How to Organize and Store Film Negatives

Do you store your film negatives or at least think about doing so? Are they in a box in your house or still sitting at the lab? 

Maybe you are like me. I knew I should organize and store my film negatives, but I kept pushing the task off. Mine sat for the longest time on my office shelves, collecting dust. Not only did it become an eyesore, but they started to pile up quickly.

After more than a year of traveling and taking many photos, I decided it was time to dust off the negatives and archive them properly. I picked one afternoon to commit to this and get it done. And whew! After archiving, my wall shelves look happier, and my film is safely tucked away in a cool, dry place.

It can be a little time-consuming if you have many film negatives. But don’t worry. It is pretty simple to organize and store your negatives once you get into the groove of it. And since you only need a few materials, it doesn’t cost too much to start. Of course, this also depends on your method and what materials you purchase.  

At the end of the day, how you archive your film is really just a matter of preference. Below, I’ve outlined just one way of many ways to store film negatives and why it is essential to do so.

And once you are finished, you’ll feel relieved that it’s finally done…at least until your next roll of recently developed film!   

35mm slide film

But Why Should You Store Your Film Negatives? 

You might be asking, why bother archiving film negatives when you have them digitally on your computer? Storing the negatives digitally is easier and more convenient. I get it because I think the same. But it is always crucial to have a backup. I feel this way about many things in life, especially when it comes to important things.  

What if the hard drive in your computer crashes or your laptop gets stolen? You always want a backup plan if something terrible like this happens.  

As technology advances, the ability to go back and rescan your negatives potentially allows you to have higher-quality images. For example, photographer Andy Saunders was able to rescan film negatives from the earlier Apollo missions to the moon to produce better-quality scans using modern technology.  What once were underexposed images are now images where you can clearly see the subjects in the frames. This is amazing, and it is almost as if we are now rediscovering and seeing the space trips differently in a new light. You can read more about the remastering of these images here.  

Plus, the ability to rescan your film negatives is excellent if you plan on printing big. For example, a creative design firm contacted me about one of my photos on this blog. They wanted to purchase the license to use the image to make a print the size of a mural. Since I archived the film negative, I could quickly locate it to have it drum scanned, giving it the highest resolution available.

Materials You Need to Organize and Store Your Film 

To organize and store your film, you only need five materials:

1 – Film Archival Storage Binder (or a regular binder)

 I use an archival binder where I can snap it shut to keep out dust and dirt. But some people use a regular binder you can buy at a retail store. You can find an archival binder here.

Archival storage binder with film in the background.
I prefer archival binders that you can snap shut to keep dust and dirt out. But a regular binder works, too!

2 – Archival Storage Pages (Negative Preservers)

Print File Archival Negative Preservers are what I use to store my film negatives, but other brands are available to purchase. I prefer the one that holds 36 film negatives per sheet.  

Some storage pages only allow you to store 35 film negatives per sheet, which leaves you with that one extra image from the roll that you will have to either keep in a separate archival sheet or attach to the current sheet you are using.  

Also, you want to select the correct size you need: 35mm, 120, or other formats. I mostly shoot 35mm film, so I buy 35mm archival sheets. The link to the archival preservers I use is here.

Scissors on top of archival sheets and binder.
Print File Archival Preservers work great in protecting film negatives.

3 – A Writing Pen that Doesn’t Smudge or a Sharpie

If you want to label each archival page, use a pen that doesn’t smudge or a Sharpie. Also, choose a legible ink color. I tried to use a purple ink pen for some reason, and it was hard to read. An archival pen is probably your best option.

4 – Scissors

If your negatives aren’t pre-cut, you will need scissors to cut them to fit into the archival sheets. 

5 – Gloves

You don’t want to get fingerprints or oil from your hands onto your negatives. When touching them directly, you always want to wear gloves; cotton or vinyl gloves work great.  

How to Organize and Store Film Negatives

As mentioned, many ways exist to organize and store film negatives. Below are five simple steps to archive your film images safely.

Step One

Put your gloves on first before touching any of your film negatives directly. You are trying to preserve them in the best possible conditions, and you don’t want to get oil on the negatives.  

Step Two

Observe the roll of film that you want to archive. I prefer to label my archival sheets with a pen or Sharpie before cutting the negatives and sliding them into the archival pages. Of course, you can always put the negatives first into the pages and then label them.  

How should you label your archival sheets? Well, that is up to you. Some photographers like to be specific with film negatives, whereas others have more general details. I am definitely part of the latter group – as long as it has the month and year I took the images and the location, I am good to go. Sometimes, I also include the camera used.

Possible ideas for labeling: date the film was developed, location the film was shot at, type of film used, camera used, the date film was taken, and specific projects (professional or personal).

Film negatives in Print File Archival Sheet.

Step Three

Your lab might give you your negatives in a roll encased in a long film sleeve. For example, when I shoot with 35mm film and pick my film from the lab, I usually get 36 exposures in a roll protected by a long film sleeve. 

Since it is one big, long roll of film, I need to cut my film negatives accordingly to fit into the archival preservers. I generally buy sheets where I can fit six images into a row (a total of 6 rows for 36 exposures per sheet).  

Now, you can cut first, then put the negatives into the archival sheets, or you can cut a row and place it into the archival sheet before cutting the next row.   

I prefer to cut six images (one row) and place them into the archival sheet before cutting the next row. Why? It is easier for me to put the photos in order this way. You might feel differently, however.  

I also like to organize the film in the order I took the images, starting at the top (number 1) and working my way down (number 36). If you want to organize them differently, that is up to you. I find this organizational method simple – I’m always going for the easiest way of doing stuff.  

Film Negatives.
I prefer to organize my film negatives in order from 1 to 36 (for 35mm).

Step Four

Once your film is organized into the archival pages, it is time to put them in the binder.  

How should you organize your binder? Once again, that is up to you!

I am a chronological person – I like to organize by when I took the images. One binder might include all the pictures I took in a specific year. For example, I am working on a binder that includes my photos for 2020 and 2021. It works for my brain.  

Possible other ways to organize the sheets in your binder: when the film was developed, specific projects (personal or professional), camera used, film stock used, or sorted by location only.  

Putting film negatives into archival sheets.
Sliding the film negatives into the archival preserver.

Step Five

Where should you store your archival binders? Store them in a cool, dry place. You never want to keep them in an area with lots of moisture. 

I store them on a top shelf in my closet. The archival binders are safe, and my room has less clutter!

And wow! It’s finally done! 

How to View Your Film Negatives Once Archived

Use a light pad to view your negatives in the archival sheets. You can purchase a light pad at a local craft store or online. You can also use your phone. Some apps can convert a film negative into a positive.

If you have an iPhone, you can convert negatives to positives by updating the settings to classic invert. This feature can be found under settings, then select accessibility. Click on accessibility shortcut and then choose classic invert. Once enabled, if you click your right-side button on your phone three times, it will turn to the classic invert settings. You can now use this to view your negative, but it won’t save the image.

Additional Tips on How to Archive Your Film Negatives

  • Try not to let the film negatives stockpile. You can plan a whole day or half-day to organize your film, which works well. But I find it easier to archive them as soon I get a new roll developed. Easier said than done, of course. But it is less overwhelming to have a few film negatives to archive versus twenty rolls or so.
  • Don’t abandon film negatives at the lab! If you leave your negatives at the lab, they won’t hold on to them forever and will be destroyed – most likely shredded.
  • Everyone has their favorite film images from a roll. When you organize them into the archival sheet, why not mark the ones you love the most? You can do so with your pen or Sharpie. Some photographers even use a sticker to note their favorites.  
  • This might be an unpopular opinion with some, but don’t destroy your film negatives. Some might draw through the film negatives they don’t like. Some even use a hole puncher! This practice makes me cringe, cringe, cringe! I just think there are better ways to note which exposures you like or dislike.
  • If you prefer to store your film by the date you took the image but can’t remember the date, use your phone for reference. A reference photo on your phone can be super helpful if you accidentally forgot the date.
  • You can always store your negatives where they match with how you store them digitally. For example, if you use Lightroom, you can label the images the exact same way you label them on your archival film sheets. This method is a little too much for me, but I can see where it can be helpful if you need to locate a specific film negative. 
  • Some photographers put contact sheets in front of each archival sheet of exposures. This method also can help identify your film negatives and is great for organizational purposes.  
  • If you happen to get dust on your film negatives before archiving them, you can use non-abrasive sheets to wipe the dust off before putting them into the archival sheets. Kimwipes work great for removing dust.  
  • Lastly, make it fun! Put on a good podcast or movie while you archive your film negatives. It is an excellent way to catch up on the podcast episodes I’ve missed. Archiving can seem a bit tedious, but a podcast or movie can help move the process along. 
Flipping through an archival storage binder

Do you have any tips not mentioned above for archiving film? If so, please comment and share below!

And if you like this article, please share and pin it for later!

Are your film negatives sitting in a box or at your local photo lab? Below are tips and suggestions on how to organize and store your film negatives to ensure long-lasting preservation.

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