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The Nuances of Nitrate Film Digitization: A Closer Look at the Getty Research Institute’s Nitrate Film Collection

This piece was co-authored by Hannah Storch and Karl Seifert.

Above, differently sized pieces of nitrate film from The French and Company Photographic Archive of Fine and Decorative Arts
show design interiors and pieces showing advanced nitrate degradation (© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (71.P.1)).

What is Nitrate Film?

Digital preservation allows for the conservation and continuity of the knowledge and data contained within cultural and corporate heritage collections. For nitrate-based film collections, this process is even more invaluable because of the unstable nature of the media. Nitrate film is a type of film stock, which was commercialized from the 1890s to the early 1950s, and is made of cellulose nitrate. While notable for its transparency and flexibility, there were also drawbacks to using nitrate film. While most collections face the eventuality of degradation over time, nitrate film collections are particularly susceptible due to their inherent instability. During the deterioration process, nitrate film releases toxic fumes. Deteriorated nitrate becomes extremely flammable and, in rare yet occasional cases, may spontaneously combust at high temperatures. Due to this voracious decay process and the fact that the data contained within nitrate film collections is rapidly being lost, digital preservation can play an even more crucial role safeguarding these types of collections and the information they contain.

The Getty Research Institute’s Nitrate Negative Collections

This past year, DT Heritage partnered with the Getty Research Institute (GRI) to digitize their nitrate negative collections. Due to the fragile nature and unique storage concerns of the GRI’s nitrate negative holdings, these materials were unavailable for many years. After digitization, the 6,000+ images will be added into the Library Catalog and freely available for the public to view. The negatives represent a few different collections, including Harald Szeemann papers, The French and Company photographic archive of fine and decorative arts, and Malvina Hoffman papers, and as such, their content varies widely.

The images depict an artists’ community in Switzerland, stock photos from an NYC-based art dealership, and work by a prominent female sculptor documenting her life and surroundings. Through the Nitrate Digitization Project, the Getty Research Institute had an opportunity to increase access to collections that were previously unavailable to researchers.


Above, film samples show nitrate film degradation.

Above, a member of the DT Heritage team digitizes a piece of nitrate film.

Digitization Challenges

Although great care and consideration is always taken while handling a collection for digitization, the nature of nitrate film requires specialized environment, storage, and handling workflows throughout the digitization process. This particular project also consisted of several different collections with various sizes of film in various states of physical processing and organization.

The collections consisted of over 6000 individually cut pieces of nitrate film, as well as several hundred pieces of reflective ephemera, some of which dated back over 100 years. Given the diverse nature and scope of these collections, we had to customize our approach, figuring out how best to adapt to the different film formats and specifications while maintaining the care and physical preservation of a fragile collection.

Unique Solutions for Nitrate Film

In order to create the optimal environment for nitrate storage and for digitization, we worked with a professional conservator provided by the GRI to predetermine the ideal temperature and humidity control as well as air purity for the nitrate materials. The conservator also conducted an initial review of the condition of the nitrate materials with our team prior to beginning production. 

In order to facilitate rapid capture production while maintaining best handling practices for nitrate film digitization, we organized the collection according to size prior to production, which allowed us to tailor our approach to each type of film. Once we had organized the film according to five previously-agreed upon distinct resolutions based on size, we were able to optimize efficiency within the production workflow and ensure a high-quality digital image for all of the different sizes using a 150mp sensor. During the digitization process itself, we also used the DT Film Scanning Kit and its customized film carriers for contact-free scanning, resulting in the rapid digitization of many different sizes of film without touching the image area or putting the fragile material at greater risk.

Above, DT Heritage digitizes nitrate film.

In order to provide the highest quality images for all film format sizes, we received the request to digitize 8×10 film at a high resolution of 1700 pixels per inch (ppi). While such a high ppi  provides an undeniably high-resolution digital capture with all information included, it is difficult to attain within a given camera’s field of view. In order to achieve this, we utilized a 2-shot method and our DT Batch Script to seamlessly integrate the 2 images and create one holistic, high-quality digital image. This workflow was useful in handling the larger film formats that we came across while maintaining the highest-level preservation-grade FADGI standards.

After production, we moved into the processing phase of the project. Our next-generation proprietary DT PixelFlow software enabled us to process all of the requested file derivatives for this project, including 16-bit tifs, 8-bit tifs, and full-scale resolution jpegs. Due to the fact that so many collections of this kind do not have existing item-level records, we were also able to generate a metadata spreadsheet for this project. Preliminary catalogue records, like the ones DT Heritage generated for GRI, can be created during the digitization process to serve as a useful resource for information, cataloguing, and integration into unique Digital Asset Management Systems (DAMS).

Do You Have Nitrate Film?

Collection digitization results in the creation of preservation-grade images that can serve as digital surrogates for the original materials. In the case of inherently unstable nitrate film collections, this need becomes even more prevalent.

While digitization can’t stop deterioration, it can capture the object and its information before it is lost. Projects, such as the GRI Nitrate Digitization project, are not only interesting because of their scope but they are indispensable because of the nature of the collections and their propensity for deterioration.

To learn more about how DT Heritage can help you make the most of your nitrate film or transmissive material collection, contact us at [email protected].

Image right is an example of nitrate film from The French and Company Photographic Archive of Fine and Decorative Arts (© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (71.P.1))