Digitizing negatives: Are phone apps any good?

Updated: Mar 31


Have you seen those adds on social media where you magically convert your negatives into beautiful images? They pop up on my feed all the time!! They make you want to run and dust off those shoe boxes and get down to work, but do they really work as advertised?


Since part of my job is exactly that, digitizing negatives, I decided to give one of the apps a go. Let me first say that none of the images below have any edits other than cropping and I followed best practices while capturing all images.


Here is a scan of the original image printed in an American lab in 1989. It has been in a sticky album since then and I decided to use it as an example since I am unmounting and digitizing said album. As you can see the image has been deteriorating.


Brandenburg Gate, Berlin Germany. Jan 1990
Brandenburg Gate, Berlin Germany. Jan 1990

Photos should be removed from these "chemical sandwiches" but that is a topic for another blog...

Deteriorating "sticky" album.
Deteriorating "sticky" album.


Digitizing with the phone app


As indicated, the negative was set against a bright back light - in this case a lighting table. Notice the negative is not flat, so I flattened it by placing one finger on either side of the image while wearing gloves - ALWAYS wear gloves when handling your precious memories.


Negative against backlight.
Negative against backlight.

I then held the phone with a 12MP camera over the negative and followed the instructions to capture the image. It is tricky to hold the phone steady for 3 secs but I braced myself to avoid motion blur. The app worked its magic and returned the image below.


Resulting scan of a negative with a phone app.
Resulting scan of a negative with a phone app.


Digitizing professionally


I took that same negative and brought it over to one of our workstations. The negative was vacuumed (yes, we do that) and dusted and then positioned in a carrier that provides back light and avoids any light bleed. As you can see from the setup, we do quality control on a monitor before capturing the image.


Professional scanning setup.
Professional scanning setup.


The image is then converted to a positive using specialized software and below is the result. Further down the page you will find a side by side comparison.


Resulting scan with a professional setup.
Resulting scan with a professional setup.



Comparing images


This is what the the two images look like side by side. As you can see, the colour reproduction of the professionally scanned image is much better, as are the details in the shadows.


Side by side comparison of both scans.
Side by side comparison of both scans.

Let's zoom into the image to see how much detail is captured with both methods. You can see artifacts in the image scanned with the phone (right image this time) that are not present in the professionally scanned version.


Zoomed in comparaison.
Zoomed in comparaison.


How much do your memories mean to you?


This is not a rethorical question.


Are you digitizing images that are not necessarily valuable but you want to keep as a reference point in your life? Then maybe this app is for you. It is fast, simple, and it is much better than having images you can't appreciate locked away in a negative. It is also great for inventorying your negative collection or simply viewing them to understand what kind of content you are dealing with. The low cost and no setup make this app an easy answer if that is what you are looking for.


However, if you are looking for high quality scans, this is not what I would recommend. This is the kind of job that you only want done once, so get it done right. Professional scans allow for good reprints, enlargements and create editable files that can be color corrected and manipulated. Not to mention that a photo organizer like Posterity Pro can also return the organized images with added metadata to create a searchable collection. Photos are a visual record of your life, invest in their safekeeping, you and your grandchildren will be glad you did!






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