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Hey Photographers – Keep Your Film Negatives!

I have a question for you, film photography aficionados! Why aren’t you holding on to your negatives? This is not a joke. I read a NY Times article where it was estimated that despite a resurgence in analog photography, only 10% of photographers are bothering to pick up their negatives. Pardon my language, but WHAT THE F***?!???

35mm film negatives

I decided to take a bit of data gathering into my own hands and call around to some local labs that were not featured in the article, as well as contacting some mail-in labs I have worked with in the past. The consensus? Yep! Only about 10-15% of photographers are picking up their negatives or even asking for them back in the first place.

It reminded me that when I recently switched to a new local lab to process my film that one of the intake questions for new customers was “Do you want your negatives back?”

Why?!? Seriously, explain why you would not want to keep your negatives? Explain it. Make it make sense to me. I have been shooting film for almost four decades, and it boggles my mind that people don’t want to hold on to the product

When asking around online for explanations, I received many responses along the lines of “there is more to the process of film photography than the negatives.” I completely understand that “the process” is a big part of the appeal; the slowing down, the manual winding and advancing of the film, less automated features, etc.

However, I feel that you should always keep your negatives. Those little strips of developed film might seem old-fashioned in our digital age, but they still hold incredible value. Why should you hold on to them? Let’s explore…

ansel adams quote about film negatives

The Analog Aesthetic

There is something uniquely beautiful about film photography. The grain, the colors, the texture – it’s a look that digital cameras and editing struggle to replicate. But there is something beyond that. Steven Spielberg once said, “digital photography is a science and film photography is a chemical miracle.”

Among many of the common reactions I received when I posed this topic to photography groups online was that it’s hard to get the “feel” of film even with presets and digital editing. What is that secret ingredient that makes film different? I think back to my science background (I have a degree in physics) and remember that the photons that interacted with my subject then passed through my lens and interacted with the film in my camera causing a reaction. There is a bit of my subject – their energy – in those negatives.

Also, if ‘the look’ is what you are interested in, then lean into it. Getting a crappy, low resolution scan of your negatives to post on social media does not truly give you the look of film. Most scanners cannot capture the full gamut of colors in a color negative. You only see them when printing FROM THE NEGATIVES!

By keeping your negatives, you preserve the authentic analog aesthetic that so many photographers and viewers adore. Plus, you’ll always have the option to experiment with different printing techniques and materials later on to enhance your images.

The Original Masterpiece

Negatives are the original source of your photographs. They’re the unaltered, raw capture of the scene you meticulously composed. I received a lot of responses online that negatives can be misplaced or that they will degrade over time. Not if they’re properly stored! Look at the work of Vivian Maier. Her negatives, many of them undeveloped, sat for 40 or 50 years before being discovered. And they are still in amazing condition.

Furthermore, like in the case of Maier’s work, things could get muddy legally if you no longer have the negatives in your possession. Even if you’re just shooting snapshots as a hobby, you may unwittingly capture a masterpiece or a moment of historical significance. If all you have are digital scans, questions of ownership arise.

Also, do not forget that digital files can be lost, corrupted, or accidentally deleted. Negatives are a physical, tangible record of your work. As long as you store them properly, they’ll last for decades, serving as a timeless archive of your photographic journey.

35mm film negatives on a lightboard

Future-Proof Your Work

Technology changes faster than you can say “burn a CD.” Formats and file types that everyone uses today might be obsolete tomorrow. Do you remember floppy disks? Exactly. Negatives, on the other hand, are future-proof. No matter how much digital storage technology evolves, you should always be able to create prints from your negatives, whether using traditional darkroom techniques or advanced scanning methods.

If nothing else, you can simply hold the negative up to the light to view the image on it. Holding onto your negatives ensures that your work remains accessible and reproducible for years to come.

Higher Quality Scans and Prints

When it comes to creating high-quality scans or prints, nothing beats the original negative. Compared to scanning a print, scanning a negative allows you to capture more detail, dynamic range, and tonal depth. This means better image quality and more flexibility in post-processing.

But even with high resolution scanning, it will be difficult for you to capture the full gamut of colors available when printing directly from the negative. If you ever want to create large prints or high-resolution digital copies of your work, having the negatives is essential.

theodore levitt quote about kodak not selling film but advertising memories

Archival Value

Your negatives are a part of your artistic legacy. They tell the story of your growth as a photographer, capturing moments, places, and people that may never be repeated. As you build your body of work, your negatives become a valuable archive that reflects your creative journey.

Even if you are just shooting film as a hobby, future photographers or even family members may cherish these tangible pieces of history. Speaking of which, have you ever stumbled upon an old shoebox of photos and experienced a rush of nostalgia? As someone who has lost several close family members in recent years, I cannot express to you how much I wish I had the negatives of the photos I found in the aftermath of their deaths. I can scan the prints but the quality will not be the same as the original. By keeping your negatives, you create the possibility of future rediscoveries.

If You’re Going Analog, Truly Embrace It!

In our fast-paced digital world, it’s easy to overlook the value of physical media. But for film photographers, negatives are an irreplaceable part of the creative process. They represent the authenticity, quality, and permanence that digital files can’t always guarantee.

Follow along with us on Instagram, Threads, and TikTok and the next time you develop a roll of film, remember to get your negatives back. Store them carefully, keep them organized, and know that you’re preserving a vital piece of your analog photography legacy. Happy shooting, and may your negatives always be safe and sound!

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The Nerdy Photographer

With more than a quarter century as a professional photographer, The Nerdy Photographer's goal is to spread knowledge and laughter throughout the photo industry. Please follow along on social media and subscribe to the podcast.

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