Digitizing Film Negatives: A Look at the Gilbert Project 

By Noelle Charbonneau, Research Services Assistant

Since August, GVSU Special Collections has been working on a long-term project to digitize the Douglas R. Gilbert photography collection. Douglas Gilbert is a Michigan-based photographer known for his early images of Bob Dylan, Janis Ian, and other notable folk musicians. In his early years Gilbert worked as a photojournalist for a Michigan State University student newspaper, where he photographed events like the election of Governor George Romney. He also later worked as a photojournalist for Look Magazine in New York City. The Gilbert collection contains Douglas’s entire body of work, from Michigan landscapes and local history to photos of political protests, as well as people and places in New York and beyond.

Currently, the majority of the collection exists only in the original film negatives, which need to be scanned and processed for a digital collection. Scanning film negatives is a bit different than other types of scanning for a few reasons. For one, the negatives have to be carefully handled with nitrile gloves to reduce the risk of transferring oils from skin that could damage the film.

Archives staff must wear gloves to handle negatives

Secondly, no two types of film are the same. This may seem obvious, but it presents a challenge for getting the best possible scan from a negative. Our scanning software helpfully offers a variety of scanning profiles based on film type, which allows us to choose the best approximate settings for the image in question. However, the film in the Gilbert collection dates from the 1960s and 1970s and does not always have a modern equivalent to select from. If there isn’t an easy match to be found, we then have to do some research and a little bit of guesswork to match the tone and ISO of the original film to an available scanning profile.

ISO, also known as film speed, describes the film’s sensitivity to light, with higher ISO numbers reflecting higher sensitivity. This means that it takes less time for the film to develop a reaction to light than a less sensitive, lower ISO film. Gilbert’s photos are in black and white, which means that scanning the negatives with the wrong settings can result in too much light or too much shadow coming through in the positive image, reducing the image quality. Higher ISO film also results in grainier images than low ISO film. Scanning a negative with a different ISO profile than the film calls for can cause a discrepancy between image grain in the positive scan and the original negative.

Self-portrait of Douglas R. Gilbert, 1962

Left to right: Kodak Pan-X (ISO 125), Kodak Tri-X (ISO 400), Ilford HP-5 (ISO 400)

The above images demonstrate the subtle differences between scanning profiles for different types of film. The middle image was scanned using settings that match the original film type, Kodak Tri-X. The first was scanned with a profile that matches another Kodak film, Pan-X, a slower film than the original, which is slightly less grainy. The third image was scanned using a profile intended for Ilford HP-5 film, which is the same speed as the original Tri-X but has a different tone, resulting in a lighter image.

Matching the qualities of the film to the digital replication ensures that the composition and integrity of the original photograph is maintained across both physical and digital copies. This is important for guaranteeing that the image is presented to viewers as the creator intended, as well as making sure that any fine details, like textures, present in the original photograph come through correctly in the digital rendition.

One of my favorite aspects of working on the Gilbert digitization project was learning how to handle and preserve film-based materials both physically and digitally. In addition to developing knowledge and skills about archival best practices, the Gilbert project allowed me to learn more about visual history and the importance of maintaining the original qualities of visual materials. With proper digitization procedures, we are able to preserve the artist’s vision and present materials without interference or alterations.

For more information about digitization, see our post On Digitization. To learn more about Douglas Gilbert, visit his website or view the Douglas R. Gilbert collection.