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Why Are Negative Photos Called Negatives?

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By Shelby Burr

Have you ever wondered “Why is this named that way?” Most origin stories are self explanatory but when it comes to photography, negatives are a mystery as to why they are called “negatives.” What are negative photos called negatives? Lucky for you, we have the answer and the history! 


Negatives are our favorite pastime, and for those in the art field, negatives are still our favorite present! Negatives can be such a beautiful form of photography to capture a beautiful moment in time. But where did the name come from? Well, speaking of art, “negatives” i s a term globally used when creating art. 


When an artist is creating their work, there is positive and negative space. Positive space refers to the subject or areas of interest in an artwork, such as a person’s face or figure in a portrait, objects in still life paintings, or trees in a landscape scene. Negative space is the background or the area that surrounds the subject of the work.


Positive and negative make up the space within an artist's framework. So, on the flip side of that, where does negative space fall in with photography (another beautiful artform). In photography, a negative is an image, usually on a strip or sheet of transparent plastic film, in which the lightest areas of the photographed subject appear darkest and the darkest areas appear lightest. This reversed order occurs because the extremely light-sensitive chemicals a camera film must use to capture an image so quickly are darkened by exposure to light and photo processing!


What’s funny is that negatives really rely on the counterbalance of the positive, yet we only call them “Negatives.” They are normally used to make positive prints on photographic paper by projecting the negative onto the paper with an enlarger or contact print. The paper is also darked in proportion to its light exposure, so a second reversal results which restores light and dark to their normal order. 


So, those small, brown little squares we call negatives really take on a beautiful art and science to create an everlasting memory and image. There is a balance between light and dark to create an image and pull forward the shapes that create the photo. Negatives have been popular the moment they were invented back in 1826 by Nicephore Niiepce. Can you imagine being the guy that took the very first photo of all time? Where would you even begin to create that invention? Somehow, you are taking a moment in time and printing it on paper…like, what?

 

Some fun facts about negatives:

  • Negatives were once commonly made on a thin sheet of glass rather than a plastic film.
  • Some earliest negatives were made on paper. 
  • Transparent prints can be made by printing a negative onto special positive film, as is done to make traditional motion picture film prints for theaters.
  • Typically, there are around 36 exposures on a roll of 135 (standard 35mm size) and the amateur rolls were 24 exposures. 
  • One very famous negative photography artist is Ansel Easton Adams. He was an American landscape photographer and environmentalist known for his black-and-white images of the American west. He passed away in 1984, but his amazing work lives on till this day! 


Now we know why negative photos are called negatives! The best way to keep those negatives alive is to have them digitized. By digitizing your memories, you will be able to relive them again and again, plus you can pass them down to family members for decades to come! Legacybox can help preserve your family legacy - be sure to check out how we can help with your negatives! 

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