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Preservation Basics

When you add up the cost of cameras, batteries, film and processing, photographs can be quite an investment…for many of us though, our photos are our most valued possession. Photographs link us with our pasts and allow us to relive our favorite memories. In fact, pictures are so important, it’s often reported that people will return to a burning building to retrieve their family photos. Most photographs however, are slowly being destroyed due to improper care and storage methods. Although no photograph is ever completely stable, you can greatly extend the life of your pictures by following a few simple steps...

Limit Exposure to Light

Light is the number one enemy of a photograph. Although direct sunlight and fluorescent lighting are the most damaging, light levels in an average room can cause pictures to fade. To limit this exposure, store photos in complete darkness, such as in an archival box or photo album. If you want to display a photograph, make a copy for display and keep the original in dark storage.

Keep Cool & Dry

Besides exposure to light, heat and humidity are the biggest threats to your images. Increased temperature escalates the rate of deterioration of a photo. As a general rule the life span of a photo is doubled for every 10-degree drop in storage temperature. High levels of humidity encourage the growth of microorganisms, which attack the emulsion of a photograph. Fluctuating levels of temperature and humidity can cause expansion and contraction of the emulsion and paper of your photographs, which results in cracks and flaking. A simple rule is to store your photos in the main living areas of your house. Upper floors and attics can be too warm, while basements can be too humid.

Protect & Preserve

Be sure to handle your photographs with care to prevent fingerprints, scratches, folds, ink stains and other damage. Whenever possible, wash your hands before touching a photograph. Also avoid letting your photos come in contact with items such as paper clips, rubber bands, and staples. Storing your photographs in archival boxes or photo albums and scrapbooks will also keep them safe from environmental contaminants. Air pollution, smoke, dust, and gases from paints and cleanings supplies can all cause degradation of photographs.

The Right Tools

Unfortunately, if not done properly, the very act of organizing and protecting your treasured photographs can end up accelerating the aging process. The use of inferior grade products not designed for the long-term preservation of photos can cause irreversible damage. Some albums and pages are made with plastics that emit gasses that can cause photo deterioration. Adhesives used to manufacture albums or to mount photographs can also be a problem. Any paper product near photographs should be both acid and lignin free. Pens and ink used for photo identification purposes may be acidic, and can bleed, stain or even fade away. Before purchasing photo storage supplies do your research, use only products that have been tested for image permanence. Photo albums with magnetic pages are the most detrimental to your photographs.


Perhaps the single greatest problem with the long-term storage of photographs is the lack of proper subject matter identification. If you don’t know who is in the picture or when, why or where it was taken, who cares if the picture stands the test of time? Label your photos on the back with names, dates and places with a photo marking pencil or archival pen. If you’re using a scrapbook or album, take the opportunity to write even more about your photos to tell the story not captured in the photographs themselves.