The Digital Production Group acquires new equipment for photographic materials

February 8, 2022
Chris Hacker
Allen Ginsberg standing on a street in San Francisco, with the golden gate bridge in the background

This post was co-authored with Dinah Handel, Digitization Service Manager 

Digitization Services is thrilled to announce new digitization capabilities for photographic negatives, slides, glass plates, and any transmissive materials. In late 2021, the Digital Production Group purchased a Digital Transitions Film Scanning Kit, to digitize photographic materials of most sizes and types. The image above is one of the first photo negatives digitized with our new equipment. In the photo, Allen Ginsberg is standing on a street in San Francisco, and the Golden Gate Bridge is shown in the background. 

Equipment and workflow

This new capability utilizes our existing high-resolution copy stand cameras that are used for rare books, maps, and many of the other items that come through the DPG labs. In minutes, our existing camera setup is transformed into a film scanning station by swapping out the camera’s lens to one designed to focus more closely - allowing for much higher magnification - and placing a light source underneath a stand where the film is mounted. 

This is the new standard approach to digitizing film, and can achieve resolution well beyond the usual film scanning solutions of the past - with the possible exception of wet-mount drum scanning, which isn’t suitable for archival materials. 

With this setup we are also able to include the full film borders - with any format of film, including the mounts of mounted slides - something that was impossible with most previous approaches to high-quality film scanning. Including the film borders improves the descriptive quality and completeness of the digital surrogates we create for research and general use, and reinforces to the viewer that what they are seeing is a scanned piece of film and not an original darkroom print

Because this new high-magnification lens setup utilizes our existing camera system, it can also easily be used for non-transmissive materials. In the context of photography, we will be able to, for example, digitize the very small photo prints that were historically common at much higher magnification than even seeing the print in person would allow, providing better accessibility to those kinds of items. Beyond photography, any small archival objects can be imaged at high magnification, such as coins and ephemera. High-magnification images can also supplement DPG’s standard imaging of an object, such as including close-up images of notable or beautiful details on medieval manuscript pages and similar items in addition to our standard high-resolution images of the full object.

The film scanning kit is pictured with the lightbox below on

The physical characteristics of photographic film are entirely different from the typical kinds of items handled by DPG, and many new considerations had to be taken into account for safe handling. A new workflow has been developed incorporating handling guidelines created in close consultation with Head of Conservation Services Kristen St. John and Photography Curator Anna Lee. Because we will be using a lot more single-use laboratory nitrile gloves than are needed for handling most other materials, we are pleased to now be participating in the Sustainable Stanford Lab Glove Recycling program.

Besides a few unique handling requirements, the digitization process is essentially the same as with any other materials in the DPG labs. Items are placed in the imaging area one by one, or page by page, and the camera is controlled from a tethered computer workstation. Images are checked carefully as we go for sharpness and completeness - the first of several quality control checks that are eventually conducted for each item. Our staff work efficiently but deliberately, always placing the safety of materials over speed.

 Film carrier is being held by two gloved hands, light is shining through

One of the most remarkable things about scanning film with this type of setup, though, is indeed the speed - the actual image capture takes just a fraction of a second, and all-in time including post-processing is as little as 2-3 minutes per frame for 35mm and medium format film. With previous types of film scanning, achieving similar resolution as we can now get in that fraction of a second would take anywhere from 5-15 minutes or longer per frame just for the scan time. Additionally, with 35mm and medium format film multiple frames or strips can be mounted in the film holders at once, allowing fast and safe advancement through batches of film. 

It is also possible to rapidly produce digital contact sheets, at a rate of dozens or even hundreds of sheets an hour. Contact sheets were originally made in the darkroom to give a survey-level overview of each roll of film - they invert the negatives and provide just enough detail to see what’s in each photo, with the inverted photos printed at the same physical size as the piece of film. Our digital contact sheets provide significantly better fidelity and enlargement than darkroom contact sheets would, and will allow researchers and curators to conduct fast, in-depth surveys of photography archives without needing to wait for the longer process of producing full-resolution scans of each frame. The implications for improving access and visibility to Stanford Library’s photography archives are huge.

Digital contact sheets

What the new equipment means for our library's collections

This new equipment impacts the Digital Production Group’s internal processes and workflows, but it also has significant implications for the collections of Stanford Libraries. 

Prior to purchasing the Film Scanning Kit, Digitization Services would outsource the work to vendors. This included packing and transporting library materials, ensuring the vendor met our capture specifications, and accessioning the resulting files. The ability to digitize these materials in-house significantly reduces the overhead of outsourced work, is safer for library materials because they don’t have to be shipped or otherwise transported, lowers or eliminates the cost to the patron, and results in a faster turnaround time.  

The timing of the purchase could not have been better, as there are numerous projects, exhibits, and patron requests in-progress that include photographic material. The Suzanne Comhaire-Sylvain papers, a current digitization project, includes many slides that depict Comhaire-Sylvain’s work around the world. An upcoming project, the Ricardo Ocreto Alvarado archive, includes numerous prints, slides, and negatives, and will also be the subject of a library exhibition in 2023. Without the Film Scanning Kit, accomplishing these projects would require significant additional resources and planning to outsource the digitization. 

Furthermore, the digitization of photographic materials creates an opportunity for enhanced and thoughtful metadata creation. It can be challenging or even impossible to discern the people, places, and things in photographic material viewed in person, particularly negatives, even with proper viewing equipment. Photographic materials can be digitized and accessioned into the Stanford Digital Repository - either individually or as rapidly-produced digital contact sheets - with no metadata beyond a locator ID required at the start. They can then be easily viewed and magnified online at a PURL for further description by catalogers, archivists, researchers, and the public.

Finally, the equipment supports the long-term preservation of photographic materials in the library’s collections by allowing for digitization before the item further degrades. This is especially true when it comes to nitrate negatives, which are highly susceptible to degradation and total image loss, are expensive and difficult to ship, and in some cases may need to be destroyed due to the hazardous nature of the material as it degrades making safe storage impossible.  

Currently, we’re refining our workflows to ensure the highest quality for our preservation files, deciding on our display specifications for photographic materials, completing patron requests for digitization, and working on our first collection digitization project with this new equipment. We want to thank the many colleagues who have supported this work: Anna Lee, Conservation staff and in particular Kristen St. John, and from DPG, Kat Dimitruk, Tony Calavano, Wayne Vanderkuil, and DPG Lab Staff: Kylee Diedrich, Abigail Watson, Justine Xi.




Chris Hacker

Chris Hacker

Digital Imaging Production Coordinator, Library Technology