I’ve been using cameras for more than forty years now, since I was eleven years old. For almost thirty years, I shot only on film. I never had access to a darkroom, so I always had to send the exposed films to a lab of some sort and get back the film and prints. At first 9×9 cm prints from my Kodak Instamatic. Later I switched to 35 mm cameras that gave 10×15 prints.
I captured many memories, and from time to time I took a picture with a little more thought behind it, not for the memory, but to possibly make a nice picture. More often than not, I got somewhat disappointed when I got the prints back. The composition was more or less as I wanted it, and the exposure was for the most part right, but there was always something missing. The colors might be off because of the printing machine’s automatic balancing of the colors, or the details were missing in the highlights and shadows due to the limited dynamic range of the paper. Also, in cases of low light, the images weren’t only dark, but the blacks used to be lifted up to some kind of mushy grey, ruining everything.
Thankfully, I saved the negatives right from the start. Or, mostly. After the first few years I became sloppy, an much is missing from the eighties, and a bit from the early nineties. Some times a whole year or two, sometimes only a piece or two of four images out of one film roll. I have no idea how that happened, if I threw them away on purpose or if they have gone missing somehow.
So, last year I started scanning the negatives. First I had scanned many of the old prints, but I kept thinking of all the images I was not satisfied with, so I tried to scan some negatives with my DSLR. The process is a bit cumbersome and requires a fair bit of practice, but I was amazed at how good the results were when I learned how to process the images. It was like being there and taking them all over again, seeing things I hadn’t seen since the day the images were taken. Details popped out from both shadows and highlights, and images taken at night in low light could have black shadows and popping highlights. In many cases I can still remember what I was thinking when I took the pictures, how I wanted them to be, and the disappointment I felt when I saw the prints. And now, decades later, I am finally able to get what I wanted back then!
In the autumn I got hold of a flatbed scanner that could scan film, and I switched to using that. The scanning process was slower, but the scans required less processing. I haven’t yet done a proper test to find out which method is the best or fastest. That is really not relevant for this post. the point today is to show how much information is recorded on the film that got lost in the prints, especially in high contrast situations.
A real eye-opener was this image from 1988, taken with a Pentax Pino 35e point-and-shoot. Fixed focus and only automatic exposure, one of the simplest and cheapest cameras on the market at the time. First a direct scan of the print:
Then a flat scan of the negative to preserve all detail in shadows and highlights:
All that beautiful detail was hidden in the negative, and I didn’t see it until 31 years later! Then I added back some contrast and got this:
Another example is from Brighton, UK, 1992. Shot in low light with a weak built-in flash and the same Pentax camera, it shows what often happened to underexposed images. The prints were lacking color and contrast, and with porridge-like shadows.
Scanning the negative and then processing the resulting image gave me something much more realistic:
So the tip of the day is: If you want to rediscover your past, get your negatives scanned! You’ll most likely discover some treasures.