Over the past few weeks I have received many requests to share my process for organizing and archiving negatives, and the timing was perfect as a big batch just arrived from my friends at Carmencita Film Lab. Look at this sweet view of fresh negatives!
There are many reasons to keep your negatives organized and central to each of them is the belief that your photos matter. Whether you are a professional or an amateur, your work is important. It does not matter if it is important for the whole planet or only for your partner or your future child or your family.
Keeping a tidy archive is like making your bed in the morning. It’s a bit of work to start with, but it pays off hugely if you do it regularly. A calm mind, an easy-to-find photo, a timeline of your life and photography skills, and a bunch of other things Future You would be grateful for at Today You.
Sure, you can keep your negatives in the envelope and throw them in a shoebox and you could probably find something if you dig around for a while, but again: your work matters, so treat it that way way.
Binders and negative sleeves
Let’s start! Here is everything we need. A pen, negative binders and pockets.
I recently switched from polythene sleeves from Printfile to crystal sleeves from Hama. The polyethylene sleeves are transparent which makes it easier to see the negatives, but they are much more expensive and it’s 2022 so I changed.
Hama has been around for almost 100 years and all of my dad’s negatives from the 80s and 90s have been stored there for decades. They’re also a bit lighter and sound satisfying as you flip through your binder.
For storage, I use Ars-Imago ring binders, which keep dust away and look great on my shelves. My buddies at Retro Camera sell these and they fit 100 rolls of film. There are many other options that are also suitable. All you really need is a three-ring binder.
I mark the spine with the name of the camera used since this is the top level of my organization. I add dots to indicate which rolls are in this binder. If the back has a dot, it means it contains rolls 1 to 100. The top binder in the image above says “67ii ••••”, which means it has rolls 300 to 400 shot on the Pentax 67ii.
Handling of each batch of film
Let’s take our first roll of the batch of fresh negatives and get started!
First, I take a quick peek to see what’s on that roll (see above). Then I check my roll notes (see phone screen below) to confirm this is roll 202 shot on the Pentax LX.
Then I cross-reference what I see on the negative with what is in the roll 202 scan folder to make sure no mistakes have been made (see below). These first three steps take maybe a minute combined once you are well trained.
I’m a big fan of taking notes for each roll of film, which I do on Apple Notes. These notes play a key role in an organized archive. If I ever need to find a portrait of a specific person, all I have to do is search for their name in my scroll notes with the Apple search function and it shows me which scroll it is on , which in turn tells me which workbook to enter. It’s super quick and easy.
Back to Archive: Now that I’ve figured out which roll this cover is, I’m transposing key information from my roll notes onto the new cover (see below). Each sleeve features, from right to left, the camera’s short code (LX = Pentax LX), roll number (202), date (2021.04.26) and shooting theme (Amsterdam street photography).
We now know which roll we are archiving and have annotated the cover. It’s time to move the negatives from their temporary, unarchived plastic sleeves to their new forever home (see below).
I’m careful to only touch the sides of the negative so that I don’t get harmful fingerprints on any negatives. The most legitimate way is to wear white gloves.
Now is the time to grab the correct folder, which in this case would be the one marked LX •• since roll 202 lives in the 200-300 range. Once the cover is in the binder in the right place chronologically, I put the binder back on my shelf and let out a cry of happiness.
The joy of good organization
I don’t know about you, but seeing my 2018-2022 negatives organized like this brings me so much joy. Almost as much joy as when a client or friend requests a specific photo and I’m sure I can find it in less than a minute. Relief ! Calm!
That’s it! Seven easy steps to organize and archive your negatives and honor your work. Let me repeat once again that no matter where you are in your photographic journey, whether you are doing it just for fun or with a career in mind:
Your photos matter.
Archiving is caring and honoring. If you don’t treat your work as if it’s important and valuable, why should anyone else?
If you already have two shoeboxes full of negatives and feel too overwhelmed to start, I get it, but I promise once you get into the groove, it goes pretty quick. If you can book an hour after dinner or a few hours on the weekend, you’ll be done before you know it. I love watching photography videos on YouTube while I archive. This is my version of knitting a scarf while watching a movie.
This article first appeared in Process, Wesley Verhoeve’s weekly newsletter on photography and finding your voice. To learn more, visit ReadProcess.co.
About the Author: Wesley Verhoeve is a photographer, curator and writer. The opinions expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author. You can find more of Verhoeve’s work on her website and Instagram.