How to keep your negatives organized.

I was talking with a fellow film photographer one time and the subject of maintaining a growing base of work in terms of negatives came up. I told him what I do and he said “Wow, you’re really organized! I should do that.” I thought this was a little odd because most people wouldn’t describe me as organized. I decided years ago, sifting through boxes of prints from labs for that one frame I wanted to print that there had to be a better way. I developed a system of archiving negatives that work for me. Having my negatives organized makes my time in the darkroom more fun and productive. It has evolved over time and is its own work in progress. I rarely if ever can’t find a negative provided it was shot after 2005.

I have three planes of negative existence in my house:

  • Pre-sorted
  • Filed
  • The Abyss
  • Pre-sorted

    Pre-Sorted is pretty much like it sounds, before sorting. Once a negative strip is dried, I cut it and put it in a PrintFiles available at FreeStyle Photo. PrintFiles are transparent holders with holes for a three ring binder and a place for notes. No glassine sleeves, no wax paper envelopes, PrintFile or trashcan. PrintFile holders are not that expensive and honestly I’ve received a lot that were previously owned in auction lots of other photography equipment.

    PrintFile holders are available in a range of sizes and formats: from 35mm to 8×10.

    Where PrintFiles run into problems is with single frames. Single frames need to be near the opening. Getting a single frame negative out of a PrintFile is a serious pain in the butt. Most all of your 35mm or 120 film will need to be cut into strips of 3, 5, 7, etc frames to use PrintFiles.

    From there it goes and sits in a pile in my darkroom. The Pre-Sorted stage is a mess. I don’t often print negatives from here unless I see something I’m super excited about. This part isn’t the most glamorous but the key is to get your negatives into PrintFiles because then they’ll want to be sorted!

    Pre-Sorted  Negatives
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    Filed.
    Once I have an embarrassingly large pile of negatives like this, it’s time to get down to business. One of the nice things about PrintFile holders is that you can contact print with the film still in the holder. This is exactly what I did for quite some time. I’d put the contact print in a family album style holder with the PrintFile holder right next to it in a three ring binder.

    My first large binder got really full and really fast.

    I thought “Why am I babying these contact prints? They’re not valuable and you’re supposed to work off them!” So I ditched the album holders and three hole punched the contact prints directly. This bought me a little bit of time. Eventually finding negatives became a pain again.

    I further divided my negatives by subject: Pinups and everything else. I do have a color binder but that’s for random color work I really, really like. I also collect vintage negatives and have binder for some of those.

    With a little looking you can find three ring binders pretty cheap. There’s a thrift store right down the road from me that sells them for $.50ea. You can also slide a print that was too light or too dark in the cover to even more easily identify the contents. Labeling the spine is also a good call.

    Within a binder things are roughly chronological. In the Pinup binders I try to group all a model’s sets together chronologically. This has cut down my searching a lot. As soon as I had to start a second binder for a subject I write the years on the first and the starting year on the second.

    I also stopped contact printing and bought a Tamron Fotovix. Fotovix is an oddball tool, made by Tamron, for photographers that can come in really handy. It allows you to view negatives and positives on a TV. You can find them on eBay relatively reasonably priced. I bought one for 35mm and one for Medium format and saved their cost in paper easily.

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    Now when I have a bunch of negatives waiting to be sorted I’ll wait until the family goes to be, grab a beer, set up the Fotovix and start picking negatives. I’ll write a checkmark on frames I like. Label, date, etc the Printfile with a sharpie and file it in a three ring binder.

    I learned about the Fotovix from watching the documentary Bill Cunningham New York. Cunningham is a fashion photographer in New York City. In the movie he previewed his images with a Fotovix. When I saw how that streamlined his workflow, I had to look into getting one. The movie is available on Netflix.

    There’s another alternative to Fotovix-ing that I’ve played around with that seems to work best with 4×5 negatives. That’s to take a camera phone picture of the negatives on a light box, invert it in an app, and print it on a laser printer. This sometimes doesn’t work with smaller formats or thin negatives because the shutter speed will be too fast causing banding with my fluorescent lightbox. I’m not as fond of this as I am the Fotovix or traditional contact printing.

    If you have a very large body of work and/or a diverse range of subject it may be worth your while to keep a separate log book or spreadsheet of subjects, dates, films, etc. That way if you’re thinking you’d like to print a picture of a stop sign and you know you have a couple, the log can serve as an index and direct you to the correct binder and even help you find it within the binder.

    Once a PrintFile holder is filed, I know what, if anything, I want to print off it or I can tell pretty quickly.

    Filed Negatives

    The Abyss
    The Abyss is what it is. It’s boxes of mostly picked over pre-2005 work. The Abyss mostly sucks but on occasion there’s some fun stuff or memories in there. More than once or twice I’ve gone through The Abyss looking for shots from this vacation or that photo walk.

    Anything that I’d want to print has been taken out and put into PrintFiles and filed. There’s a few exceptions, probably less than 10 lab envelopes that are in Pre-Sort. More often than not The Abyss shows me how far I’ve come. Looking through that now I realize what it took to get where I am. And it’s filled with a lot of mediocre, meh, work.

    Every once in a while I’ll look through The Abyss and find a hidden gem. Once it was a negative of a shot the lab didn’t print and I didn’t know I had and it was the best and only useable one of Ithaca Falls. Mostly it’s more like “Wow, I’m glad I didn’t give up!” Generally I try to heed Neitzche’s advice: when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.

    The Abyss of old work
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    In closing:

  • The whole reason for organizing negatives is to spend less time looking and more time printing.
  • Get your negatives in holders that make organizing easy.
  • Filed negatives should be labeled and dated as well as possible.
  • Filed negatives should have contact prints or frames selected for printing.
  • Binders of filed negatives can be categorized by subject and time.
  • Label your binders.
  • Even after organizing you may still have a pile of work that doesn’t warrant further effort.