How to Care for Your Photographs
With every picture you take, you are freezing a moment in time; capturing a view that can never be exactly the same again. You may have a closet full of such frozen moments, or just a few rolls from your last vacation. If you want to be able to enjoy those moments far into the future, you need to take some care in the handling and storage of those images. If you have family photos handed down from earlier generations, you have a responsibility to future generations to pass them on in as good condition as possible.
When taking care of older photographs it helps to know something of the process by which they were made, but it not essential. If you would like to learn more about Identifying and Dating Old Photographs there is considerable information available. In practice, all photos need to be protected from the same dangers. Light is enemy number one. Chemical degradation is another problem, and much less easy to deal with. And of course you must protect them from physical damage, be it the curiosity of children or the fury of storm, flood or fire.
Of course you have to expose photos to light to view them, and what good are they if they are never seen? But you should be careful to store them in light-proof boxes. Pictures you hang on your walls should be thought of as disposable -- don't hang the original if it is a family heirloom -- make a copy and hang that. Avoid placing pictures where they will be in direct sun.
Another source of chemical degradation is the paper (or on mounted pictures, the cardboard the print is mounted on) used in making prints. If the paper is too acidic, it may fall apart with time, disintegrating slowly from within. There are sprays available that can be used on the back of photos to slow this process.
Photos can also pick up deleterious chemicals from their environment, the air around them, other pictures, or the material they are stored in. To ensure long life, store your pictures in safe materials designed for archival storage. Never use those so-called magnetic photo album pages that are sticky -- that sticky surface is made of chemicals that will destroy your pictures.
Other factors than can affect the chemical degradation of photographs are temperature and humidity. Like most chemical processes, those that damage your pictures are accelerated by heat and humidity. Excessively low heat or humidity can also be damaging however. All materials expand and contract with temperature changes, which can lead to cracking of the image surface. Rapid changes in temperature and humidity can be very destructive. Very low humidity can also cause curling. Store your photos in an area where the temperature is steady and avoid extremes such as would be found in an attic or basement. Again, proper storage materials will help ameliorate the effects of fluctuating temperature and humidity.
There are less severe forms of physical destruction that you can protect against. Bent corners, folds and smudges from greasy fingers can all damage your pictures. Children will scribble on the backs if given the chance. Store your pictures securely, in safe materials. Don't just stuff them in a drawer. There are chemically inert plastic sleeves available for picture albums that allow the pictures to be viewed without removing them from their page.
Photo Albums, Scrapbooks and Photo Boxes: Purchase photo albums that are of high quality materials so as not to damage your family photos. Ideally use acid free and lignin free paper. If your photo album has plastics, choose the ones that are PVC-free such as Mylar, Polypropylene, Polyester and Polyethylene.
Handling of Photos: If you are handling rare or vintage photographs, you may want to use cotton gloves. A human body excretes natural oils that can be harmful to photographs so handling the photos with cotton gloves would prevent them from transferring to the photos.
Labeling Photos: Do not write on your photos. When writing on the back of your photos do not use regular ball points or felt tip pens. Look for photo-safe pens that you can buy at photo or craft stores.
Storage: When storing photo albums and photo boxes, make sure to find a place where your photos will not be easily reached by young children, pets and pests. Store your photos in a place away from anything that can cause water leaks and fire. Avoid storing photos in unfinished or un-insulated attics and basements.
Storing Negatives: Do not store negatives and photos together. If you have rare photos and negatives, think of putting them inside a fire-proof safe or safety deposit box. You can buy negative cases from photo supply stores to safely store your negatives.
Temperature and Humidity: Store your photos in room temperature, preferably between 65 to 70 degrees with a relative humidity of about 50%.
Scan and Save to Discs: Scan photos or download digital images and save them on Compact Discs (CD). Since files can get corrupted and discs can get damaged overtime, ensure that you re-copy your discs every 8 to 10 years. When scanning old rare photos, ensure that you have a professional do it. They have equipment that will not damage your photos.
Developing and Printing: When getting your negatives developed or photos re-printed, take them to professional photo shops and not just in drugstores or department stores. A professional photo developer uses high quality chemicals that they keep fresh at all times, minimizing deposits and damage to your photos.
Step9Framing: When framing photos make sure to use acid free mats and photo safe materials. Avoid displaying framed photos under direct sunlight which can cause fading. If you want to display old and rare photos, use copies instead of the original ones.
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