladies, the latest tech is making it easier and easier for us to save family history that otherwise would be at risk. TY so much for reading and commenting!

  4. What tool/trick did you use to scan the old negatives? I own a shoebox full of negatives from the 1930s and 1940s. Most scanners only scan 35mm. Thanks.

    1. Gail, these are mainly large format negatives from early in 20th century. I put them down, one at a time, on the scanner bed and scanned at high-res. I think this process would work for smaller negatives, as well. Just scan at high res and crop one neg at a time before inverting. Good luck!

  5. I learned a trick last year which involved putting the negative down on the screen of my tablet which was open to a blank white white, full brightness, and then taking a photo. The light behind it exposed the negative. Worked a treat!

    That said, I hadn't thought of Marian's method - I might try that as well with the same negative and see what happens :)

  6. Does this work with color slides?

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  7. Wendy, I haven't tried with slides because my Canon scanner has a special slide holder and setting for scanning. Let me experiment...but because of the cardboard holder around the slide, the transparency itself may not scan clearly with my adhoc method.

  8. This is a great idea! I am starting to digitize my family photo collection, and have many of my grandmother's and father's negatives. Look forward to trying this technique. (Visiting from Genealogy Blog Party.)