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Cleaning Your Photo Negatives

By Dillon Wallace

If you’re on Google typing in “the best way to clean your photo negatives,” then you’re already on the right path to saving your old media.

And that deserves a kudos.
The truth is, digitizing your media is the best thing you can do to preserve your memories. But, before you get all DIY scanner happy, it’s always a good idea to prep your media beforehand. You don’t want mold, fingerprints, debris and more being transferred during digitization do you? Didn’t think so.


And, if you’re worried that you’re going to harm your precious memory cargo by cleaning them, think again. So, wash your hands and let’s get to cleaning.

Step 1: Try a little compressed air to start

What do you do when your keyboard gets dirty? You blast it with some compressed air, right? Same goes for your negatives. It’s not to say that it’s the end-all-be-all, but it’s a great place to start loosening that dust and debris. So grab a can and get to spraying … as gently as possible, of course.

Step 2: Dab some 98% isopropyl on them

Alcohol may seem like a sure way to damage your negatives, but not if you use the right kind, the right way. Using 98% isopropyl alcohol will ensure that when it dries (which is quickly, I might add), it won’t leave any streaks, spots of stains. If you use an alcohol with a lower percentage, you might end up with streaks, spots and stains from water remnants. 

And worst case, if the remaining water comes into contact with the film, it could react with the emulsion on the film and cause the image to smudge.

Step 3: Glove up

Before you get to cleaning, make sure you put on some lint-free gloves. There’s nothing worse than cleaning off all the old decades worth of debris and mold from a negative only to replace it with fresh fingerprint smudges because you didn’t wear gloves.

Step 4: Use a lint-free cloth or cotton swab

It’s important to note that you should not just dip your negatives into the alcohol solution. This is very much a less is more situation. Dipping the strip directly into alcohol will burn the emulsion and ruin your prints.

So, what you should do is just dab a small amount of isopropyl onto your negative and gently wipe with a lint-free cloth or cotton swab. You don’t want extra microscopic debris getting on your print from cleaning it with your every day wash rag.  

Step 5: Let them breathe

After you’ve cleaned your negatives, it’s important to let them dry out in a well-ventilated, clean room. Why? Because you want the alcohol to evaporate quickly and naturally. That does not mean dry them out by a window like your cooling off a Yogi Bear pie. Doing so will only result in attracting a new coat of dust from the outside.

Step 6: Wipe and repeat

Once the alcohol has dried, you can proceed to your last step of wiping off the loosened oils, debris and dust. Thank you for doing your job, alcohol.

Just make sure you use a different lint-free cloth to gently wipe the film. And that it’s dry. If you’re looking to clean in bulk, you can clean a roll of 24 negatives. By the time you go back to your first roll, they should be good and dry.

Alternative step:

For those of you not-so-DIY-inclined, you can always load up your memories and send them off to a professional for cleaning and digitization. After all, preserving your memories is a big task and with our team of professional digitizers, you can rest assured they’re in good hands.

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