The cheapest way to digitise your negatives is to photograph them with your digital camera. The end result won’t be as good as with a scanner but you could try this method first if you don't already have a scanner that's capable of dealing with negatives.
The negatives will have to be back-lit so attach them to a pane of frosted glass (your bathroom window may suffice) or Perspex and ensure there’s a bright light behind it – a bright overcast sky is best. To avoid camera shake, it's wise to use a tripod and make sure your negatives as really clean.
You’ll need to use a camera with a macro capability so your negative fills the viewfinder. Most compact digital cameras have such a mode and can focus very close to objects, making them well suited to this.
Software supplied with a scanner will turn your negative into a colour image, but if you’re using a digital camera you’ll have to turn your digitised image into a positive one with your photo editing software.
With black and white negatives, this is simply a matter of using the “negative” function (that's Ctrl-I in Photoshop) although for colour negatives you’ll also have to remove the orange cast which will become a blue cast once you’ve turned it to a positive. A photo editor’s auto colour correction feature should be able to sort this out.
A better solution is to use a scanner. All scanners will work with photographic prints but only those with a film scanning capability will work with negatives. Resolution is also more of an issue than for prints because negatives are smaller and have a high resolution when measured in dots per inch (dpi).
Some of the better films had a resolution of around 8,000 dpi and while this would effectively be reduced in the lens of a mediocre camera, you should be looking for around 4,800 dpi as 2,400 dpi would only give you a 7.5 megapixel image from a 35mm negative. The quality of the optics also makes a big difference so you’d be advised to read reviews before making your mind up.
Before scanning make sure your negatives are really clean since a speck of dust on a negative will be much prominent than on a print. You could use a combined soft brush and blower as available from photographic shops although a compressed air aerosol of the type sold by electronic component suppliers is better.
Scanning will be straightforward with 35mm or modern medium or large format negatives but scanning older negatives might require more manual intervention. For negatives with lots of white, such as a snow scene, or a lot of black, the scanner’s automatic exposure will probably be fooled so you might have to override it and choose the correct exposure.
When scanning, make sure you choose the correct preset for either colour or black and white negatives, and set the resolution to 4,800dpi or thereabouts. Scanners often have extra options for automatically cleaning up negatives, such as the removal of dust and scratches. You can try these - some are more effective than others though.
Most modern scanners will automatically recognise each individual photo from a strip of negatives, and you can choose which you want to scan in the preview window.
If the end result isn’t perfect, perhaps due to grime on the negative that you couldn’t remove, you’ll have to clean the scan using a photo editor. See our guide on enhancing scanned photos and slides.
If you want to save time in scanning lots of negatives or if you’re after better results than with an ordinary scanner, you could consider a professional service. Prices can be as low as 50p if you have lots of negatives to scan but single scans could cost over £1 each.