Digitizing Orphaned Glass Negatives

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I was loaned sixty-three glass plate negatives by a friend of a family member. They had been found in an abandoned farmhouse on the verge of collapse somewhere in rural Iowa. Yesterday, I finally got around to working on digitizing them.

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The setup was pretty straightforward. I used a Canon 5D Mk II, 85mm f/1.8, 11mm extension tube, Induro CT213 tripod, Induro PHQ1 head, and a light box. I shot tethered directly to Lightroom, where the images were cropped, inverted, and adjusted.

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The area immediately surrounding the negatives was masked off using 2″ black paper tape, for consistent positioning and to minimize flare. Not shown here (I didn’t think to take these shots until after I was done), but excess lightbox area was covered with a black cloth, also for the sake of limiting flare. The photography was done with the room lights off to minimize reflections on the surface of the glass plates.

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Pardon the mess – I’m moving to Shanghai in less than 3 months and am in the process of going through EVERYTHING I own.

Screen Shot 2013-11-24 at 2.38.50 PMI made 2-3 exposures of each negative, making sure to account for negatives that were notably more or less dense than others and to make sure everything was sharp. Cats running around all crazy do actually occasionally make for unsharp images in my apartment, even on a tripod.

I want to make it clear that what I did with these negatives is not all that demanding. A tripod, an even light source, and a sharp lens are effectively all you need to do this kind of work. You don’t have to shoot tethered, you don’t have to use Adobe software, you don’t have to necessarily know all that much to do this. It’s an important point because there is an immense amount of photographic history floating around out there, and much of it is losing out to the effects of time. When those images degrade too far, we lose them. Digitizing materials like this is a way to preserve our photographic history. Technology has made it easy enough to get good results now that many more people can and should be doing this.

These photographs have provided me a fascinating window into an era an a place I never would have otherwise known. I don’t know who these people are or where the photographs were taken, but I am hopeful that I will be able to give identity to all things concerned with the help of an organization like a historical society (I haven’t started work on this yet, have only just now digitized the images). I’m sharing them here with you because I want other people to experience these images and because I want to encourage other people to do work like this themselves. I did this entire project while on the couch, drinking a beer, sitting next to my girlfriend (who was playing Guitar Hero at the time).

What you should get from that statement is this: you can easily do this too, and I hope you will.

Below is a gallery of all of the images. They are available at high resolution (2000px) if you click on any of them. If you have any insight into who these people are, where these photos were taken, or have any questions about the process, please leave a comment. I have so enjoyed these images, I am glad to be able to share them with you.

 

2 comments

  1. Hi David,

    what kind of lightbox do you use?
    I´m thinking about a similar setup but still afraid about bying a light source for this sort of “negative scanning”.

    Cheers,
    Damian

    • David says:

      It’s a Kaiser lightbox that I borrowed from a friend. It’s a nice lightbox, but the illumination isn’t as even as with newer models. It’s not as bright at the edges as in the center, but in this case it didn’t matter.

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