Reformatting Photo Film

Dear Donia,
How can I reformat old photo negatives without damaging them?

Photo negative


Q. Dear Donia,

I recently found an old box of photo negatives marked "valuable, films taken in the Philippines after the battle of Manila" by a family member who passed in 1929. This leads me to believe they are from the first Battle of Manila in 1898. The films are tightly curled and very brittle. Is there any way to flatten these and/or make prints? Can you recommend any professionals for this process? Thank you, Christine

A. Dear Christine,

What a fantastic find!  Do you know if your family member was the person who made the film? I am guessing this is a motion picture film as still photographic film on reels wasn't really common until the 19-teens.  If I am wrong, please let me know.

From the date you suspect for the films, these would be a very important find as many films from before 1900 do not exist anymore. The first thing I would recommend is that you have someone with experience with historic films take a look at them for you because, from your description, they may not be stable enough to reformat. You can query the staff at the Library of Congress Packard Campus in Culpeper, Va. or the National Archives Motion Picture, Sound,and Video Research Room in College Park, Md., both of which are about an hour from your home in Leesburg, Va. 

Unfortunately, there is no easy way to flatten the film and make scans for the average person. Nitrate film (if these are indeed from 1898, the film base would be cellulose nitrate) gets very brittle and can easily be destroyed with moisture and are extremely flammable if they come into contact with high heat or flame so it is best to have them assessed and scanned by a professional. The Library of Congress or the National Archives can help you find someone in the DC Metro area that can help you with the reformatting.

Thank you for asking about this great find!  Please let me know if I am in error about the motion picture versus still image film question.