Preserving your Family Photographs – a (very) basic guide

The Good News

You have discovered, or remembered, that you have a box of family photos.  Maybe one of your cousins heard that you were working on the family tree and sent you their family photos.  Whatever the source you are now the one entrusted with preserving these images from your family’s past.  This article will provide you with some basic steps you can take to help ensure that these photographs will last at least a little longer than they might if they were just left in a box in your attic.

The Bad News:  Almost all film deteriorates

When you look through your collection of family photographs, some of which may date back several decades, you will notice that there is a wide variation in their condition.  Some of the oldest may be in better shape than those taken more recently.   When the film was manufactured, who the manufacturer was, whether it was color or black and white, and how it was processed all factor into how well the photos have survived.  However, even “good” film if it has been stored improperly will show signs of deterioration.

For example, Kodachrome color film, dating from about 1938, will retain its colors for about 40 – 50 years if it has been stored in dark conditions.  Kodacolor film, which was introduced in 1942, will show noticeable signs of color loss within five to seven years.[1] By the 1960s color prints were showing some improvement but will still show 30% loss in their dye within ten to fifteen years for prints stored in average room conditions (75 degrees/40% relative humidity).[2] By the 1980s film had improved even more and consumers could expect that prints would last up to fifty years in normal room conditions.  Working as a preservation librarian and as a genealogist I personally do not think fifty years is all that long – it is better than the ten years that had been the norm, but not by much.

Causes of film fading

Controlling temperature is the first line of defense in film preservation.  One way to think about the chemicals in your photographs and how heat impacts them is to compare the photo to a pot of water you have put on the stove.  As long as it is cool the water is calm and the cooler the calmer.  As the water heats up it begins to move and change.  The same happens with the chemicals in your photos but at a lower temperature and over a longer period of time.   Normal room temperature is enough for the chemicals in your photos to start “bubbling” and within a few decades some of the colors will have “evaporated” much like the water in the boiling pot.  For storing film cooler is better.

The second guideline is to avoid excessive dampness, i.e., avoid storage conditions that exceed 50% relative humidity.  Excessive dampness is the most damaging condition for all color photographs as it can cause dye fading, mold growth and softening of the gelatin used on the photographs.[3] Mold growth and gelatin softening can happen within a period as short as a few hours if the conditions are right.

So, how important is controlling the temperature and humidity?  Studies by the Image Permanence Institute on color photographic materials have shown that film stored in an environment that averages 90 degrees and 50% relative humidity (for example your attic) will show noticeable deterioration within ten years.  The same photo stored at 70 degrees and 40% RH will take 60 years to exhibit the same loss.  If you can reduce the RH to an average of 30% it will last for 100 years.[4]

Things you can do

Decide what is important and how long you want to keep those important items.  You may have 50 photos of your father dating from World War II but are all of them important enough to spend the time and money on to preserve in their print form?  Pixels are cheap.  Perhaps the preservation strategy for the less important photos is to scan the photos.

After you have narrowed down your collection to those you want to preserve, evaluate the images and decide if the copy you have is “good enough” or if it needs to be worked on.  How faded is it?  Is it cracked?  Is it brittle or flaking?  Is it stained or showing signs of mold?  You might have a photo in which all of the above are true, but it is the only photo of the individual so it is important regardless of its condition.

If you have a scanner, some basic photo editing software and the only thing wrong with the photo is it has started to fade or the colors are off then you can make significant improvements in the overall image with only a minimum of effort.  I use Photoshop but most of the photo editing software share several basic features.  The original photo on the left was scanned.  Next to it is the image after a basic curves and levels adjustment has been applied.

I usually scan my photos in TIFF format and save the original file while working on a duplicate.  However if the photo is in good shape and needs little or no editing I may scan it as a high level JPEG.   Since both TIFF and JPEG are open formats I am relatively confident that the files will be able to be read by future generations of the software.

Once I have done whatever editing and cleaning-up of the photo I need to do the image is saved as a JPEG.  Both the TIFF original and the edited JPEG are assigned keywords.  I use Adobe’s Lightroom for this but other programs will work as well.  The images are then put into electronic folders.  My filing system is organized as follows:

My Photographs

Genealogy Photos



So, for example, if I am looking for a photograph of my maternal grandmother (Elfelda Marrett) I would open My Photographs, look in my Genealogy Photos folder, find the Marrett Family, then find Elfelda Marrett.

Next, you need to decide what to do with the original photograph.  One of the questions to ask is whether the photograph is important as an artifact.   The following example may help.

This photograph, taken in about 1900, shows my wife’s great grandfather and other members of the coast guard life saving station where he was working inside the station and surrounded by the tools of their trade.  The original photograph is very faded and the housing is showing signs of brittleness and is also probably somewhat acidic.  However this has high value to the family as an artifact.  I was able to scan the original and bring out more details as shown on the copy on the right.  The scanned image is one that will be shared with family while original will be stored for safe keeping.

I have other family photographs, many of which are half a century newer than the above, that are in much worse shape physically.  They may have sections of the image missing, have been folded, stuffed in envelopes, or generally mishandled.  The content of the photos can often be saved through digital restoration but the original photograph cannot be repaired so it could be discarded after scanning.

Those original images that pass your “preserve for posterity” test should be put into protective enclosures.  There are several companies that make preservation quality materials for photo storage.  Two that have long been used by libraries, and which also have good web sites and that sell to individuals are: Hollinger Metal Edge [ ] and Gaylord Brothers [ ].     Once the photos are safely enclosed, the enclosure itself needs to be stored.  Two good options for this are either an archival quality album or archival dropfront box.  If a dropfront box is a better choice for you given the size and number of prints you are saving then rather than using plastic sleeves you could place the photographs in the box and separate each layer of photographs with acid/lignin free paper or with sheets of Tyvek.  Both types of material are available at most framing stores or from many online sources.

The albums should be stored in as good an environment as you can find.  For me, this is a rarely used walk-in closet.  There are no windows and no HVAC ducts so the temperature is fairly constant and is as good as I can get for what I can afford.  If I find that the humidity levels are more than I would like I can add some sort of absorbent such as activated silica gel to the enclosure.  However, I know that if I had a cooler place to store the photographs that would be better.  For example, assuming that the closet averages 70 degrees and 40% RH the photos will last about 60 years before showing signs of color loss.  In the archival vault used by the Indiana University Libraries, materials are kept at 50 degrees and 30% RH.  Photographs stored in that type of environment would take 300 years before they exhibited the same level of loss.

In the short term I am more concerned with loss due to fire or water damage.  To address this I follow a trend used in academic libraries called LOCKSS which is short for Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe.  For my photos, this means that once the digital copies are the best I can make them then they are shared with other family members.  I also have a portable hard drive that has my important digital files that is kept away from my home.  While neither of these are ways to keep the original image safe, they do help to insure that copies of the images are likely to be around for the foreseeable future.

Finally, as a librarian as well as a photographer I am a proponent of print.  I just happen to like the idea that owning a copy that takes no more effort to view than having a light source is not a bad option.  Printing a family album using a service like Shutterfly, MPIX or Blurb is a reasonable approach.  Each of these printers offers printing on acid-free stock using archival quality ink.  These family books could be given as gifts and handed out at family reunions.

Reilly, James M.  Storage guide for color photographic materials [Rochester, N.Y.]: Image Permanence Institute, Rochester Institute of Technology, [1999];

— Lynn Hufford —

[1] Reilly, James M.  Storage guide for color photographic materials: 3.

[2] Reilly: 3-4

[3] Reilly: 12

[4] Reilly: 20