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Taking 80 year old photos with an iPhone

Old negatives brought to life!

As a long time photographer, its always fascinating to try a new technique for creating images, and coming across such opportunities can get rarer and rarer. I had a fascinating evening figuring out a little photographic problem the other night. As part of The Gathering celebrations in Ireland this year, many towns and villages are hosting reunions, and Drumgowna in Co Leitrim is basing theirs around the old school – see their website at .

A friend of ours who is living in the area came across a lovely find recently – an old shoebox full of old negatives. They looked really old, and were obviously well before 35mm film. I did some research and the film looks to be 116 film, which is 6.5 x 11cms and introduced in 1899 by Eastmas Kodak. As with any negative, holding them up to the light gives an idea of the image, but it's always difficult to really get a feel for the real image until it's been converted into a positive. So Reg arrived for the evening with the envelope of negatives and the question – could I turn them into photos she could see, and maybe then use as part of the village celebrations?

My first thought was that I might be able to use my new photo printer/scanner, but scanning the negatives just gave me very dark versions of the negative, so that wasn't going to work. then my wife reminded me that we had seen an app previously which claimed to be able to convert negatives, so I went on-line and soon hit on HelloPhoto. On visiting the Apple App Store I found that I already had the app, just not installed on my current iPad, but that only a took a few seconds to download. Reading the help screen I saw that this needed the app installed on my iPhone as well, so I did that, and was ready to begin.

Negive on iPad mini kit by HelloPhoto

My iPad mini was used as a light box – basically a light under the negative to make it stand out clear and sharp. HelloPhoto lets you set all kinds of screen sizes, colours and intensities, but I just set it to the maximum brightness (5500k) and full screen, then put the negative on the screen.

The next step was to fire up the app on my iPhone, and set it to photo taking mode in the app. Holding the phone about 12 cms above the iPad and negative, the iPhone then took a photo of the negative lit from below by the iPad, and then as if by magic, turned the negative into a real photo.

The buzz I got the first time I did this was something else! I never did film developing, only coming into serious photography with the advent of digital cameras, so the transformation and bringing to life of these old pieces of thin celluloid to images of real people from long ago was like magic.

It took a few extra steps to get to a workable process. I found that the negatives were not lying flat on the iPad screen, and after a few seconds the heat of the screen would make the negative curl up. I fixed this by finding a piece of card about the size of the iPad screen, then cutting a hole in it the size of the image on the negative – this could be placed carefully on the negative and held it down on the iPad screen with the card pressing down on the outer edges of the negative, just letting the image itself show through.

This had another benefit of reducing the upward glare of light, which was giving me an apple shaped reflection off the back of the iPhone. I got rid of this by cutting out a bit of paper the size of the back of the iPhone and sticky taping this onto the back of my phone, so there was no reflection.

Finally I had a bulletproof process, and the 30 or so negatives took about 15 minutes to turn into photos again – the first time these images had seen the light of day for over 80 years. I've reproduced a few of them below, and I think that the folks over in Drumgowna are going to use them as part of their exhibition for the School Reunion – check their website for more details of their events.




About Joe Houghton

As a self confessed gadget and app lover, here are my personal musings and thoughts on useful, interesting or maybe just odd technology which caught my eye...


2 thoughts on “Taking 80 year old photos with an iPhone

  1. Wonderful piece, really enjoyed it. I only came across your blog recently, while looking for help with my Nikon D3100, and am so glad I came across you. This little piece resonates with me as I am a firm believer in the preservation of anything to do with our schools, especially old photos and such. Sometimes too much red tape gets in the way of scenarios like you describe here, beurocracy afraid to let the wider world know of our education past. From now on, I will be following your posts on a regular basis. I’ve added a link to a project that I am trying to get off the ground, actually taking a while away from it as it was wearing me down, and your post here on the school photos has bucked me up no end! Great story!

    Gerry O’Mahony

    Posted by Gerry O'Mahony | August 4, 2013, 1:12 pm

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