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Looking After Your Old Photographs: 7 Ways to Keep Your Treasured Family Photos Safe and Looking Their Best

Posted on: 3 July 2020

Maybe a relative sent you old family photographs and you are not sure what to do. Maybe you’re wondering how to save your child’s pictures and other mementos.

These simple tips will help you preserve your family photographs for the next generation, as preventing damage is the key to preservation.

1. Give information for future generations

You know that it is a photo of your grandmother, but years from now your grandchildren may not! If you have an interest in family history you'll probably know the frustration of trying to match faces with names in your tree. Use a pencil (never use ballpoint pen) to mark the names, dates and locations for each picture on the back of the photo. To label a newer, slick-backed photograph, use an archival felt-tipped pen. Even better, choose an enclosure that allows you to write labels on a page or card instead of directly onto the original print. Remember to allow the ink to dry before stacking your photos as it could smear or transfer.

2. Store them in the right place

Photographs love to be in a relatively dry, cool and temperature-stable space. Cellars are likely too damp, which could cause your photos to stick together or become mouldy. If your attic is hot, heat can speed up the degradation of both the paper and ink. Choose a space that is room temperature or below, and a safe distance from radiators and vents, such as in a cupboard or spare closet.

3. Protect them from light

Photographs love dark spaces. Overexposure to light will eventually cause photographs to fade. Keep this in mind when framing and displaying treasured original prints; a safer option is to display a high-quality copy and safely store the original.

4. Invest in proper storage

The two safest methods of storing your photographs are photo albums (paper and plastic) and photo boxes, which should be acid-free and lignin-free. If your storage space is humid, choose paper-based products as photos might stick to a plastic album. (Plastic enclosures should be made of uncoated polyester film, uncoated cellulose triacetate, polyethylene, and polypropylene. Do not use plastic to store negatives.) If you choose a photo box, make sure the photos lay flat and are not cramped for space.

5. Natural enemies of the photograph

Paper clips, rubber bands, tape, glue, adhesive, ballpoint pens, and non-archival quality papers (which might contain harmful acids) can all damage photos. Using certain fasteners might seem like a temporary solution (for example, holding a batch of wedding photos together with a rubber band), but it’s best not to take the chance. If you forget to remove them, those photos could be bent and marked-up forever.

6. Safe handling

When handling or organising your photographs keep food and drinks far away. If you plan on doing a lot of handling at once, invest in a pair of 100 percent cotton gloves. These will keep your photos safe from the natural oils on your hands. If you don’t have gloves, handle your photos only by their edges.

7. Consider digitising your most prized photographs

Gather together your most important photos (weddings, births, headshots, or any other important memories you’d like to be backed up) and have them digitised. It’s possible to scan them yourself, but there are many options for outsourcing this task to professionals. Once you’ve received your digital files keep several copies of them in different locations. For example, upload your photos to an online photo service, a flash drive and an external hard drive.

The advice above doesn't just apply to old photographs - it will help in preserving old documents such as letters and wills.

Damaged photographs? All is not lost!

No matter how carefully you handle and store your photographs, accidents can happen and all images will fade over time.

However, I can save the images by creating digital copies and repairing water-damage, fading, scratches, tears and missing sections - or even put a photograph 'back together' if it has been torn into pieces.

See my Photo Restoration page for further details.