Caring for and displaying your keepsake photos

By Doug Eisele

With the move to digital photography, many of us know how to store and back up those files. However, you probably also have a box (or boxes!) of historical family photos that you’d like to preserve for future generations. Photographs are easily damaged by improper handling, storage and exposure to environmental conditions. What can we do to protect these priceless gifts of history?

In general terms, a photograph is made up of an emulsion which comprises the light sensitive material that creates the image. This emulsion is on a support which can be made of paper, metal, glass, fabric and even stone. Additional elements may include hand-coloring dyes.


Photographs should be stored in cool, low humidity, well-ventilated, low-light space. If too much heat or humidity is present, mold and mildew will grow, possibly causing severe damage to the photographs. Preventing damage before it happens slows down or prevents the need for substantial photograph restoration. Storing photographs in areas where rapid temperature or humidity changes occur can lead to condensation, which not only encourages mold growth but can also cause the emulsion to separate from the support and stick to other surfaces.

Ideally black and white photographs should be stored at 68 degrees Fahrenheit while color photographs and film negatives should be stored in cooler temperatures at about 30 – 40 degrees. Humidity should be maintained at 30 to 40 percent. Photographs should not be stored in basements or attics, where temperature or humidity can fluctuate greatly and potential water damage may occur from flooding or leaking roofs.


The manner in which photographs are stored is as important as where they are kept. By their very nature, photographs are light sensitive. For this reason, photographs should be stored in light-tight boxes, folios or albums. These storage containers should be made of chemically stable paper or plastics. Film negatives can be stored in buffered enclosures but these should be kept separate from printed photographs. Storing them in separate locations is a good idea since the images could become damaged by fire or flood and reprints can be made from negatives.

Consider scanning and copying your important photographs on a CD and separately storing a copy in case of fire or flood. Albums should be made of acid-free paper and should not have self-adhesive pages as these can cause discoloration. Archival photo corners are an excellent way to attach photos to pages without applying any adhesive to the actual photograph. It is suggested that even albums be stored in acid-free, tightly sealed boxes as the gelatin often used in photographic emulsions is attractive food for insects.


Because of their sensitivity to light, photographs should be displayed for only short periods of time. When they are displayed, they should be protected from all direct light and framed in archival materials with UV-protective glass. If you wish to display a photograph in less than ideal conditions, it may be a good idea to have a digital reproduction made. The reproduction can be kept on display and the original, more fragile photograph can be preserved.

Next month: Part 2 – Photo cleaning and care; solving common problems

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