When was the last time you pulled out that box of photo negatives, or rifled through your family’s vintage home video collection? If you’re anything like me, the answer could even be never. Yet, I haven't had the heart to toss any of them out.
Over the last 20 years, I have carted around from state to state, house to house, a plastic bin full of film negatives and VHS tapes with family home videos my parents took with the original giant camcorders that you propped on your shoulder. I realized some of them were testing their lifespans. Tapes degrade, first getting dark, then with the color shifting and bleeding. If you were lucky and chose high-end tapes, you might have bought yourself a bit of time but don't count on it. The audio may be the best of what remains on those tapes. Negatives are the same story, especially when stored in their original packaging.
Enough was finally enough. I wanted to reclaim every last bit of space in my limited closets, protect my negatives and tapes from complete loss, and share the results easily with friends and family. Decision made, I dropped off my collection at the offices of preservation and digitization specialist Monocurate. (Yes, I'm lucky, no shipping required!)
Why are you choosing to digitize?
Actually, back up. Before I dropped off the negatives and VHS tapes, I casually looked through the negatives. Glad I did! A quick review helped me come to terms with what I wanted out of this digitization work. Why bother with digitization?
Cost. At between $0.40 and $1 per negative (usually according to volume) for basic digitization, it can cost a small fortune to digitize an entire collection! Just think, I only had a 3.5 x 12.5 bin of negatives, organized inside the original envelopes the processor returned them to me in. What if my parents wanted to digitize their boxes, boxes, and still more boxes of negatives?
Relevance. Then there’s the fact that somewhere in the mix was old boyfriends. I did not want to pay to digitize every part of my history. Some history is better left to faded memory. I tried to quickly hold up the negatives to the light and remove those from the collection.
Quality. To top it all off, many photos frankly weren't even very good, because they were blurry, too dark, etc.
Well, I already told you, I brought the negatives to Monocurate anyway. I simply decided that the investment was worth the couple dozen or so digitized photos buried in the collection that would be worth their weight in sentimental gold. Within two days I had an itemized estimate. It detailed my options for digitized formats along with all the other lovely details about what to expect. I was shocked by how many negatives were in my very small bin once Monocurate itemized them. I confirmed I was ready to digitize the negatives and home videos, signed the digital contract, and let the wait begin.
Before I even looked through the photos, I jumped directly into the videos. I knew that 30+ years was too long to expect much.
The results were still exciting. Seeing yourself as a kid. Seeing your siblings and parents from your now adult perspective. Seeing family members who are no longer with you and hearing their familiar voices. Or learning, "So, that's when I got that special doll!" Or, "Ha! The truth about what I thought of my first day of kindergarten." I don't even have that on video for my own daughter. And that was actually the key for me. It was really interesting to see which moments my parents each chose to videotape, from the ordinary of hauling wood, painting the house, feeding the sheep, and playing with our outdoor cats and dogs to the special, like when family would visit from Illinois, there was enough snow for cross-country skiing in the yard and sledding in town, and Christmas holidays.
Then, the photos. With the videos I was ready for the feeling that technology has changed. The photos took me by surprise. I wasn't thinking about how much less crisp and life like they would be compared to modern digital-native photos. My hopes for a few worth their weight in sentimental gold, however, was met. Kodak moments from ages 16 to 26, digitized.
Beyond the obvious rewards of having these videos and photos digitized as I'd hoped, I learned a lot in this process about understanding my motivations, as already described above and the ins and outs of selecting the right company to bring my media to for digitization. Here's my parting gift to you all in the form of a few quick tips if you are considering digitization.
Before you Digitize
Avoid disappointment when digitizing negatives and tapes by getting clarity on each of the following four points before you hand over this sentimental gold.
1. Find out the digitized formats and resolutions your files will be provided in. Avoid proprietary formats. Guidelines from Monocurate:
Photo negatives. Look for .JPG or .JPG2 files at 72-300 DPI resolution (depending on the use case). If you want .TIFF format (at 600+ DPI) for any reason, who knows, maybe you're putting up a billboard, make sure you ask!
VHS tapes. The goal here is avoiding a result that is squished, stretched, or fuzzy, coloring that is not calibrated to look like the original, and has audio missing or not synced. (Many companies will not even digitize sound on film and may not warn you in advance!) So, look for high resolution, high bitrate, no/minimal compression, with audio sync. Your new VHS files should be around 352x480 resolution; S-VHS will be around 704x480 resolution (same as hi8). You can't really convert VHS to HD, much less 4k, with current technology, so watch out for claims in that regard.
It's worth repeating: Know that you may be too late and the video image quality will be so deteriorated that the sound quality is the best of what remains. Is it still worthwhile to digitize? Only you can make that judgement call.
2. Do you want the originals returned?
Be sure to confirm they will be returned if you want them and the cost, if any, to you for shipping or local delivery.
3. Where will the work be done and by whom?
Is digitization performed onsite or shipped out (with some additional risk of loss)? Are the personal devices of employees and visitors to the facility kept outside the work area? No one wants their private videos or photos leaked.
4. Do you want basic digitization of your media "as is," or do you need organization and touch up, too?
If the negatives are jumbled mess, do you need them organized and an index created? Do you want to first have dust build-up, grime, etc. removed to capture a clean copy? Archival indices and preservation are not typically the work of big box digitizers. If you think your collection needs some love, look for preservation and archival specialists who offer digitization services, like Monocurate, who is a member of the Artifcts partner network.
Consumer warning: By going through the process to digitize personal negatives and VHS videos, we were disappointed repeatedly by the fine print and general lack of detailed information of some popular, mainstream online digitization services companies. Read the fine print. Check reviews and FAQs. Know what is important to you and make sure the services match your expectations. If you have any doubt, write and ask questions before you send off your materials for digitization.
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