How to View Film Negatives

Photo by Kgabisa Motonya.

Whether you have your own darkroom or you work in a photo lab, you will come in contact with film negatives. A negative is the opposite of a positive, which is what a photo is. Being a negative means everything on that piece of film is opposite and backward from the original. If you're going to be viewing negatives you will also be handling them, and they can be very delicate. Follow the steps below and you will be handling and viewing them like a pro. It's not difficult; it's just a matter of learning a few basic rules about film negatives.

Pick up your film negative by the edges only, unless you are wearing darkroom gloves. The gloves are white and made of either cotton or sometimes a polyester blend. Both work perfectly fine. The reason for the gloves and only touching negatives with bare hands by the edges is that as clean and dry as our hands may be, our skin has a natural oil. Touching the film with our fingers means that we leave fingerprints, and the oil from our skin can not ever be removed from the film. This would ruin the negative so that getting a decent print from it would be impossible.

Do not hold the negative too tightly as it can cause a crease or bend in the film. That would also permanently ruin the image so a decent print could never be made. Negatives also attract dust particles and lint easily, so when viewing the negative, you may want to clean it first. There are solutions that can be purchased from a photography shop. You simple dampen a clean white cloth with the solution and just gently wipe it across both sides of the negative. The solution reduces static also so lint won't be so attracted to it while you're viewing the image.

Look at the negative with your lighted magnifier. Remember everything is opposite so the light parts of the image would be the dark parts of the print, and vice versa. You can also learn to read colors in negatives by first understanding the colors used in photography. They are three set of opposites: Yellow-Blue, Red-Cyan and Magenta-Green. Very simply put, what looks red in the negative is cyan in the print, what looks green is magenta in the print.


  • If you're not taking a lot of photos, you can make handling the negatives easier and safer by advancing the film one extra time between shots. After it's been developed, you will see an empty space between the images that you can safely touch with your bare skin. You can also use a little bit of alcohol on a cloth to clean the negative, but never ever use water.