The ‘Negative’, What Is It?

In the days of film, a ‘negative’ had a universal meaning for photographers. Over the last decade digital photography has turned that around. The negative has become almost lost into obscurity. However, the term is kept alive in modern post processing. Here is a definition…

Definition: Negative

Definition: Negative | Glossary entry

A negative is a picture that is tonally reversed from the normal arrangement of colours or tones.

A negative is a picture that is tonally reversed from the normal arrangement of colours or tones. In this black and white photograph the image of the boy has been post-processed to create a negative.


 The word ‘Negative’ in modern photography is a noun to describe one of two things.

  1. A tonally reversed image on film used in the process of developing the final picture…
    In the days of film the negative was a transparent, flexible film that was coated with photographic chemicals. These had been developed in a chemical bath and some of the chemicals had been dissolved off the film. What was left was a picture ‘fixed’ to the film. This picture was a ‘negative’. It was so called because the tones had been reversed. When a print was made from the reversed-tone image in the negative it comes out as a correct tonal display, forming a positive image which is normally then printed to photographic paper.
  2. A tonally reversed image created in post-processing of a digital file…
    In digital photography the images are all positive. They are taken from the camera in a file and displayed in normal tonal arrangement on screen as originally imaged. However, a ‘negative’ can be displayed by applying a post-processing filter to the file. The filter mimics the negative by reversing the tonal relationships in the file. This is an artificial change and therefore not a negative in the original sense (1. above). Today this treatment is seen as processing to create a new image in its own right. In previous times the negative was part of the process of creating a photograph and was not normally used as a piece of art in its own right.


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