For more than a century, people have been capturing special moments with photographs. In order to make sure that your children and grandchildren will someday enjoy the photos you take today, it is important to take care of your photos and protect them from the effects of age.
What is a Photograph Made of?
Photographs are made up of several layers. The top layer (or emulsion layer) contains the
image suspended in gelatin and is coated onto a layer of photographic
paper or film. A middle layer of adhesive is used to make the emulsion
stick to the base.
The materials used to create the image vary depending on the type of photograph.
A black and white image is made up of light-sensitive
silver salts called silver halides. Color photographs and slides are made up
of dyes. With proper care you can expect your color prints to last for decades,
but in general, they do not preserve as well as black and white images.
Causes of Deterioration
Often a combination of factors lead to deterioration of photographs. The following
are some of the most destructive influences.
High Temperature and Relative Humidity
High temperature and relative humidity are among the most
destructive factors that affect photographs. Photographs should not be kept in temperatures above 70 degrees
Fahrenheit and relative humidity above 60% for long periods. Daily, drastic temperature changes (such as those that may occur
in an attic) and continuously damp areas (such as basements) should also
Because a photograph's emulsion layer is composed of organic materials (gelatin),
heat and high humidity promote the growth of mold and fungi. These elements also cause base materials to deteriorate quickly. Cold temperatures
(refrigeration) are preferable, especially for color photos, but only
if humidity can also be controlled. Standard refrigerators have a high
relative humidity and are not a good place to store photographs. Air-conditioning
in combination with a dehumidifier will help control the effects of temperature and
humidity when refrigeration is not an option.
Since all kinds of airborne substances can be damaging to photographs, be sure not to store photos in areas where pollutants are present. For
example, avoid closets that also contain cleaning products and remove
photos from rooms freshly painted with an oil-based paint for at least
a month (latex paint is safe).
Direct sunlight and fluorescent light can be very damaging to a photograph (especially color photos which will fade rapidly when exposed to light). For all types of photographs,
it is best to avoid prolonged exposure to direct sunlight and to use ultraviolet
filters on fluorescent lights. If you wish to display photographs in a sunny area of your house, you might consider framing a copy of the photo and storing the original in a safe place.
There are a few things you can do to protect your photographs from flood,
fire, and other natural disasters. Storing them up off the floor is relatively
simple and can help tremendously in case of minor flooding. Storage in
an enameled steel file cabinet can prevent photographs from being crushed
and offers some safety from water and fire damage. You may want to consider
a safe deposit box for extremely valuable photographs. It is also wise
to give copies of special photographs to relatives to avoid having them
all in one place in case of a disaster.
Proper Storage Methods and Material
Using specialized storage methods and materials will help prolong the life of your family photographs. Since prints and negatives can stick together, it is best to store them in separate envelopes or plastic sleeves. When storing mounted prints, be sure to place a sheet
of paper or plastic between them.
Within these enclosures, your prints and negatives can be stored in acid-free
storage boxes on a shelf or in steel file cabinets.
Photo albums are convenient and popular ways to store (and share) your memories. When choosing your album, make sure the album pages are acid fee. When shopping for
albums, be sure the album is "archival" and that "PVC" was used in the manufacturing process.
Finally, consider making copies of your family photos or storing them electronically. You can do this
by scanning photos or by taking negatives to a photo processor and having
them put them in electronic format for you.
As you can see, there are several relatively simple things you can do
to help your photographs last longer. By carefully choosing the mounting
materials, storage materials, and storage location for your photographs,
you can preserve memories for generations to enjoy.