View Full Version : cleaning old negatives

3-Dec-2017, 08:18
I bought a couple of boxes of old (end 1920's) negatives and glass plates in a brocante shop a few years ago while traveling in France. As I was now scanning I tought to give those a go. I know from a quick inspection when I bought them that they were in not so good condition, both from storage (in the cardboard boxes) and from handling in the shop. But how should I proceed to get the best out of them? They seem to be well eaten by fungus. I took a few shots of the one on top:


Both sides in glancing light, you see the spots very well.


I do have some Fotospeed FC50 film cleaner at hand. Would this be a good idea? Or put them in the Jobo tank with some water and photoflow?

bob carnie
3-Dec-2017, 09:21
I would be very careful with any liquid on these.. you may find the emulsion slides off the base.

3-Dec-2017, 10:54
I'm with Bob on this one; the likelyhood is you'll do more harm than good trying to clean these. I would make some prints and see how much these marks come through before you do too much else - sometimes it's not as bad as you'd think.

You could try something like Pec-12 or the Fotospeed FC50 that you have, on a negative that you're not particularly attached to. With any of these cleaning products, discretion is the better part of valor. If they work, you'll know it pretty fast - don't be tempted to "scrub".

Good protocol is to make some sort of scan or good print prior to trying anything that could be potentially destructive.

3-Dec-2017, 11:46
I agree with the others as well. I inherited several hundred negatives, both glass plate and nitrate, going back to the early 1900s. Despite fogging and what appears to be poor fixing on many of them, they actually scan pretty well. This shot of one of my grandfather's younger brothers, circa 1915 or so, is a scan of a 122-format nitrate negative that sat in a cardboard box until I found it, amongst my dad's things, in 2010. To my eye, the scratches and blemishes add to story these photographs tell. Perfect scans and prints erase part of the history of the negative, between its origin and now.


Bruce Watson
3-Dec-2017, 15:19
I would be very careful with any liquid on these.. you may find the emulsion slides off the base.

Certainly anything containing water is a no-no. Water will swell the emulsion and likely pop it off the base, plus the softened emulsion will scratch easily when you're handling it. This includes stuff like photoflow. And rewashing old film is just asking for disaster.

Question for Bob -- will film cleaner (designed to clean photographic emulsions) like PEC-12, harm an old emulsion? In my experience it doesn't harm really old Tri-X, Plus-X, or Panatomic-X (135 rolls). But really old Tri-X isn't really that old when it comes down to it. I probably haven't worked with anything older than the 1950s. So I'd like to know what your experience is.

bob carnie
4-Dec-2017, 07:50
Bruce - I am by no means a restoration expert, but I have had a failure in past with trying to clean very old negatives / prints and my limited experience tells me to leave well enough alone, as Marco says first step is to make a high resolution scan, then work one image at a time and see where one goes.... Ryerson University has a course on restoration and there may be people there with more hands on experience to answer.

So the quick answer is I am not sure.

4-Dec-2017, 12:51
Ok, I keep them away from water. Just took one of the glass plates and just cleaned the glass side with some alcohol. Then scanned it. After that I used the Fotospeed FC50 on the emulsion. It didn't damage it but as far as I can see it didn't do anything else either, so I put in the "uncleaned" scan. I'll try one of the film negatives next.


Just a question, would this be safety film of nitrate based film? There is no marking on the negatives (9x12 cm) but from what I read on wikipedia nitrate discolours amber (they do) and powdery (is that white fungus or this powder?).

4-Dec-2017, 13:21
I cannot comment on cleaning, but for copying old discoloured (brown/amber) prints and negs I have occasionally used a light orange filter to reduce the apparent effect of the staining, while copying on to 4x5" b+w film, though using just one colour of an RGB scan might work too. Lighting was low copy-lighting and a 'daylight' light-box, respectively. On another occasion, I used a blue filter to increase the contrast within a 'barely there' light-amber/dark-amber print. What works out best for your circumstances depends on the specific item and what you want as an end result.

The other question, about whether it's nitrate film, is fairly clear given the apparent age -- yes, it is! Best to read up and/or ask curator advice on whatever precautions might be prudent (as I have no idea, obviously).

4-Dec-2017, 15:12
Nitrate needs to breathe (out-gas). Many early motion pictures were lost due to the film being stored in closed cans. Store in paper sleeves or envelopes only, under cool and dry conditions. (I made the flawed assumption that some early 50s negatives of my dad's were acetate base. Turned out they were nitrate and decomposed in Photofile archival plastic sleeves.) There's quite a bit of information on storing nitrate film available online. This article has some good guidelines.

The glass negatives should be good for another 100 years if they're cared for.

4-Dec-2017, 15:41
The official answer for a glass plate would be to leave it alone and scan it.
That said, you can test cleaning options of course. The non-emulsion side is very cleanable. I've cleaned unimportant glass plates with alcohol fairly well (not perfect, but a lot nicer) if you clean very quickly and gently on the emulsion side. On a few plates that were not factory coated, the emulsion lifted at the edges. I'm guessing if people had a failed plate they'd recoat it themselves sometimes and recycle. You could reseat the lifted edge with egg white. And be prepared to provide a protective recoat with Archer's Envy or similar if you weaken it with cleaning or repair.