Digitally Preserving Film – A Beginners Guide Digitally Preserving Film – A Beginners Guide
When it comes to photographic film, delicate alone is not enough to describe them. They are tiny slivers of plastic materials, often stored in... Digitally Preserving Film – A Beginners Guide

When it comes to photographic film, delicate alone is not enough to describe them. They are tiny slivers of plastic materials, often stored in damp basements or dry, dusty attics, and not looked after for years at a time.

Though made of different materials, almost every film negative is highly susceptible to environmental factors. Thus, you need to know how to preserve them, and convert them to digital forms, if you are to avoid incurring loses of your art.

Environmental Factors That Can Ruin Photographic Films

The two major environmental factors that pose a serious danger to negatives and photographic films are temperature and humidity. Even dropping the case of films, you must have seen the paper photos are printed on deteriorate with high humidity conditions. Kodak, for instance, is a material that is highly susceptible damage at low humidity conditions.

How To Preserve Films

To avoid damage, both temperature and humidity must be kept at low conditions. In fact, humidity must not exceed 30%, but avoid humidity less than 20% too.

At high humidity conditions, the ectate and nitrate compounds used to make films decompose to release gaseous products. This is accompanied by the wasting of the film. The image on the film may be completely or partly damaged, depending on the exposure to the conditions.

For small numbers of films, using a deep freezer can be a great idea. A freezer keeps the temperature and humidity low. The temperature can be lowered to as low as 58 Fahrenheit. At such low temperatures, the decomposition of nitrates or acetates is reduced. This in turn means that your films are protected.

For large scale storage, a freezer may not be the best option. One thing, a damaged film releases gases that could end up spoiling the whole pack of negatives. The risk of spoiling important artwork thus increases by storing many of them together.

One thing you need to know is the relationship between humidity and temperatures. Low temperatures condense the air volume, this in turn increases the concentration of the amount of water vapor per unit volume (i.e. humidity). Its intuitive to think that “hot and humid” go together, but actually its the opposite. Thus, as long as you try to keep temperatures down, keep an eye on humidity as well.

Do not get obsessed by environmental factors only. There is yet another set of biological hazards you ought to take care of. These are living things like rodents and insects. Make sure you store films in a place that is not accessible to these pests.

The Library of Congress has more steps for how to help preserve film at this link.

How to Convert Films to Digital

Of course preserving and storing films is important, but ultimately the best way to ensure long lasting life for the content of the films is to convert them to a digital format. For film that is in good condition, this is relatively easy. There are commercially available film scanners that will take your film and scan it, creating a digital video of the contents.

For film that has already started to degrade, the process is much more complex. Feeding this film into a standard film scanner would likely lead to it tearing or degrading further. If you really did want to try scanning yourself, you should resort to a single frame scanner, and do one frame at a time.

However, that’s still unadvisable, because the risk of further damage is still great. There are professional film restoration experts that do this sort of thing for a living, but do thorough research and make sure they have experience with damaged and degraded film.


We live in a digital world and the old analog ways of storing information are quickly being phased out. Old family movies and other important film items will start to degrade within a matter of years, so don’t let them go the way of so many historic films of the early 20th century. Take matters into your own hands and convert them to digital today!

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Jon Dingle Editor

A film journalist, writer and a filmmaker in business for over 20 years. I am passionate about movies, television series, music and online games.