A treatise on dealing with your film archive
Talk to film photographers for long enough and the subject will inevitably move away from locations, gear and techniques to the nitty gritty of what to do with all those negatives.
Let’s get stuck in but be warned, this post is light on images.
Setting the scene
I shoot a fair amount of film and archiving had always been a bit of a challenge until I got my act together a couple of years back and devised a system. It’s this system which I’d like to share with you today.
I used to store all of my developed negatives and CDs in a box. One box became two, two became three and so on. I wasn’t happy with the system, in fact, I didn’t even consider it a system but it worked. At the time, I was saving digital files by year and month on my computer, so no problem, right?
Wrong. It all fell apart when someone asked me for a high-res scan of a relatively recent shot and to be frank, I was a little stuck.
After an spending an unreasonable amount of time searching, I finally found the image posted on Facebook, figured out the date and eventually found the (much older) negatives in my box-system. In the end, I got high-res scans done and sent out the digital proof but I didn’t want to find myself in that position again.
Something had to be done.
Beginning record keeping
As luck/fate would have it, around the same time I’d also been asked to produce 15 images for an exhibition of my work. The heat was on to not only find the images I wanted but also to be able to get my hands on the corresponding negatives before printing.
Before I began digging around, I decided it would make sense to start working out a record keeping method for what would become my current system.
It all started with trying to understand what I wanted to record and how I wanted to record it. Here are my notes:
- Date scanned
I develop no later than 7 days after shooting and I don’t work on assignment for anyone, so a slight discrepancy in shoot date wasn’t a concern.
- Specific film used
I have no qualms about shooting expired films, many of which are different from their current counterparts, and also went through changes over the years before being discontinued. Kodak Ektachrome Professional Plus and Tri-X being two good examples.
- Camera used
Rather important, as it would help me to (later) analyze any “gear bias” in a more objective way.
- Lens used
Not important to some but it is for me. I like to know with some certainty what lens and film combination got me a specific look. Shooting with a Nikon AIS 28/2 vs an AI 28/2.8 might have relevance for me in the future, especially wide open and close up, which is my preference with those lenses.
- Lab number
Some labs use an internal number to identify their customer’s rolls. This number is also often used to label a folder on the provided CD or online scans. I decided to keep a track of these numbers where available to further help identification in the future.
- My number
I decided to give each roll an “internal” number, so I started at 0001 and worked my way up from there.
- Film format
Simple, 110. 135, 120, Instax etc
Super important. What ISO did I shoot the film at?
- Note columns
I set this space aside for development notes, chemicals, dilution, temperature and agitation method for self-developed rolls, as well as lab push, expiry date, or pretty much anything else of worth. A typical note on a roll of black and white will read something like, “HC-110, 1+79, 23c, 11:00, 1min, 2008”. It tells me that the me that the roll expired in 2008, was shot at ISO200, push processed two stops and developed in HC-110. Simple.
In addition to keeping this data in a spreadsheet, I decided that I’d keep similar but shorter notes on the negative sleeves, index cards (if available), and lab CDs.
I’ve made more than a few revisions since implementing it and it’s still evolving. My latest revision includes keeping development information, XPRO and push/pull data as separate entries and not a large text block. This continues the theme of granularity, which affords me the ability to measure, calculate or look up individual (objectively measurable) aspects of my photography.
Putting it into practice
After spending a few spare weekends unpacking, piling up and sorting negatives, index cards, development notes and CDs, I finally began to see the light at the end of the tunnel. This is was my process:
- Step one was to make sure that I had recovered digital files from CD/online and put them all into a folder with the date from the files and lab reference number, if available.
- Step two was to order folders of files chronologically – YYYY-MM-DD – in one large “UNFILED” folder on my computer.
- Step three was to make sure I had the same number of digital folders as rolls of film and to make a note of any discrepancy between the two.
- Step four was to start numbering my “current” rolls after the “unfiled” roll count PLUS any discrepancy (more negatives than folders meant I’d need to get more scans done).
- Step five was to start matching negatives, index cards and CDs with the folders on my computer.
Importantly, I decided not to archive anything new until I had worked through a solid chunk of what was still waiting in piles.
Once I’d filed enough and made sure that the system was something I could live with, I reclaimed my weekend spare time and filed one or two rolls whenever I could, making sure that I would file something old each time I filed something new.
Slowly, very slowly, I got there.
More than just record keeping
My professional background is in technology, so using well-honed nerd skills, I decided on a five-component system of record keeping, physical archival, local copy, online copy and multiple backups. Why so many copies and backups? Simple, there’s no such thing as too many backups.
Here’s how it works:
Excel or Open Office. I mostly use Excel and OO depending on which computer I’m using at the time. I use several Macs but personally find Apple’s “office” apps a complete dumb-down and too cumbersome for even simple things such as “Save As”, to be of any real use.
I prefer to use PrintFile storage sleeves when I can and label each one with a similar record to that kept in Excel. That is: my own reference number, the lab’s reference, film, camera, lens, date and ISO. I keep each roll, or batch of rolls, along with the CD and index card in small plastic pouches and bundles of pouches are kept in paper lab envelopes clearly marked with groups of my internal reference numbers.
Every 50 or so rolls are sealed in plastic A3 ziplock-style sleeves, along with a large packet of desiccant. Several sleeves sit in a single double-walled cardboard box, which in turn is filled with more desiccant packs. Boxes sit on boxes.
If I had money to burn, I’d store it all away from my home using an appropriate document archival firm but I don’t.
Local digital copy
I call this my “live storage”, or “working copy” and keep everything in a Dropbox folder on my main machine. It’s technically a cloud backup as well but for the purposes of this section, I will consider it local, not online. It’s convenient but OneDrive, Google Drive and others could be used with equal effectiveness. I’m used to Dropbox and have apps on multiple devices. It works fine for me.
I inside my working folder is an “INCOMING” folder, which I use to store folders of images from each roll. These are initially downloaded or pulled from CD. After shooting a roll I’ll (nearly always) enter details of it into my spreadsheet, so when I get the scans back, it’s a simple task to add the missing data and then name the scans folder using a shortened version. An example would be:
- Date – Film/EI – Camera – Lens – LAB#/MY#, or…
- 2016-01-12 – Kodak Tri-X 400 (200+2) – 2000FCW – Planar F 80/2.8 – 4321/0002
Once organised, I drop the completed folders into a folder called “UPLOAD” and upload them to my online digital copy (below).
Once uploaded (and verified by me), local roll folders are dropped into a separate stack of folders, which are grouped by my internal reference number. These are named as 0200-0299, 0300-0399, etc.
Online digital copy
I use Smugmug for online storage/display. This is my “fixed snapshot” once my rolls are here, files inside folders are rarely altered. Smugmug offers unlimited storage and file size; and I like the organisation options. As with most services discussed here, you could use whatever works for you.
I’ll use Smugmug to create an album, add keyword data and show/hide images from each roll.
I haven’t had an unrecoverable data loss in years. This is mostly due to my having experienced one or two along the way and being incredibly careful as a result. You have been warned that what you read below might seem a little like paranoia.
Level 1 – Dropbox
Yes, ok…it’s a backup. It’s nice and simple and I can recover files up to 30 days if they’re deleted. Files are also copied onto several computers not located on the same premises. Dropbox will also notify me if a large number of files have recently been deleted from any device, which can be useful.
Level 2 – Smugmug
Another layer. There’s no downsampling, or resizing, whatsoever. It’s great. I use an app to upload folders of folders from my computers, so once I have a dozen or so local folders in the UPLOADS directory, I just click and walk away. The only remaining task is to select images to display in each folder and push them into a hierarchy of public film formats and types.
Level 3 – Carbon Copy Cloner
I have this wonderful app set to automatically clone my pictures folder to a couple of USB hard drives and flash drives when they’re connected to my computers. Dropbox keeps the folders syncronized, so I simply plug a drive in and it works. It also does occasional backups based on a schedule for other disks, which are permanently plugged in to my machines.
Level 4 – Crashplan
I’ve been using these guys for a couple of years as a pure backup system. Nothing gets touched after the backup. Copies are incrementally versioned going back a few months and in a pinch, I can simply force a restore to any device, regardless of if it’s owned by me, or not.
Level 5 – 1Password
Don’t underestimate a good password, or two-factor authentication for online services. I use STRONG passwords and keeping track of them via this multi-platform app is a god send.
Confused? I don’t blame you. There’s actually a sixth layer in all that but talking about it here would confuse matters somewhat more than they already are. Send an email if you want to talk about automated off-site remote storage and backup systems.
Here’s a quick and dirty graphic of my workflow:
This is overkill
Sure, be that way…until you have a failure.
Give it a try. Move some important files onto a USB drive and think about how you’d get them back. When was the last time you used, or checked Time Machine, or your backup disk? Does the drive still work? Does it have a current backup? If not, how old is it?
Physical record keeping aside – which will vary depending on your free time, quantity of unfiled film and general will to live – the time consuming part of all this online backup is getting your data onto online services. Some services allow you to send out disks of data, which they will then copy for you. With others, you just need to wait….a day, a week, more, for it to upload.
The important thing is to have redundancy and whilst my system may seem a little on the overprotective side, I am now eleven years and counting without an unrecoverable data loss for any file I’ve had deleted, removed, or disappear.
Does it work?
This is the big question. It works for ME but your results may vary. My advice would be to try it out and mess around for a while to see what aspects work best for you.
As someone who keeps a relatively good mental memory of development history for his own black and white film, I find that the added data for that record keeping aspect really helps when I’m do searching for a specific look from a roll. The act of recording itself helps recall, whether on paper, or keyboard,
I’d suggest that you have at least one online and one local backup set. Any less would be utter madness. Using Crashplan (or Backblaze), Carbon Copy Cloner, or another automated copy system really does give peace of mind and can really help in a pinch.
At the very least, Cloud Storage services make it easy to access your files from pretty much anywhere. I’ll often grab my lab scans from wherever they’ve been uploaded and save them to the Dropbox folder on one computer before filing/viewing them on another device when I have some down time.
As I said, the choice is yours but here’s what I use myself and I welcome you to pick and chose what you want, or simply use this article as a way to spark ideas for your own system.
The most important aspect of it all is management of what you’ve already shot. The rest can come later (hopefully before you have a disk failure, or a service provider go out of business).
Thanks for reading this admittedly long post. It was meant to be a short primer but I think (hope), that it’s turned into something a little more useful than that. If you have any questions or feedback, feel free to ask/poke/nudge away.
What’s that? You only came here for the template spreadsheet? Shame on you (updated link)
Your friend in film,