How to Convert Negatives to Digital Pictures

Preserve your old photos and slides at home

What to Know

  • Use a film and slide scanner, a flatbed scanner with a transparency option, or a light table and camera.
  • Negatives and slides are digitized the same way, but negatives require the extra step of inverting the colors.
  • Film and slide scanners can automatically invert scans of film negatives, but you'll need an image editing app for the other methods.

This article explains how to convert photo negatives and slides into digital pictures using a film and slide scanner, a flatbed scanner, and using a digital camera as a scanner.

How Do I Convert Negatives to Digital Photos?

There are a few ways to convert negatives to digital photos, including three methods you can do yourself at home. The best way is to use a film and slide scanner, a specialized scanning device designed for this specific task. You can also convert negatives to digital photos using a regular flatbed scanner, but the process is more complicated. The final method is to illuminate your negatives or slides from the back and photograph them with a digital camera or your phone. If those methods sound like too much work, some services will convert your negatives for a fee.

How Do I Digitize My Negatives?

The best way to digitize negatives and slides is to use a film and slide scanner. These devices are similar to regular scanners, but they’re specifically designed to scan negatives and slides that need to be backlit to view. These devices typically also have a setting to invert the colors of your negatives after scanning so that you don’t need to edit them after the fact.

Here’s how to digitize negatives and slides:

  1. Examine your negatives or slides for dust, and clean them with canned air if necessary.

    Checking slides for dust.

    Jeremy Laukkonen / Lifewire

  2. Use compressed air to clean your scanning device if necessary.

    If there's any dust on your slides or inside your scanning device, the quality of your digitized photos will suffer.

  3. Insert a negative or slide into your scanning device.

    Inserting a slide into a negative/slide digitizer.

    Jeremy Laukkonen / Lifewire

    Your scanning device may have a cart to hold your negatives or slides, or you may place them directly in the device.

  4. Check the display to view your negative or slide. The image may appear automatically, or you may have to press a preview button. Flip, mirror, or invert the image as necessary using the controls on your film and slide scanner.

    Viewing a slide in a negative/slide scanner.

    Jeremy Laukkonen

  5. Press the scan or copy button.

    The Copy button on a negative/slide scanner.

    Jeremy Laukkonen

  6. Repeat steps 3-6 to digitize additional negatives or slides.

    When digitizing negatives, some scanners will automatically feed an entire strip. If your scanner has that feature, keep an eye on it to ensure the automatic feeding mechanism doesn't damage the strip.

  7. Then you can connect your scanner to a computer or transfer the files via an SD card or USB stick if your scanner supports it.

Can You Scan Negatives With a Regular Scanner?

While a film and slide scanner is the easiest way to scan negatives, you can also convert negatives and slides to digital pictures with a regular flatbed scanner. Some high-end scanners have a feature that allows you to scan directly from film negatives, but most scanners don't have that option.

If you have a regular scanner that doesn't have a transparency option, you can still scan negatives, but you need to provide a light source. There are many ways to do this, and you will need to experiment with the tools you have available to achieve the best result you can. The simplest method requires a sheet of white printer paper and a desk lamp or other source of light. After scanning, you'll also need to use an image editing app to invert the colors if you're digitizing negatives.

Here's how to scan negatives with a regular scanner using that method:

  1. Clean your negative and the glass of the scanner bed with compressed air if necessary.

    A scanner bed.

    Jeremy Laukkonen / Lifewire

  2. Place your negative or slide squarely along one edge of the scanner.

    A slide placed on a scanner.

    Jeremy Laukkonen / Lifewire

  3. Place a piece of white printer paper over the negative or slide while being careful not to move the negative or slide.

    A piece of paper placed over a slide on a scanner.

    Jeremy Laukkonen / Lifewire

  4. Set a desk lamp on the scanner bed and position it to shine on the slide or negative through the paper.

    A light set on a scanner.

    Jeremy Laukkonen / Lifewire

  5. Turn on the light, and make sure it's shining on the slide under the paper.

    A light shining on a slide on a scanner.

    Jeremy Laukkonen / Lifewire

  6. Scan the negative or slide.

    The scan button on a flatbed scanner.

    Jeremy Laukkonen / Lifewire

  7. If you scanned a negative, open the scanned image in the image editing app of your choice and invert the colors.

Are There Any Other Ways to Convert Negatives to Digital Pictures?

In addition to scanning negatives using the two methods described above, you can also digitize your negatives by simply taking pictures of them with a digital camera. If that's all you have, you can use your cellphone camera or use a high-quality DSLR with a macro lens for better results. The slides or images need to be illuminated from the back, which you can accomplish by placing them on a lightbox.

Here's how to photograph film negatives and slides to digitize them:

  1. Place your negative or slide on a light box, and turn the light box on.

    A slide placed on a light box.

    Jeremy Laukkonen / Lifewire

  2. Carefully frame the slide or negative with your camera, and take a picture.

    Taking a picture of a slide on a light box.

    Jeremy Laukkonen / Lifewire

    You can do this manually with a steady hand or use a tripod for more consistent results.

  3. If you're converting negatives, open the picture you took in a photo editing app and invert the colors.

How Much Does It Cost to Convert Negatives to Digital?

You can buy an inexpensive film and slide scanner for less than $100, and converting negatives to digital doesn’t cost anything but time if you have a flatbed scanner and desk lamp. Flatbed scanners with a transparency feature designed to scan negatives tend to be significantly more expensive. You can find lightboxes for about $20, or you can use a phone or tablet screen with a pure white image on the screen, and the brightness turned up for slightly lower quality results.

Instead of converting your negatives or slides, they typically charge per image, not per strip, if you opt to use a conversion service. If you have a film strip containing several pictures, you pay a fixed amount per picture. Prices vary, but you can typically expect to pay between $0.25 and $1.00 per image. Specialty negatives, like disc negatives, usually cost more.

  • How do I convert film negatives to digital using GIMP?

    You can use GIMP to convert scanned negatives to positive digital images if you scan your negatives. Open a scanned file in GIMP and select Colors > Invert from the menu bar. If the colors look off, you might find it helpful to adjust the white balance in GIMP before inverting the image.

  • How do I convert Kodak disc negatives to digital?

    While they're rare, you may be able to find a special disc negative holder to use with specific scanners. If you don't have the equipment, get help from a disc negative scanning service.

  • How do I convert large negatives to digital?

    Use a film scanner that comes with large format negative holders. You could also use a lightbox with a digital camera and software like Photoshop to invert and edit the negatives.

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