Preserving the Past: How to Care for and Protect Old Photographs

old and important family photographs

D E N N I S A X E R Photography/Getty Images

Whether it is paintings on cave walls or writings chiseled in stone, mankind has been recording history since the beginning of time. The ability to document history photographically is a more recent invention, however, beginning with the daguerreotype in 1838. Photographs provide a very important visual connection to our ancestors. Shared family physical characteristics, hairstyles, clothing styles, family traditions, special events, and more provide a graphic portrayal of the lives of our ancestors, but if we do not properly care for our photographs, some of our history will fade away right along with those precious images.

What Causes a Photo to Deteriorate?

Environmental factors such as temperature, humidity, and sunlight affect photographs more than any other factor. Cyclic conditions (high heat and humidity followed by cold, dry weather such as you would find in an attic or basement) are especially bad for photos and may cause cracking and separation of the emulsion (image) from the support (paper base of the photo). Dirt, dust, and oil are also big culprits of photographic deterioration.

Storage Tips

  • The worst places to store your photographs are in an un-insulated attic or basement. Constant high temperatures and humidity in the summer and low temperatures and humidity in the winter can cause your photographs to become brittle and crack. In severe cases, it may cause separation of the emulsion (image) from the support (paper base) of the photo. Dampness can cause photographs to stick together. Insects and rodents, commonly found in basements, also like to feed on photos. The best conditions for storing photographs are in a location with a consistent temperature from 65°F–70°F with a relative humidity of about 50%. These aren't always possible in a home environment, however, so if your photographs are especially important to you, you may want to consider storing them in a safe deposit box at your bank where the conditions are ideal.
  • Do not store your negatives in the same place as your photographs. If something happens to your photos or albums, your negatives will still be available to reprint your treasured family heirloom.
  • Avoid cheap drugstore-type photo albums, magnetic photo albums, and paper and plastic storage products that aren't specifically made for storing photos. Regular envelopes, ziplock bags and other things commonly used for photo storage aren't always safe for your photos. Use only lignin-free, acid-free, un-buffered paper for storing photographs or as interleaving paper in albums. Use only PVC-free plastics such as Polyester, Mylar, Polypropylene, Polyethylene, and Tyvek.
  • Water and fire can ruin your photos. Keep pictures away from fireplaces, heaters, dryers etc. Avoid water damage by storing photos on high shelves well away from water pipes and in locations not prone to flooding or leaks (don't store in the basement or in a closet which backs on a shower, tub or sink).

What to Avoid

  • Dirt, dust, and oils from your hands can cause permanent damage. You should handle prints and negatives along the edges, preferably while wearing white cotton gloves.
  • Do not write on the back of your photos with standard ball-point or felt-tip ink pens. Unless it is marked specifically for use on photos, most ink contains acids which will eat away at and stain your photos over time. If you must mark a photo and don't have an acid-free photo marking pen available, then write lightly with a soft lead pencil on the back of the image.
  • Do not use rubber bands or paper clips to hold photos together. Rubber bands contain sulfur which can cause your photo to deteriorate. Paper clips can scratch the surface of your photos or negatives. Clippings should be photocopied onto alkaline paper.
  • Do not use paper clips to hold photos together or in albums. They can scratch the surface of your photos or negatives.
  • Do not display important photos in your home. The glass can stick to the emulsion over time. Sunlight will cause your photo to fade. If you want to display a precious photo, then have a copy made and display the copy!
  • Do not use glues (especially rubber cement) or pressure sensitive tapes to mend photographs or hold them in albums. Most glues contain substances such as sulfur and acids which will cause your photos to deteriorate. Look for special photo-safe glues and tapes in the archival section of your favorite photo or craft store.
  • Avoid exposing photographic materials to anything containing sulfur dioxide, fresh paint fumes, plywood, cardboard, and fumes from cleaning supplies.
  • Do not take special family photos (wedding photos, baby photos, etc.) to an inexpensive photo developer for processing, especially one hour services. It is important that the film is developed with fresh chemicals and that the negatives are washed sufficiently (for at least an hour) and only professionals usually provide these services. Ask questions and make sure you get what you are paying for.
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Your Citation
Powell, Kimberly. "Preserving the Past: How to Care for and Protect Old Photographs." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Powell, Kimberly. (2023, April 5). Preserving the Past: How to Care for and Protect Old Photographs. Retrieved from Powell, Kimberly. "Preserving the Past: How to Care for and Protect Old Photographs." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).