Caring for Your Photos


By Beverly Mosman, Assistant Photo Archivist

When we were kids we loved to take Mom’s cardboard picture box down from the top of the closet and look through the pictures. The box was filled with photos, and we would take them out one-by-one. Some had torn corners. Some had scratched surfaces. A few were even bent. Every movement of the box caused the photos to rub against each other.

Now I’ve learned a few important things about taking care of photos. The main principle to keep in mind is the photo’s environment.

  1. Store photos in acid-free containers in a humidity, temperature and light-controlled environment.
  2. Avoid storing photos in attics, basements, barns, or garages due to the temperature, moisture level, and risk of pests or other damage. Photos like a stable temperature. If it’s comfortable for you, it’s good for them. Photos deteriorate rapidly when exposed to extreme temperature fluctuations.
  3. Avoid photo exposure to direct sunlight. Any kind of light, both natural and artificial, will harm photographs. If you want to display a photo, have a copy made. A good scan or second print will save damage to the original. Be sure to note that photos taken by professionals are copyrighted.
  4. Cardboards and plastics “off-gas” releasing damaging chemicals into the environment and causing photo deterioration to accelerate. Use acid-free photo folders, envelopes, sleeves, storage boxes, paper and tissue. Ask a local office supply store about “archival quality” or “acid-free” photo storage supplies. “Safe” plastic supplies include polyester, polypropylene or polyethylene. Polyvinylchloride (PVC), commonly found in many photo supplies, is especially harmful.
  5. Lamination is not suggested for photo preservation since the heat, pressure, and chemical instability of the process may cause damage to the photo. Archivists avoid lamination as a method of preservation since it cannot be reversed without harming the original. Instead of lamination, encapsulation can be used to seal a photo against harm.
  6. Avoid adhesives such as tape and glue which are unstable. Use only photo-safe products to attach photos to acid-free album pages. “Self-stick” or “magnetic” albums are highly acidic, and it may be difficult to remove photos after a long period of time.
  7. Special storage supplies may be obtained for the storage of negatives, which require the same environment as photos.
  8. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) recommends non-buffered storage for color prints and negatives, and buffered storage materials for black and white prints and negatives.

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