Should I Just Throw Those Old Film Negatives Away?

From about 2012-2017 I predominantly shot 35mm film.

Over this time I had the film developed and scanned, uploaded the digital images to my archive, and tucked the original negatives away in a couple of large shoeboxes.

Two shoeboxes that I haven’t returned to since I shot my last roll of film three and a half years ago.

My process for archiving images digitally back then was much the same as now.

Upload to my computer, sift through and delete all those I don’t want, then back up the keepers to an external HD, and to Flickr.

The latter also gives me excellent organising and search tools like tagging and albums, and when I want to find a picture of a certain subject, or made with a particular camera, lens or film, I head to Flickr search.

Because I was already embedded in this digital workflow when I started shooting film, it was natural to follow it with film images.

The only difference with the film scans is I didn’t delete the ones I didn’t like, I just backed up the best keepers and shared them on Flickr.

I went through a period of scanning my own negatives, with a CanoScan 9000F, but found it tedious to the point of being painful.

Photography for me is about getting out in nature with cameras I love, escaping the day to day.

The last thing I wanted was to have to spend (even more) hours hunched over a computer trying to eke out half decent images when I could pay a lab a few pounds to do the same (in fact better).

And it somehow didn’t make any sense to me to shoot physical film with these beautiful old cameras, to then have only a digital image to show for it at the end of the process.

For me, it takes film photography away from its roots and into some kind of film/digital hybrid.

It’s like buying some lovely paper and a beautiful pen to hand write love letters to your sweetheart, then scanning and emailing them, rather than put them in an envelope and post them, for the recipient to appreciate in their full sensory glory.

It largely neuters the romance and impact of the original form – and the care and time and expense involved in creating something in that slower, more old fashioned medium in the first place.

I’d rather shoot digital from the outset (which of course I now do).

And whilst I’ve made some prints of my photos, they’ve all been from the digital images, not the negatives.

So I long ago reached the conclusion that those perhaps couple of hundred packets of negatives gathering dust in a cupboard have no further use for me.

In addition, there aren’t any pictures I made on film that I would be heartbroken over if I lost all copies of.

I know some say physical negatives are the ultimate back up, and I understand that for certain irreplaceable images.

But my negs aren’t priceless photographs of my children or anything similarly precious.

I can always go out (and often do) to take more pictures of rusting bicycles and decaying buildings.

But before I resign them to the bin, I thought I’d ask a few more experienced film photographers what they do with their negatives, and whether there was any point in keeping them in this digital age.

So, if you shoot film, what do you do with your negatives, and why?

As always, please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

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23 thoughts on “Should I Just Throw Those Old Film Negatives Away?”

  1. Noooooooooo! Don’t get rid of them, Dan!

    The negatives are the real images. They’re what matter the most in photography, above all else. Scans and prints, no matter how good, are not; they’re just a way to view what’s on the film.

    The negative (or positive for slides) IS the image.

    Please don’t discard them! 🙂

    1. P, I thought you might say this!

      The thing is, I don’t much value the images photographically, they more part of a learning process. So I have no attachment to keeping them, it’s not like they’re unrepeatable photographs of family or anything. So I can’t come up with a good reasons to keep them, I doubt I’ll ever look at them again, and even if I did, how would I look at them with any critical eye if they are just negatives. I’d need to have them printed or see the scans, which I already have. Which again, er, negates, having the original negatives.

      1. I just realized I never replied. Sorry!

        I hear you. I understand where you’re coming from. Still, I just think the tangible/physical nature of negatives/slides, and thus the permanence of the image contained therein, is invaluable, regardless of whether or not you think the images are worthwhile. A whole lot of old photographs that now have massive historical significance no doubt were perceived the same way when they were taken.

        So have you made a decision on what you’re going to do? If you didn’t live on the other side of the world I’d gladly take them off your hands, if for no other reason than to preserve those images as a historical record of where/when they were taken. Whatever you do, I still encourage you not to trash them.

        Take care, Dan. Oh, and Happy New Year!

      2. No problem P. I haven’t done anything with them yet, and they take up little space so I’ll probably forget about them for or a year or two then have the same conversation with myself again!

  2. Dan, I sometimes want to pitch my negs. I know, it’s heresy. But I almost never use them once I have the scans. To me, the scan is the image. I have good backups. I’m not terribly likely to lose my images to a disk crash.

    The main reason I still keep them is that so many were scanned at the lab at what I consider to be paltry dimensions, 1500px on the long side or something like that. Occasionally, very occasionally, I need a more generous scan. Then I go find the negative and scan it again on my flatbed. If only my flatbed gave results as good as the lab’s scanners.

    My opinion is still forming on this but I’m definitely exploring the thought of saying goodbye to my negs. They are just taking up space, and I seldom go back to them.

    1. Jim I think that’s just a realistic and pragmatic approach. My thinking is very similar, why keep something I’m never likely to need or use again. The same mantra applies in most of my life!

  3. I have shot thousands of film negatives and positives over the years. Most of them have been lost to the circumstances of life. The majority of them were test shots with cameras of dubious quality, and certain very few were “prize winners”. Yet I would love to have them all taking up space somewhere in the house. With today’s digital technology some of them might even have been made into “prize winners”, or at least images good enough to look at.
    Some day someone may find your negatives and wonder about the story behind them. Give those people a chance to see a small segment of history that was.

    1. I agree with Marc. Every image that’s captured on film is a physical record of the past, regardless of whether you think it’s a worthy image or not. That’s important, and is reason enough to never discard old negatives/positives.

      1. I think this touches on a larger issue. If I have thousands of images I’m never likely to look at again, then who else will. Especially today when most of us are churning out thousands of images a year… Who will ever have time to look at their own, let alone anyone else’s?

        The utter saturation of digital imagery all around us – and created by us – is on one hand positive, in the majority of us have access to devices that can make amazing images and capture memories.

        But on the downside, yeh, how few of us have the discipline even to curate and edit the best of our on images, let alone the billions of others floating around. And this will only become a worse problem as more and more images are made. Will our tolerance for editing and our attention spans and patience become increasingly short, just because there’a an overwhelming ocean of digital images to try to process?

    2. I get where you’re coming from Marc, but I think I’ve made plenty of digital images that have the same story behind them. Because I shot film and digital concurrently. It’s not like they’re from a different, pre-digital era, which is the case for many who have old negatives they’ve kept, and in this case cannot be replaced by digital equivalents, because when they were first made there was only film.

  4. I am very grateful to my father for safely storing the negatives he shot over the years. I recently made a print of a snow scene he shot from his parents’ window in the mid 1930’s. We dated the photo from the cars on the street and the apparent age of his younger brother in another photo on the same roll.

    I scan every frame of my negatives, print a proof page of every roll, make prints of the images I think will interest relatives or friends in the short term, and file the negatives and proof pages in archival envelopes, binders and boxes. At that point I’ve done what I can. What future generations do or don’t do with them is not my concern.

    1. Doug, I love hearing about when you make a print from a negative that’s from a couple of generations before. Amazing that you give the old images new life and especially when there’s that strong family connection.

      And I’m envious of your organisation! I do feel if I had been born a generation older I would have been more immersed in film and hold it more dear than I do. Because I’ve grown up in a digital age I think I just see images as more transient – whatever form they’re captured in.

      Very interesting last comment, how you see your role just as preserving these images and making them available for future generations, without any expectation of what they will – or should – do with them.

      I guess until now I’ve seen this as just another physical possession. I wouldn’t like to think of my children sorting through tons of my stuff when I’m gone and feeling guilty or obliged to keep anything just because it was mine. If it has a use to them, then fantastic, but I wouldn’t want them to keep it out of a kind of loyalty or guilt.

      I know of people whose houses are littered with items and furniture their late parents owned, that they’ve kept for what I would consider the wrong reasons, and don’t actually like or need or use the items. It just weighs them down, and it’s unlikely that’s what their parents would have wanted!

  5. I could be wrong but no matter how well the digital files are backed up, I doubt my kids or grandkids are going to spend a rainy afternoon going through them. My negatives and prints they just may. Like I have recently done with my late father’s work during lockdown. And, it turns out some slides I made during the 1980s are significant enough to be of interest to our national museum. It is the slides they want, not the scans 🙂 That is one of the reasons I have been shooting film again for nearly three years now. The other is I just prefer the colour and texture I get straight out of the camera. It’s a bit like whiskey and whisky. I prefer whisky 😉

    1. I think you’re probably right Steve. A shoe box of old photos or an album or two people might go through in the future, but as you say it’s unlikely they’ll trawl your hard drives..

      I always spell whisky without an “e”, I had no idea that whiskey was different! (I assume this is like only being able to call champagne champagne if it’s made in a particular region of France…)

  6. No sè si es para tì, pero…porquè no montas un laboratorio ByN e imprimes tus propias fotos en papel, para cerrar el cìrculo analògico? Menos fotos tomadas pero màs lento, màs pausado, eligiendo bien los disparos, y luego imprimirlos en forma tradicional…tal vez te sirva…

    1. Thanks Pablo, but I never even developed my own film, so doing prints would be beyond my capability – and not logistically possible to set up where I live either. I do envy those who years ago saw through the whole process from releasing the shutter to holding a print in their hands, and with no help from anyone else. That’s such a different, and multi-layered level of craft compared with using a digital camera today.

  7. Sell them on ebay or etsy, someone would love them (and they’re a type of plastic so not for the bin, anyway…) Or give them away on freecycle or whatever it’s called now. (Probably by post as I’d imagine you wouldn’t want contact with people unnecessarily, all assuming they’re not in lockdown).

    I don’t shoot with film anymore – haven’t done since I was a teen, I don’t think – but I do still have the negatives from then and am glad I kept them as my memory has been bad for years, and it helps keep me anchored to myself and my interests and the things that inspired me from years back. It’s not ONLY about the image of the moment.

    1. I don’t think they’re old enough (circa 2012-17) or interesting enough for anyone else to be interested in them, let alone pay anything for them. Maybe in another 50 years, ha ha!

      I seem to get easily confused with images and memories and dreams. Some things I’ve only had a dream of feel like a genuine memory, and sometimes what I think is a memory of an event is only my memory of seeing the photograph of a moment of the event. I don’t think it matters, it all forms the larger tapestry of what we call our memories and experiences, I guess. It’s amazing how much we can attach emotionally to a single image, wherever that image originates from.

      1. That’s probably why you’re not attached to them, because your unconscious can’t tell the difference between dreams and reality. That’s actually quite a good thing as it can help you to let things pass out of your life by fooling the unconscious into thinking it’s already happened or already gone.

        You’d be surprised what sells on sites like ebay and etsy. Date doesn’t matter as much as you think.

      2. Very interesting follow up thoughts Val, thank you. I sometimes wonder how I got to where I am. Not in a bad way, just it seems only a couple of years ago I was a kid with nothing in my mind but which Star Wars figure I would buy next.

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