A grid of cacti being grown in pink containers for sale.

The Big Negative Sort

I recently had a client with 175 negative strips as part of her photo collection.  Some were grouped in plastic sleeves from the developer (Rite Aid, Eckerd).  Some had white handling tabs attached to them.  And many were just…loose.  How was I going to tackle the sorting of the loose strips?  My ultimate goal was to recreate the film rolls of which they were a part (so that I could match them to existing prints or to contact sheets).

Start with the stuff already sorted for you

I began by assuming that the negatives in plastic sleeves were appropriately grouped, so I left those negatives as-is.  My client had two sets of negatives with white handling strips; these separated easily, as they followed different numbering schemes (see “Negative numbering” below).

Negatives on the left have Kodak Premium Processing white table attached to them for safe handling; negatives on the right appear in WOLFPRO plastic sleeves for protected storage.

Negatives with white handling tabs (left) and in plastic sleeves (right) provided by the developer.

Film type

Next it was time to tackle the loose negatives (about half of the collection).  Back in my film-buying days, I always purchased Kodak 400 speed film.  All of my film strips would have been the same type.  Fortunately, my client used a variety of film types.  By holding the negatives up to a light source, I was able to note the film type printed on one of the long sides of the negative strips.  In the images below, the film on the left is FUJI G-200; the film on the right is Kodak PROFOTO 100-4.



I was able to group this client’s film strips into 10 different types:

  • Fuji G-200
  • ISO 200
  • Kodak GT 800-2
  • Kodak GT 800-3
  • Centuria 400-N
  • AGFA Vista 400
  • Kodak Gold 200-6
  • Kodak Profoto 100-4
  • Kodak GT 800-4
  • Fuji 800

In several cases, only one set of negative strips was of a particular film type.  After verifying that the numbering was sequential with no duplicates, I felt confident I had a series of strips from the same roll of film.

Finally, there were negative strips of several film types that clearly represented multiple rolls of film.  This was obvious due to two things:  (1) there were too many negative strips to be part of a single roll of film, and (2) there was duplication in the negative numbering.   For example, I had 20-30 strips of Kodak GT 800-3 and 30-45 strips of Kodak Gold 200-6.  Sorting within a film type meant that I had to begin utilizing the numbering of the negatives.

Negative numbering

Both of these film types were numbered as 1, 1A, 2, 2A, etc.  If the centers of the images appeared above the numbers only, then I knew a given strip was probably from a different roll than any strips where the images were centered above the number/letter combinations.  That is, if images began over an “A” section of film, they were likely to remain in that labeling scheme for the entire roll.  This enabled me to further subdivide strips of a particular film type.

After separating the A-centered strips and the numbers-centered strips, I started trying to sequentially order the strips.  If one strip contained images 1-5, then I knew it probably didn’t come from the same roll as a strip with images 7-10 (it would have been unusual for a single negative, in this case #6, to be separate from all of the others in a roll).  A strip with images 1-5 was most likely going to be followed by a strip with images 6-9 or 6-10.  One might assume that film processing always results in negatives being cut at the same intervals, but that is not the case.  On some rolls of film, the images begin at 00 or 0 (even before image 1), so the cutting interval would differ from a roll with a first image at 1 or 1A.  Furthermore, processing varies based on the location, equipment, and operator.

Negative viewing

A final method I used to sort negative strips when all of the above methods failed was to view them. I found several useful articles discussing apps that enable viewing of slides and negatives or settings that you can change on your mobile devices to enable viewing.   My favorite was a TNW article referencing the Light Table Loupe app (now called Light Box Loupe).

To view color negatives, I installed the app on two devices:  a tablet (light source) and a smartphone (viewer).  I set the tablet to “LB“ mode (white screen), placed the negative strips on the tablet, and set the phone to “Inv C”.  The viewing isn’t perfect, but it was good enough for me to match the negatives to existing prints, contact sheets, or each other.

An iPad is being used as a light source. A negative strip has been placed on the iPad. An iPhone is being used as a viewer for the color negatives.

Using the Light Box Loupe app on two devices: the iPad is a light source and the iPhone is the viewer.

Another option to view negatives is to preview them (not a full scan) with a flatbed scanner, but this requires loading a single strip at a time into a tray and waiting a few seconds for the preview to appear.  I found it was faster to use the Light Box Loupe app for my purpose.


Sorting loose negatives requires that you approach the challenge from many angles; start with the obvious and proceed with more detailed and time-intensive methods as required.  Don’t toss your negatives!   They are small to store, and they are your originals (more on that here).  Photo organizers recommend keeping three copies of your photos, on a variety of media and in different formats, to guard against various hazards.  Consider your negatives to be one form of storage, even if you have digitized images from them.

Coming up in future blog posts

  • Advanced Processing System (APS) film cassettes:  opening, viewing, matching to prints
  • Creating contact sheets from loose negatives or CDs
  • Sorting prints using informations stamped on the backs

One thought on “The Big Negative Sort

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