The Secret of Flat Negatives – Johnny Martyr Thought & Photography

By Johnny Martyr

I'm positive about the negatives, but slightly negative about the positives.  - Curly Howard

If you process your own film and don’t live in the tropics, you may run into a nagging problem I’ve seen discussed on sickening ad forums – curly and cupped film negatives.

Let me set the scene: You’ve just taken some great photos, you’ve processed the film successfully and when you hold the still-wet image to the light for the first time, it looks amazing. You can’t wait to scan and share it. So you let the negatives hang and dry for a few hours before cutting and coating. But when you come back, you see that your film is warped and crooked. If you place this negative in the carrier for scanning, not only will it fail to fit into the carrier properly, you will also get a Newton Ring or an out-of-focus angle depending on your scanning method.

Don’t be a fool!

Let’s start by understanding the problem.


Roll film basically consists of two parts; base (the material that holds the image) and the emulsion (the material that forms the image). Base and emulsion are opposite sides of a film and like most substances, because they are made up of different ingredients, dry at different rates. Imagine washing a load of mixed laundry. If you open the dryer earlier, you may find that your t-shirt is dry but your socks and jeans are not. Just as a shirt and jeans are made of different materials and dry at different rates, so does your film base and emulsion.

Unlike your laundry, the base material and film emulsion stick together. So when one dries before the other, the drier side shrinks and narrows to the wetter side which is more posable. If left alone long enough, both sides of the film will eventually dry and the film will naturally level itself out.

But it can take a long time and you want to scan your film and snap a photo on IG yesterday!

So see, there are two ways to deal with any problem – 1-prevent it from happening or 2-fix the problem after it occurs. Depending on various things, you can choose either method. Nothing bad for your film.


Perhaps more than any other artist out there, photographers like to blame their tools for their own lack of knowledge or skills.

To avoid negative frizz, some people will tell you to change film brands or use heavier dryer clips.

In one discussion I saw a commenter tell the original poster, which used Kodak film, to switch to Ilford for drying out. And in another discussion, the original poster was on Ilford so others have recommended switching to Kodak.

I’ve seen someone recommend heavier clips, and the OP replied that they did use heavy clips. Funny thing is, even though I’m not sure if that was intended, commenters said they should be heavier!

Are some brands and types of film flatter than others? Of course. Is using those cool stainless steel drying clips more satisfying than using binder clips? Of course.

But let me tell you a little secret. There are no bad movies and there are no bad film dryer clips. There are only consumers who do not fully understand what they are doing with this good product.

Different manufacturers use different materials when making different types of films. Yes. But one particular brand is no more curly than another than one brand of lenses are inherently better than another. There are reasons for the different product behavior. And it is as environmentally friendly as the one the product is based on. So there are at least two parts to the equation; materials and environment.

I live in Maryland, it’s quite humid here but the climate is also quite unstable because we’re close to the Atlantic, and we have four seasons. The weather can always change here. For a few months out of the year, I could actually process the exact same brand/type of film in the morning as I did in the evening, with the exact same processing method, and the morning roll would be flat but the evening roll would be very curly. they look more like weird soda straws than film negatives.

Is this anything like your experience in a different state or country? As I noted in my argument for the use of sweepers, we need to stop propagating mythology based on personal experience alone.

So what’s the common denominator across all of our curling issues with different brands of film in different territories?

Humidity. Not only does the warm/hot moist air combat static and dust negatives, the humidity helps even out the drying time of the emulsion and the base side of the film.

Note that, regardless of the brand of film you shoot, when you get a negative from the lab, the film is always flat. This is because laboratories use drying cabinets of various types before coating them with film.

The drying cabinet not only heats the film to a safe temperature but also the moisture inside. At home, many photographers will hang their film on their bathroom shower curtain rail after running a hot shower to vaporize the room. Same principle.

As I noted, there are two ways to deal with any problem – to prevent the problem and to fix the problem after it occurs. So what can we do once the problem occurs?


Unlike other types of problems, your film will eventually dry on its own. So there’s no harm (that I’ve encountered) in letting your film dry curly and then smoothing it out before scanning. It may seem like you didn’t actually solve the problem and just put a Band-Aide on it. And you are welcome to look at it that way and prevent frizz with my previous recommendations. But for my particular workflow I’m content with just inverting curl.

So here’s what I did.

Here are ten rolls of TMAX 100 and Tri-X 400 pieces and sleeves that I machined and let dry overnight. The film was flat and wet when I hung it up and the next morning it was cupped and dry to the touch. It was 40°F outside with 40% humidity outside and in the special room where I was drying the film I believe it was around 65°F with 50% humidity.

To be really scientific about this, I need to monitor and measure curl count, temperature, and humidity during drying time, but I’m just a photographer trying to get the job done and explain to you what I’m doing. do it when i have a few minutes so i hope you forgive my practical approach!

And in case you were wondering, I usually let mine dry either overnight or as long as 2 to 3 hours. It totally depends on how much and how fast I can and need to work. When I’m really busy I have 20 rolls hanging out to dry with about an hour between every batch of 10 and then I remove the first 10 rolls and hang the other 10 in an hour or two sometimes while the negatives are still a little damp and tough . sleeves.

This is a bit off topic but also don’t forget that the manufacturer recommends processing immediately after shooting. So don’t throw your opened film in the fridge and grab it when you get it. For the best results and return on your time and money investment, process within days of shooting!

Anyways, so I took all ten cover negatives and rolled them into curls the way I roll up a newspaper or magazine where my work is featured. Then I stuck it in my Mac Pro’s handle and left it there for an hour.

How long the film needs to rest on an inverted roll depends on how badly it curls and how quickly it can continue to dry based on environmental factors and any product.

The result will not be a perfectly flat negative at first. They will now be all wavy. But for flatbed scans, the carrier holds the film flat enough for me to perform the scan and the negative will only flatten out as I work through the scan. You can also hold it on the reverse roll for longer if necessary.

Many people will pile heavy coffee table books on top of their movies, but I think it takes a bit longer.

The details of your workflow will of course vary depending on your digitization method, so I’ll leave it up to you to incorporate my recommendations into your particular situation.

Which brings me to my next point, which is also a bit off topic if you don’t mind. Photographers who digitize their film with digital cameras are always trying to sell me their way and throw away my flatbed, citing as many data points as I’ve come to know over the past twenty years. But when you have an effective workflow for your goals, swapping out such a large element requires retooling everything around it. Hell, even the cover negatives of the Print Files I bought were selected based on my scanning method. So we could argue all day about the “best” digitization method, but while these people argue, I got the job done.

Larry and Moe

OK, so we’re taking care of Curly, but what about Larry and Moe?

They can get their own blog!

We all look like lackeys at times when it comes to home movie development, so remember these words of wisdom from Curly Howard:

If you don't succeed at first, keep sucking until you do.  - Curly Howard

Let me know in the comments if this or another method works for you! Putting all our thinking/techniques aside, we will find a flat film together!

Thanks for reading and happy shooting knuckleheads!

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