Today, most of the photos we take are digital and we don’t really have to worry about how to care for photos at all. We can just pile them up on our hard drives and USB memory sticks or burn them onto DVDs or CDs and, barring hard drive corruption or disk damage, our photos will look as good in 100 years as they did the day they were taken.

But what about all those shoe boxes of photos hidden away in cupboards and drawers that were taken before the digital age? Many families have photos that are twenty, fifty or even a hundred years old. These old paper-based photos are valuable links with the past, part of our personal or family history. Making sure they’ll still be in good condition in another twenty years requires proper care and storage. Learn how to care for photos with the tips below.

Photo Enemies

Adverse environmental factors like temperature, humidity, exposure to light and dirt, and improper handling can all damage paper photographs.

Humidity and Temperature

If photo storage conditions are too damp the print paper will swell and the pigments and dyes that form the picture will be damaged. Dampness also encourages the growth of mould. On the other hand, if conditions are too dry photo paper will become brittle.

High temperatures increase the damaging effects of humidity and also increase the rate at which photos fade.

Ideally photographs should be stored at a relative humidity (a measure of the amount of moisture in the air) of around 40%. While this may not always be practicable anything higher than 70% should be strictly avoided.

The higher the temperature, the faster your photos will deteriorate, so try to store them in as cool an area as possible.

Stable Conditions

As well as moderate relative humidity and low temperatures your photos need an environment where these two factors don’t fluctuate too much either. Frequent changes in temperature or humidity cause photographs to swell and contract as moisture moves in and out of the materials that make up the image and the paper it is printed on. This continual stretching and shrinking is particularly damaging to photographs.

Unless you have a dedicated photo storage area with controlled temperature and humidity the best place to store your photos is somewhere on the ground floor of your house, against an internal wall. This location generally provides the lowest temperatures and the most stable levels of humidity.

Acidity

Another enemy of photographs is acidity. Most photographic paper is naturally acidic and this acidity, if it is significant enough, can, over time, cause spotting, brittleness, and image deterioration in photographs. While affected photos can be professionally treated with a buffering agent, certain precautions can be taken at home to reduce acid damage.

Whether your photos are on display in frames, or stored away, any material that comes into contact with them should be acid-free. This includes mat boards used as background in photo frames, tissue-paper wrapping and card storage boxes. Photos stored in boxes should ideally be separated from each other by a sheet of acid free paper, glassine interleaving or “encapsulated” in inert polyester envelopes.

If you do decide to encapsulate your photographs, make sure you check what your plastic envelopes are made from. Polyester is good, but PVC and acetate should be avoided.

Handling

Careful handling is important in the care of photos. Apart from the obvious mechanical wear and tear caused by rifling through those old Kodak photo packets, our skin contains a mild acid that degrades photo images. To prolong the life of your photographs hold them only by the edges.

Light

UV radiation will fade photographic images over time. To avoid light-damage display your photos away from windows and in areas where they will not receive direct sunlight or prolonged exposure to fluorescent tubes.

Framing

UV fading can be further reduced by the use of ultraviolet absorbing glass in photo frames.

Framed photographs should be matted and bordered with acid-free materials and there should be an air space between the surface of the photograph and the frame’s glass.

Long Photo Life

By learning how to care for photos you can preserve those precious memories for generations to come. Remember the following tips: store photographs at low temperatures in moderate humidity, avoid fluctuating climatic conditions, use only acid-free storage materials, handle carefully, protect from harsh light and frame according to best practices.

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