Printing Heirloom Photo Negatives

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

Q My grandfather gave me boxes of family research materials with hundreds of early (pre-35mm) black and white photo negatives. Many were taken at family reunions. I’d like to have prints made of some or all of the negatives, but I’ve been unable to find a company that can process them. Do you know where I might have my negatives made into prints?

A. First, you’ll want to determine if the negatives are safety-based film. Some early negatives are made of highly flammable nitrate and must be handled carefully. If the word safety doesn’t appear along the edge of your negatives, or the if the film has a noxious odor, you may have a nitrate negative. Read the Northeast Document Conservation Center’s guide for more on identifying and handling nitrate negatives.

You have a couple of options for obtaining prints of older black-and-white negatives. Most standard photo developers should be able to produce a print the same size as the negative (called a contact print) for a reasonable fee. Enlargements are more expensive.

A photo specialty store (not a one-hour processing setup) that offers photo finishing may be able to produce standard 4×6-inch prints if your negatives are larger than 35mm. The lab I use for professional projects charges $3 per picture.

You also can call local photographers who have darkrooms and ask about contracting with them to do the work. I’d begin by calling the photography department at a nearby college or university to inquire about students who might be interested in printing your negatives for a fee. Also look under “Photo Finishing” or “Photo Restoration” in the Yellow Pages.

A scanner made for negatives and slides might be able to produce good quality digital images from your negatives, but this equipment can be expensive. Some traditional scanners come with negative-scanning attachments; for details, see Rhonda R. McClure’s Digitizing Your Family History (Family Tree Books).