Photographs are an important resource in understanding the past. It documents the architecture of buildings and how they have changed over the years. Photographs of individuals not only show their appearance but tell us about clothing and hair styles through the years. This method of looking at the past is why the Fitchburg Historical Society has archived over 1,100 photographs chronicling the history of Fitchburg. The FHS Photo Database contains a description of each photograph and a thumbnail image of the photograph. Clicking on the thumbnail will bring up an enlarged image.
Recently, several items including glass negatives were donated to the FHS by a Fox family relative. This type of negative was common in the 1880s to 1920s because of their stability and relatively high resolution at that time. This technology was supplanted by thin acetate negative film and today with most individuals having a smart phone, sharing digital photos on line has reduced the need to have physical photographs.
Obtaining prints and digital images from glass negatives would typically require the services of a professional photographer. As an alternative, we tried a do it yourself process that requires an inexpensive light box, a camera and Adobe Photoshop software. This article describes the process and gives the results which were quite respectable for 118 year old negatives. The process also worked for old thin negatives, some of which date back to about 1909.
We borrowed an AGPTEK Magnetic LED tracing Light Pad (retails for $30) that has a screen size of approximately 8 by 12 inches. The light box was turned on to its brightest setting. A 7-inch-long glass negative was placed on the screen emulsion side up. A photograph of the glass negative was taken with a Nikon SLR camera without flash (any camera or smart phone should work) using a 50mm lens to reduce distortions. The camera was set close enough so the glass negative filled most of the screen. The digital images were then placed in Adobe Photoshop Elements for processing. The image was first rotated so the top of the image was horizontal and then cropped to just have the negative image. Then using the Command I key set (Mac) or Control I (PC) the images were transpose to positive images. As these were black and white photos the images were converted to black and white. This eliminates the brownish look and renders the image as shades of grey. The images were then adjusted for brightness and contrast. The size and resolution of the image can then be adjusted as desired. For archiving we used a 6-inch length at 300 dpi. The images were reduced to 72 dpi for our FHS website.
The following 8 photographs are the end result of our photographic process. The glass negatives had a date of July 4, 1902. Note that most of the photographs are taken while the horse was moving demonstrating that the exposure time on the negative was short enough to prevent blurring. Some of the negatives do show some degradation especially around the edges.
To validate this process on old thin negatives, the above process was performed on some old 6 ½ inch long negatives, again from the Fox family. The description on the envelope containing the negatives indicated the baby in the negatives was Phil Fox. Our archives show Phil Fox was born January 8 1909. This indicated the negatives were likely made in the summer of 1909.