Keys to Protecting Your Photos to Preserve Them for Future Generations

Your photos are valuable pieces of history that tell YOUR story. Photo memories should be kept as safe as heirloom jewelry, or favorite art pieces.

It’s important to keep your entire photo collection safe. From vintage family photos to your most recent prints, they will all be part of history someday.

We want to help you preserve your printed photo memories by protecting them from natural elements and unsafe storage choices.

Here is our best advice on what to do to keep your printed photos safe.

What Happens to Printed Photos Over Time?

Photos are sensitive! It’s important to understand what happens to them when exposed to certain elements over long periods of time.

Several factors impact the ability of photo papers to stand the test of time. The American Museum of Photography calls these factors the “natural (and not-so-natural) enemies of photographs.”

Moisture produces molds and allows insects to flourish. Lack of ventilation will destroy photos over time. However, humidity levels that are too low (below 15%) can cause photos to become brittle and crack.

Light causes images to fade.

Temperature that are too high (over 75 degrees) causes discoloration and chemical decay.

Adhesives and acids from wood, paper, and oils degrade a photo over time.

If you have any photos susceptible to these elements, it may be time to take the necessary precautions to protect them.

Handle Your Printed Photos With Care

As you begin working with your photos to cull and archive your collection, there are some things you can do to ensure you’re handling your prints safely.

We suggest wearing light cotton gloves when handling your photos. Your fingers contain oils that can damage the print side of your photos.

While you may have many prints stored in their original envelopes or shoe boxes, others may be in “magnetic” photo albums, or glued onto scrapbook pages. It’s best to remove photos from these albums before your photos get damaged. Use unwaxed dental floss to gently slide between the back of the photo and the album page to carefully pry photos away from the adhesive.

You can read more about how to rescue your photos from old albums in this previous post.

What about writing on the back of photos?
Clients often ask if it’s OK to write on the backs of their photos. Our answer is yes! We suggest labeling the backs of photos with names, dates, and locations. When people look at your photos in the future, they’ll will be glad you took the time to do this.

But proceed with caution!

Be sure to write very gently and only on the backs of photos, never on the front. Pressing too hard can leave an imprint, making the writing visible on the front of the photo. We recommend writing near the edge of a photo, not in the middle.

Pencils – Standard #2 pencils are fine for paper-backed photos, but do not work well on plastic-coated (glossy) photo paper. Stabilo All-Pencils is one brand of photo-safe pencil that will work on any type of photo paper. You can find this brand online at Archival Methods, or Amazon.   

Pens – While photo-safe pencils are best, you may choose to use a photo-safe pen. A couple of highly-rated brands are Sakura Identi-pen, or Staedtler Lumocolor Permanent Marking Pens. Both of these are permanent, waterproof, and resist smudging.

We suggest you test the pen on the back of an unwanted photo first, to make sure the ink will not bleed through to the front of the photograph. These pens dry quickly and are advertised to be “smudge-proof.” It’s still a good idea to make sure the ink is completely dry before you stack your photos so the writing won’t smear onto the front of the photo underneath it.

As you’re going through your printed photos, you may find some that you want to archive in your digital collection.

Scan Photos You Want to Archive as Digital Copies

There are a couple of ways to create digital copies of your printed photos.

Method 1: Use a Scanner
Flatbed scanners are the best technology to use to produce digital copies of images, especially for the images you want to have professionally enlarged and printed.

When we are scanning images for our clients, we set the scanner to 600 dpi. This resolution is high enough for prints of most sizes.

Before you begin, dust the scanner and your photos with a microfiber cloth to remove any fine lint or debris that might show up on the scanned image.

For easier and faster filing of your digital images, add a photo date and name to the image file title as you go. Read this post for more information on organizing your digital images.

Method 2: Use your Phone
Taking pictures of pictures with your phone is a good solution if you don’t own a scanner, or just want to have digital images of lots of photos as backups.

New apps allow you to quickly scan individual photos, entire album pages, and documents using your mobile phone’s camera.

These apps will do more than just take a photo of the photo. They detect photo borders and allow you to adjust rotation, color, and quality.

  • Photomyne – scans photos in bulk and will auto-detect, crop and color-enhance your scanned images. The free version, for both iOS and Android devices, has some limitations on the number of “saving sessions.” The $4.99 version for iOS devices has unlimited saving sessions and albums.
  • Google Photo Scan – offers enhanced scanning that removes glare, detects edges and auto-rotates. This free app is available for iOS and Android devices.
  • Pic Scanner – costs $1.99 on the App store and is only available for Apple devices (e.g. iPhone and iPad). It can scan multiple photos at once and has an auto-cropping feature.

Keep in mind that a photo of a print is never going to be the same high level resolution as one scanned on a flatbed scanner. But lower resolution images are fine for use on social media, in blog posts, or in slideshows.

Storing Your Photos to Preserve them for Future Generations

When investing the time to safely store your photos, it’s crucial that you also invest in the right supplies. Make sure your paper storage supplies, such as boxes or dividers, are acid-free. Any plastic sleeves or envelopes should be PVC-free.

Keeping Your Photos Flat
Photos tend to curl unless stored in a container where they are lightly pressed together. Here are a couple of “do’s and don’ts” to help keep your photos flat:

  • DO store them in thick polypropylene envelopes, especially vintage photographs printed on albumen paper (this is the paper that gives an old photo its metallic look).
  • DO mount photos on acid-free paper using photo-safe corners. Then slide the papers into polypropylene sleeves.
  • DON’T group photos together using paper clips, as they dent the photos.
  • DON’T store photos in baggies, or in any other PVC plastic.

Storage Suggestions
We suggest you file your photos chronologically, by year, in acid-free boxes or photo-safe sleeves. For added protection from water damage, it’s a good idea to place those boxes on shelves, or inside larger plastic containers.

The National Archives website advises against storing boxes in attics or basement crawl spaces. These areas are prone to temperature extremes, water damage, insects, and rodents.

For online purchases of every kind of archival supply (e.g. boxes, photo safe corners, archival sleeves, dividers, and envelopes), we recommend Archival Methods.

Local craft stores, such as Hobby Lobby, also carry acid-free boxes that include photo-safe dividers.

If you have specific pieces of memorabilia you want to keep with certain photos, we recommend Savor storage boxes. These unique storage systems include spaces to store memorabilia as well as photographs.

Start Archiving Your Printed Photos Step-by-Step

If you took photos before the days of smartphones, you probably have a large number of print photographs. Archiving them in a protected storage environment is a potentially time-consuming process.

Here’s a simple first step: start by gathering the photos that are in the most vulnerable environment. This could be the images that are currently in magnetic photo albums, or a group of loose photos stored in an old cardboard box. Focus on sorting and labeling the photos that you want to keep. With your storage supplies ready, you can move them to safety.

And remember, you don’t have to accomplish every step of this project all at once! Break it up into manageable tasks that you can complete in a weekend.

Soon you’ll have important pieces of your history protected and preserved for generations to come.

Let us know if you run across any special challenges in this process. We are here to help!

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