How to Safely Store and Preserve Photos
Most people now take digital photos only, and then store those photos somewhere digitally. However, before digital photos, photos were made from negatives and resulted in hard copy original photos in black and white or, more recently, in color. These older photographs are fun, interesting, and celebrate moments, if not in your life, in the lives of family members and friends who are perhaps no longer alive. They give you a visual record of now irreplaceable historical memories of your family, friends, and experiences. You probably enjoy viewing them, showing them to your current family members and guests, and displaying them around your home. They help to connect the past and the present, instilling a sense of home and place.
However, the ink and pigments, as well as the paper they’re developed and printed on, are subject to deterioration over time. Although the deterioration of photographic materials is an ongoing natural process, there’s a lot that you can do to slow down the rate at which this happens, regardless of whether you choose to hang them or put them in storage. As such, how much effort you put in photo storage can have a huge impact on how they age.
Oil portraits of renowned people and historic places have lasted for centuries. But many photographs taken in the last several decades are damaged due to time, poor handling, and improper storage practises. In order to maximize the preservation of photographs, you generally need to provide and ensure proper care and handling in a good environment, whether the photos are on display or in storage.
Photo Selection and Handling
The first step for preserving your old photos is identifying the ones worth saving. This is a highly subjective matter, but if the images are not easily identifiable or labelled properly, they may not be worth preserving.
When sorting the photos and choosing which ones to put in storage:
- Consider starting with the most current ones and working backwards in time. Try to identify the events taking place in the picture, the people in it, and when and where the photo was taken.
- Write down that information on the back of each photo using a bold pencil, making sure to include the real names, and not just the associations (like “grandmother” or “great grandfather”).
- If your collection includes some very old and unidentifiable photos that you also wish to preserve, you should work on them last after finishing the work on the ones in better shape.
- When sorting the photos, make sure to handle them carefully. This means avoiding common destructive habits like using adhesives, paper clips, rubber bands, or leaving fingerprints on the printed side.
- Avoid using masking tape or cellophane for mounting display items because of their corrosive adhesive. Instead, use high-quality, acid-free paper tape or any other tape recommended for archival use.
Controlling Environmental Factors
The environmental factors that may cause rapid deterioration of your photos, include:
- Light. Constant display of photos is not recommended due to deterioration from the light. Photos on display should be changed periodically to prevent damage from exposure in terms of intensity, wavelength, and duration of exposure.
- Relative humidity. All photographic materials are sensitive to high, low, and fluctuating humidity (amount of moisture in the air). High humidity causes the Gatlin biner to soften and become sticky, which increases the risk of mechanical damage and image deterioration, whereas low humidity can cause shrinkage and cracks.
- Temperature. High temperature accelerates deterioration, especially in high humidity or damp conditions, due to fading and discolouration. The paper can even turn yellow and become brittle, and encourage the growth of microscopic mould spores. Cycling temperature and humidity conditions speed up the deterioration.
- Air pollution. Oxidant gases (nitrogen oxides), particulate matter (soot and ash), acidic gases from combustion, and environmental fumes can cause fading and brittleness.
The ideal temperature and humidity conditions for storage of photographic prints and negatives is 18°C +/- 2°C cycling, and relative humidity of 30–50% with maximum cycling of +/-5% per day.
Using Boxes, etc. for the Right Storage Solution
Display and storage methods that use non-acid-free cardboard boxes, plastic bags, and some photo albums may release harmful vapours that cause permanent damage to your photos. Moreover, keeping your photos in a typical basement or attic storage area may expose them to considerable fluctuations in temperature and humidity. Insects also pose a threat to your photos.
That said, some of the worst damage is due to careless human handling, including the use of the common photo album with magnetic plastic sheets. Research shows that such photo albums are more destructive than your ordinary shoebox photo storage solution. This is because modern photo albums are made from cheap materials that are unstable and produce toxic chemicals and gases that damage photos over time.
Fortunately, you can safely store photographic prints using a filing system in archival boxes or acid-free folders and boxes. Here are some other recommended techniques for keeping your family photos in good condition:
- Store photos in acid-free papers or books made from archival boards, and avoid plastic storage containers that contain polyvinyl chloride, glassine envelopes, and kraft paper envelopes.
- Don’t remove photos in your existing photo albums, unless the albums are magnetic. If the photo corners are missing or detached, replace them if possible.
- Position framed photos on the darkest possible wall in your home, or display copies while the original photo stays in dark storage.
- Choose metal picture frames over wooden ones. Also, use a 100% rag matte board and get rid of any wooden backing, as it can emit chemicals that harm the photo.
- Store photos under the same temperature and humidity conditions that you would enjoy (not the attic or basement), and don’t expose them to ultraviolet radiation.
- Store old photos horizontally as opposed to vertically.
It’s never too late to improve your photo storage and thereby delay or slow the effects of time, and humidity and temperature changes, so your collection can be enjoyed for decades to come. Your objective must be to create an environmentally safe storage area while making the photos easy to retrieve for viewing. With proper care and storage at home or in a storage unit, deterioration can be reduced, while your photos stay organized and accessible. A steady environment is best.
Plan now to preserve your family history, including memories of people and events, by applying proper photo storage practises. The tips above should help you take the best possible care for your old photos. Additionally, if you want to take new photos that last long, consider printing them in black and white film since they won’t fade like colour photos, and keep the negatives for producing new prints in the future. Alternatively, you can take colour prints or slides, but not Polaroid pictures, since they tend to disappear in about ten years.
While you may choose to store your photos at Abacus, please be advised that Abacus controls temperature and humidity over a range broader than the very specific limits for temperature and humidity described earlier in this article. To discuss your storage options, contact Abacus Self Storage at 289-807-0981 or here at our website.
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