Five Rules For Storing Photographs

Before you can devise a good system for organization that works for you,  you need to make sure you’re storing pictures and photos properly to preserve them for the future.

That’s because photos are actually rather delicate, and since they’re often irreplaceable you need to take care to place them in storage or on display in ways to keep them looking their best.

Here are the five rules to remember to keep your developed photos (we’re not discussing digital photos in this article) in tip top condition:

Rule 1: Store Photos In The Proper Conditions

Photographs are developed or printed onto paper, and contain ink and pigments, and both the paper and pigments can degrade with time or in adverse conditions. For that reason the conditions the photos are stored in make a big difference in how well they will age over time.

Ideally, when choosing the spot you’ll keep your family’s pictures, you’ll think about these three conditions: (1) humidity; (2) temperature; and (3) light.


The ideal conditions for storing pictures – keep photos in an area with higher than 15% relative humidity and less than 65% relative humidity.

In extremely dry environments photo paper can become quite brittle. But normally the issue is making sure you don’t keep the photos in an area with too high humidity. If you’ve got your photos stored in your damp basement, for example, it encourages mold growth and can also cause the pictures to stick to each other as they get moist and the ink and pigments run and fade. Higher humidity also can cause more insect infestations of paper, which can destroy your photos.


Temperature is also something to consider. The lower the temperature, typically, the better, because this slows down degredation of the paper and ink, and also discourages insects.

Definitely store your photos in an area that consistently stays below 75° F at all times. That means, for example, your hot attic is not a good place for the photos.

Large temperature fluctuations actually are not good either, so most garages are also out of the question for photo storage, since they vary from cold to hot as the weather changes.

It is best to store pictures in a climate controlled environment, which will typically control for both temperature and for humidity simultaneously.


Storing photos in a dark location actually helps preserve them, because it keeps the ink or pigments from fading. Light in general, but especially UV and fluorescent lights break down images with time.

We’ve all seen sun-faded photos before, such as those that have been out in frames for years, so you know that fading is a real issue. If you’ve got a favorite photo you’d like to display (and who doesn’t) just make sure it is a duplicate and keep the original or at least one copy in the safer darker environment so that you can simultaneously enjoy the memory the photo provides on display while preserving a copy for the future.

Rule 2: Store Pictures In Safe Places

Because of temperature and humidity issues we’ve already determined that the attic, garage and basement are not ideal locations for storing your photos. But you also need to think about other issues when it comes to photo preservation when you decide where to store them.

The biggest things to consider include protecting your photos from insect or rodent damage and from excess water.

Insects and rodents love paper, so keep pictures out of areas which contain these pests.

As mentioned previousy, damp and moldy photographs can also be a big problem, so keep photos from any areas that are prone to flooding or leaks, and also keep them up off the floor in case of a small flood to keep your family memories from getting damaged.

Rule 3: Properly Handle Your Photographs & Negatives

When handling your photos, and also negatives, you should have clean dry non-lotioned hands.

Still, even with these precautions always hold photos and negatives by the edge, and never put your fingers directly onto them. Your fingerprints contain oils and other chemicals that can permanently leave a mark on the photos or negatives.

Rule 4: Choose The Right Containers For Your Photos

When organizing and storing your photos it is important to choose the right container for them, and the two main types are photo albums and photo boxes.

Unfortunately, in the past people purchased all types of cute or cheap albums or boxes for their photos, added them, and left them for years at a time, and now years later they regret it.

I cringe when I think about all the photos I added to magnetic and self-adhesive albums when I was a child, or all the photos I glued directly onto construction paper for scrapbooks.

We now know that many of these things actually harm your pictures, such as non-archival quality papers which contain lignin and other acids, or adhesives which become yellow and brittle with age, and plastics that degrade and cause the photo to stick, sometimes permanently, to the album.

The important thing to look for are items that are archival quality, and that are photo safe, acid, lignin and PVC free.

Here are additional recommendations for how to NOT store your pictures:

  • Do not use tape or glue to affix photos into an album or scrapbook
  • Do not mount or affix photos to anything but archival quality paper
  • Do not hold photos together using paper clips or rubber bands
  • Do not store photos in envelopes, especially if the envelopes are not made from archival quality paper
  • When possible refrain from writing on photos, since often this leaves indentations on the photo, but in addition the ink can smear or get onto another image in the stack. If you’re going to write on a photo (as opposed to writing information on a separate scrap of paper next to the photo) use an archival safe photo pen, and still don’t press very hard.

Rule 5: Properly Load Your Photo Containers To Preserve, Not Damage, The Pictures

Finally, even the safest photo storage containers, that are archival quality, do not work properly if they are not filled properly.

Do not overfill an album, since this can cause the pictures to get bent or creased, or to more easily fall out and get damaged.

Further, photo boxes are a great way to store photos generally, but they need to be neither overfilled, nor underfilled.

Overfilling a photo box can cause many of the same problems as an overfilled album. An underfilled photo box means that the pictures move all around, and can curl on the edges or get frayed or damaged. If you do not have a full box, use something photo safe in the box, such as archival quality dividers, to keep the photos from shifting around too much.

Further, when filling photo boxes it is typically fine to stack the photos on top of each other loosely as long as you’re not in a humid or high temperature fluctuating environment which might cause the photos to stick to one another.

Some photo boxes allow you to “file” your photos on their side, with dividers. This can also work, but be sure then that the box is adequately filled so photos stand up straight without bowing and leaning, which can cause them to then not lay flat.

If you follow these five rules for properly storing pictures and photos your family memories will be much more likely to last over the course of many generations, just the way you’ve always wanted and envisioned.

Proper Care of DVD’s And CD’s

dvd-diskWhether it is a music CD, computer software, film, or file backup, you want to keep your CDs and DVDs in peak condition for as long as possible. To help you, we have compiled this list of some of the ways to protect and preserve your optical media.

Manufacturer Checks

The scariest phrase you’ll hear tossed around is “disc rot.” This is where a DVD becomes unplayable due to material decomposition rather than physical damage. Causes may include poor adhesives between the disc layers, impurities in the metal, low quality resin, or improper inks.

Aside from disc rot, other manufacturer-based problems can effect your DVDs: unbalanced construction (such as off-center holes or off-center paper labels), inappropriate packaging (including hub damage from oversized center mounts, warping from too-tight shrinkwrapping, chemical damage from packaging adhesives, or crush/fold damage from using incorrect mailers).

Customer Checks

Although fairly sturdy, CDs and DVDs need proper care “in the field” as well. Most people know to handle discs by their edges and center hubs rather than the data surface, but did you know that storing discs horizontally can eventually cause warpage? Or that CD jewel case holders may be too tight for long-term storage of DVDs? So make sure to store your discs “book style,” and keep your DVDs in DVD cases or sleeves if they will be stored for a long time.

To be read correctly, the playable surface should be kept clean and dust free. Fingerprints, dust, scratches, and other “minor” issues can negatively effect the life of your disc. You can learn more about this by reading the “Care and Handling Guide for the Preservation of CDs and DVDs” and “Quick One-Page Reference,” published by the National Institute of Standards and Technology: With proper care, your CDs and DVDs are sure to last for years!

A Quick List of “Do’s” and “Do Not’s”


  • Handle discs by the outer edge or the center hole
  • Use a non solvent-based felt-tip permanent marker to mark the label side of the disc
  • Keep the discs clean & dust free
  • Store discs upright (book style) in cases that are specified for CDs and DVDs
  • Return discs to their cases immediately after use
  • Leave discs in their spindle or jewel case to minimize the effects of environmental changes
  • Store in a cool, dry, dark environment—relative humidity should be from 20% – 50% (RH) and temperature should be from 40° (4°C) – 70° (20°C)
  • Clean discs by wiping a clean lint-free cloth in a straight line from the center of the disc toward the outer edge
  • Use deionized (best), distilled, or soft tap water to clean your discs. For tough problems use diluted dish detergent or rubbing alcohol. Rinse and dry thoroughly with a lint-free cloth
  • Check the disc surface before playing it

Do Not

  • Touch the surface of the disc
  • Bend the disc
  • Store discs horizontally for several years
  • Open a recordable optical disc package if you are not ready to record
  • Expose discs to extreme heat or high humidity
  • Expose discs to extreme rapid temperature or humidity changes
  • Expose recordable discs to prolonged sunlight or other sources of UV light
  • Write or mark in the data area of the disc
  • Clean in a circular direction around the disc

Preserving Old Photographs


283bf74bd5c00e39854c6c0307670958Since the beginning of time, mankind has been recording history; however, only within the past 150 years have we been able to document history photographically.  What we learn about our past provides a transition from our ancestors to our offspring.  Photographs provide a graphic portrayal of yesterday, but if we neglect and do not preserve our photographs, some of our history will fade away along with those images.


ENVIRONMENTAL – Temperature and humidity affect photographs and documents more than any other element.  Best conditions are under 70° F, with the relative humidity under 50%.  High humidity is most harmful, and high temperatures accelerate the deterioration.  Cyclic conditions (high heat and humidity followed by cold and dry weather, followed by high heat, etc.) are very bad for film emulsion and may cause cracking and separation of the emulsion from the support.


Attics and Basements – The worst places to store your photographs or documents is in an un-insulated attic or basement.  In the summer, temperatures in an attic could reach 125° F, while in the winter they can get down to less than 0°.  With the constant high temperatures and humidity in the summer, and low temperatures and humidity in the winter, the photographs or documents will become brittle.  In severe cases, the emulsion (image) on the photograph can separate from the base (paper).  These cyclic conditions will have a devastating effect on any paper product.

Un-insulated basements are usually moist, which can cause photographs to stick to each other.  Another problem encountered in basements is that they are great breeding grounds for insects and rodents which are strongly attracted to gelatin and cellulose in the photographic emulsion.

The best places to store important photographs or documents are in a safe deposit box at your bank.  They are usually climate controlled and kept dark to provide almost ideal storage conditions.  The ideal storage conditions are 68°± 2° and humidity of 50% ± 5%.

Wood, Paper and Paper Products – Wood and papers contain harmful additives such as bleach or hydrogen peroxide.  Use only paper products that are acid free.  Proper storage containers are available from archival suppliers (see below).

Miscellaneous Materials – Rubber bands or rubber cement contain sulphur, which degrades photographic emulsions.  Paper clips can abrade or scratch the surfaces of prints or negatives.  Pressure sensitive tapes usually contains acids which can accelerate the deterioration process.  Any kind of ink also contains acids.  Fingerprints on prints or negatives create physical damage from the oils and acids in human skin.

Fumes and Vapors – from oil-based paints, varnishes, shellac, carbon monoxide (automobiles stored in garages), and photocopiers, including laser copiers, cause serious damage to photographs and documents.  (Most photocopiers produce ozone as a by-product; ozone acts as a bleach and the fumes may accelerate the deterioration).  Also, the intense light and heat from copiers are detrimental to photographs.


Paper – Use only lignin-free (lignin is from paper pulp), acid-free, un-buffered paper.  Use this paper to store photographs or as interleaving paper in albums.

Plastics – Any of the following plastics are safe to use in storing photographs, negatives or documents:

Polyester, Mylar, Polypropylene, Polyethylene, and Tyvek.


The first step is to identify what the pictures show, because only photos that are identified and labeled are worth preserving.  Sometimes it’s best to start with your most current photos and work backward in time.  Note what’s going on in the picture, who’s in it, and where the photo was taken.  Date the photo as closely as you can.  Write the information on the back of the photo with a soft 6B drawing pencil, which is available in art supply shops.  Be sure to use people’s real names if you know them, not just associations like mother or grandfather.

film-reelsFor home movies, write the identifications on the leader.  Note when it was shot, by whom, and what the event is.  Home movies can be very difficult to identify.  If possible, sit down with the person who made the movie, ask him/her to narrate it, and take notes.

Many people have old photos in their collections that are often unidentifiable.  You often can’t say with certainty whether the person shown is a family member.  Set the pictures aside and work on them last.  Put your energy into the ones that can be identified.

After you’ve identified the photos, work on storing them properly.  There are two primary ways to store photographic prints – using a filing system in archival boxes or using photo albums.

Use file photos in archival boxes if you have a lot of photos to arrange.  You can organize the pictures in files by subject, person, or year.  Once the pictures are organized, you can pick the best and put them in an album.  It’s important to use acid free folders and boxes.  The acids in paper products can be harmful to photos.

Albums allow you to display pictures more easily, but also tend to be more expensive than filing.  Some of the best pre-made albums are manufactured by Webway, a Minnesota company (do a web search for “Webway Photoalbums”).  Again, seek out acid-free papers and notebooks made from archival board.  Or you can buy clear plastic pages made from polypropylene and insert the photos.  Do not use vinyl pages or notebooks.  They emit harmful vapors and shorten the life of photos.

In general, don’t take apart existing photo albums.  They’re like diaries and scrapbooks; they have a personal story and order to them.  Often they contain the handwriting of the person who made them.  If the photos in an old album have become loose because of detached or missing photo corners, replace the photo corners.  The exception to the “don’t take apart rule” is magnetic photo albums.  They contain a sticking material that is detrimental to photos, and they need to be taken apart.  People buy them because they allow you to easily arrange photos on a page, but photo corners allow easy management too.

Slides can be stored in boxes or carousel trays if you keep the lid on; they are very susceptible to dust, light, and extreme heat or cold.  Non-vinyl slide pages can also be used.  And if you have slides, photo CDs, home movies, or home videos, be sure to save the hardware that you’ll need to view them.  You’ll need that equipment to enjoy your images, when the technology becomes obsolete in the future


negativesIt’s very important to save your negatives.  Many people think negatives are a nuisance, but they are the originals and they’ll allow you to make new prints if a print is destroyed.  Negatives last well if they’re not handled.  Keep them in polyethylene or polypropylene sleeves.

(A word about scanning photos, slides, and negatives.  Scanning photos, no matter how high a resolution you use to scan, will almost always appear “grainy” if you increase their size beyond that of the originals.  Slides and negatives, on the other hand, have such a high resolution that you can scan them and increase the size of printed pictures without degrading the quality.  As an example, if you scan a 5×7 photo and increase its size in your computer graphics program to, say, 10×14, to print out a very large picture, it WILL be “grainy” and have no “sharpness”; scanning the negative from which the photo was originally made will allow you to increase the size greatly without degrading the quality of the picture.)

Exposure to light can hurt photos.  Locate framed pictures on the least sunny walls in your house.  Better yet, make a copy of the photo and keep the original in dark storage.  Metal frames are preferable to wood (wood contains acids).  Use a 100 percent rag matte board and remove any wooden backing used in old frames.

Dark storage is especially important for color photos, such as children’s school portraits.  Some studios do not process them properly, making them more susceptible to color changes.  Since they come in multiples, display one and keep one in storage.  If it changes color, have a black and white photo made.

The absolute best film to use, if you want your pictures to be around for your grandchildren and their children, is black and white.  Most color photos fade over time.  If black and white pictures don’t seem appropriate or possible, then take color prints or slides.  Prints have the advantage of being easier to view, and they don’t accumulate dust as much as slides.  Instant pictures (e.g., Polaroid pictures and Kodak equivalents) are good for parties and games only.  They’re likely to disappear in 10 years, so when you’re going to document an important event, leave your instant camera at home.

If you’re going to purchase a digital camera for photos, make sure it will take pictures with a HIGH resolution/large sizes.  Older digital cameras, and newer inexpensive ones, usually took pictures of very small sizes and resolutions.  You can’t take a graphic from one of those cameras and increase its size beyond about 3×5 inches.

Copy photography is the way to save the images on torn or defaced photographs.  A basic rule in photograph preservation is to leave the original just the way it is.  The copy photographer uses retouched copy negatives or copy prints to bring back the image.

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