Digitising film negatives: Making the negative positive in the The Digby / Woolf imaging process

Digitising film negatives: Making the negative positive in the The Digby / Woolf imaging process

Film photography and negatives have had a bit of a resurgence lately but they were once the only way to get pictures made. A large part of our current project digitising the Spencer Digby / Ronald D Woolf Collection is processing around 250,000 photographic negatives. But how does a photo negative get from our storerooms onto Collections Online? Imaging Technician Cat Watters tells us about part of their role in the digitising project team.

What is a negative?

A negative is a transparent base material covered in light-sensitive emulsion that when exposed to light and developed with certain chemicals holds a ‘negative’ image of whatever picture was taken. The image created by the exposure is inverted.

For black and white photography (of which most of the photos in the Spencer Digby/Ronald D. Woolf collection are) this means that lighter tones appear dark and the darker tones appear light or clear. We have a combination of acetate (cellulose triacetate) and nitrate (nitrocellulose) based negatives in this particular collection, and a whole host of formats, from 120 roll film to medium and large format negatives.

One part of our job as Imaging Technicians is turning these negative images into ‘positives’; imaging the negative and editing it digitally to reveal the photograph as it was taken.

A dark photo of two hands wearing blue gloves holding a photographic negative on a lightbox. The negative shows a woman leaning on a piece of machinery
Inspecting a negative on a lightbox. Photo by Melissa Irving, Te Papa

How do you develop an image?

Introducing our capture station. This is made up of a movable capture stand, a lightbox, and a camera. Our camera shoots at a whopping 150 megapixels, allowing us to capture images at a high level of resolution and detail. This is attached to a capture stand which lets us change the height of the camera from our software.

Lighting is crucial for any good image. To get the best possible shot of the negative we place it emulsion side up on a bright, even light box at the base of the capture stand. We hold the negative in place with a piece of Optium museum acrylic. This ensures the negative remains nice and flat while we shoot it.

Next, we take a picture of the negative, remove it from the light box and place it back in its enclosure.

A dark photo of a person wearing a facemask and blue gloves holding a photographic negative on a lightbox.
Caitlin imaging the negative. Photo by Melissa Irving, Te Papa

We usually shoot in big sessions of a few hundred images which we then crop and edit before uploading into our digital repository and collections online. The time spent with each image is reasonably short however the scale of the collection means that we have a constant stream of images of everything from promotional material, portraits, weddings, office parties and everything in between.

Editing the images is a lot of fun. This is where we truly get to see the image as intended and take it from a ghostly looking negative into a recognisable picture. Most of the images we deal with in this collection have been shot in black and white so the editing process is pretty straightforward. We have to flip and invert the image so that it is facing the right way and make what was once negative, positive. We do minor adjustments to make sure that the image is clear and not too dark or too washed out, and then it’s ready to go online.

An animated gif showing both the negative and positive rendering of an image of a woman leaning on an amplifier.
Woman; inscribed ‘Telecommunications Amplifier’, Spencer Digby Studios; photography studio; 12 June 1969; Wellington. Spencer Digby / Ronald D Woolf Collection. Gift of Ronald Woolf, 1975. Te Papa (B.081800)

Editing colour negatives is a little trickier. As we don’t often have prints or any frame of reference for how the colours should look, this requires a lot more judgement-based edits from the technician. Figuring out tones and ensuring we don’t over-edit is an important part of this process.

Unlike edits that might be made outside of a museum context, we don’t want to over-saturate or make any aesthetic calls in the image. We are looking for a clean and accurate representation of the photograph.

What’s a personal favourite?

Photography like this has the ability to really transport to the past. You see images of people from all walks of life, often in their best moments and it connects you in a very human way.

One of my favourite sets of negatives we have captured as a team is of Graham Kerr, New Zealand’s first celebrity TV chef. Taken for promotional material the photograph is a copy negative made from two separate photos, one of Mr Kerr and another of a pan. It was very exciting imaging both the original photo of Kerr and then the original photo of the pan a few weeks later. The final composite image shows Mr Kerr smiling inside a pan.

These images show a really cool glimpse into old techniques of photo manipulation and editing – essentially 1960s Photoshop! We have been regularly coming across interesting examples of this, as well as some very cool images of public figures and events.

The man, the pan

The man in the pan

A black and white photograph of a man's face superimposed on the base of a frying pan
Man; inscribed ‘Mr Kerr’, Spencer Digby Studios; photography studio; 20 June 1961; Wellington. Spencer Digby / Ronald D Woolf Collection. Gift of Ronald Woolf, 1975. Te Papa (B.080849/01)

There is a real sense of magic in transforming these images from a physical negative into the usable and viewable digital images you see on Collections Online.

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