Storing Photographic Materials Safely

Longevity expectations:

Black and white silver halide prints that have been archivally processed and stored under perfect conditions have an expected life of over a hundred years without deterioration. Usually, though, photographs have been commercially processed, and conventionally stored, and a few decades is more probable. In the case of color prints and slides, which are made up of plastics and various dye materials, degradation can start within a few years.

The truth is, that any photograph eventually succumbs to the effects of a hostile environment, as well as to several natural enemies. While we recommend photo restoration services when needed, and having valuable images professionally scanned and archived to a disc, you can achieve a great deal by storing your collection of precious images properly.

What to avoid:

  • High temperature and humidity
    The top layer of a photograph, which contains the image, is called the emulsion layer, and it’s comprised of gelatin and other organic materials. When subjected to heat and humidity, mold and fungi can attack the surface of your picture. It’s important that photographic materials be stored in a cool, dry place; preferably below about 68° F, and under  50% relative humidity.
  • Sunlight
    Bright light, in general; especially sunlight, with its UV component, will take a toll on prints, unless they’re protected by special filtered glass. Another idea is to make one copy for long-term storage and a second for display.
  •  Wood and Paper Products
    Bleaches, acids, and other chemicals often used in the manufacture of paper can damage the emulsion of your photograph over time. So, it’s important to store your materials only with acid-free paper products. Unfortunately, there is currently no accepted standard for the label, “archival,” making it important to use trusted brands
  • Adhesives
    Be cautious about putting photos in albums; convenience can come with great cost. Many adhesives in common use, including rubber cement and sticky-back album pages, contain chemicals that will destroy your photographs over time.
  •  Sorting Aids
    It may seem obvious that metallic objects like paper clips can scratch the delicate surfaces of
    prints and negatives, but it’s also true that chemicals from a seemingly harmless rubber band can cause harm over time.
  • Air Pollution
    The fumes from household chemicals, including paint and many cleaning products also take a toll on photo longevity.

What you can do:

While scanning and digitizing is important, preserving original materials with proper storage is also important.  Here are our recommendations:

1.     Store in a cool and dry place.
Avoid storing photographic materials in an attic or basement, where temperature and humidity can harm them. If you can, keep materials below 68° and 50% humidity.

2.    Store in archival materials only.
Storage boxes of plastic or specially treated acid-free materials should be used. Conventional materials, like the conventional cigar box, are hygroscopic (absorbing humidity from the air}, as well as acidic. All negatives and transparencies are best stored in proper archival pages made for the purpose. Even glassine and kraft envelopes are hygroscopic, and should be avoided.

3.    Display carefully.
As already mentioned, ultraviolet is a hazard, so avoid hanging a print in a sunny spot, or use UV filtering glass. For valuable images, you can consider hanging a copy, and storing the original. There are albums and scrapbooks that archival and safe to use. The extra expense and care will prove worthwhile, as it allows keeping images for a lifetime and beyond.

4.     It’s wise to digitize.
Unfortunately, organic materials have a limited life, often ending in fading, eroding, and cracking. While we still love paper prints, you should consider making digital versions of all the images you value. Theoretically, there is no limitation to the life of digital images, as long as the appropriate technology is available. Storage on CDs and DVDs is safe, but having an off-site backup is even safer. There are several options that are easily found on the web.

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