All you need to know about storing photos

July 29, 2015

A picture is worth 1,000 words…or so they say. For most folks, however, family photos are far more precious than that. Keeping them in picture-perfect shape isn't always easy, but it's always worth the effort.

All you need to know about storing photos

Keep photos cool and dry

Photographs are extremely susceptible to deteriorating from adverse environmental conditions. Here are some suggestions from experts for giving them comfortable, life-extending surroundings:

  • Store black-and-white photos of any vintage in an interior closet or air-conditioned room with an average temperature of 20°C (68°F) and a relative humidity level between 30 and 40 percent. Relative humidity levels in excess of 60 percent will accelerate the deterioration of your pictures.
  • For colour photos, temperature — not relative humidity — is the key concern. Colour photos stored at low temperatures — namely, 4°C (40°F) or below — will last much longer than photos stored at room temperature.

Test humidity with a hygrometer

  • Relative humidity measures the amount of water in the air; it is stated as a percentage of the total amount of moisture the air can hold at a given temperature — warm air holds more water than cool air.
  • A relative humidity of 30 to 40 per cent will keep black-and-white photos dry, but not so dry that they become brittle.Relative humidity is measured with a tool called a hygrometer.
  • Consumer models sell for low prices. But professional models give far more reliable results, although they are a lot more expensive.
  • You can buy them at stores that carry professional test equipment. If you can't locate a supplier in your area, try an online vendor.

Newspapers are bad news

  • Newsprint, the stuff your newspaper is printed on, degrades quickly, thanks to the high level of lignin and other acids present in the wood pulp used to make it.
  • That's good news for the environment, but unfortunately, those acids can be transferred to nearby items, like important documents, photos, or negatives, causing them to deteriorate faster, too.
  • So always store newspaper clippings in separate, sealed containers or in a different location inside your home.

Store photos in acid-free containers

Don't keep your prints, negatives, or slides in plastic, cardboard, or wooden containers — including wooden cabinets and dresser drawers; they all release gases that are harmful to photographic materials. You can find much safer choices at most art- or photo-supply stores:

  • The best place to store your photos is in an airtight metal container sold for that purpose, preferably one with an enamel finish.
  • Second best: House your photo collection in boxes, bins, and albums that are labelled acid-free or archival quality. If you need to wrap or separate photos, use acid-free tissue paper.

Always label, but do it carefully

Even if you have a…well, photographic memory, make it a habit to label your photos (if for no other reason than to document them for your descendants). Here are some pointers:

  • When labelling photographic prints, use a piece of acid-free paper with notations written in a water-based ink and attach it using an acid-free glue or tape.
  • You can also use an acid-free pen or a soft-lead pencil to write on the backsides of prints, but be sure to press very lightly so the writing doesn't dent the paper or damage the emulsion on the front. Put acid-free tissue between stacked prints to prevent pencil lead from rubbing off on another print.
  • Try to provide as much information about the image as possible. But even a little information is better than none.
The material on this website is provided for entertainment, informational and educational purposes only and should never act as a substitute to the advice of an applicable professional. Use of this website is subject to our terms of use and privacy policy.
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