Caring for Your Photographs

Photographs can be treasured materials you wish to safeguard and preserve for the future.  There are many types from photographs ranging from those produced by traditional photographic processes to the images we record today with our digital cameras.  All present challenges to safely store and save these images for the long-term.  This tip sheet focuses on the care of film- or emulsion-based photographs with additional resources for the preservation of both emulsion-based and digital content below.

Emulsion-Based Photographs

Many commonly held photographs in our collections are film-based consisting of several layers.  They are prone to decay from many different factors, but protecting them from harm can be fairly simple if you know what to do.  Unfortunately, many popular methods of photograph storage can be harmful, so follow these tips to preserve your photographs. 

  • Keep your photographs in a cool, dry, dark place 
  • Keep photos out of basements or attics
  • Store photographs in archival albums, sleeves, or boxes
  • Albums with magnetic or self-adhesive pages are damaging to photographs
  • Use photo albums with acid-free pages; many readily available photo albums are acidic and will damage photographs 
  • Use archival photo corners to attach photographs to pages; pressure sensitive tape and rubber cement are especially damaging to photos
  • Photographs can also be stored in acid-free buffered (alkaline, pH 8.5) or unbuffered (neutral, pH 7) paper enclosures or stable plastic sleeves made of uncoated polyester, polypropylene, or polyethylene
  • When purchasing storage materials make sure they are photo safe; materials should meet a set of standards for composition and performance; manufacturers catalogs should indicate enclosures pass the Photographic Activity Test (PAT)
  • Boxes should be acid-free; shoeboxes are not good  storage places
  • Sleeves and boxes should be larger than the materials but not so large that damage will occur from the photographs sliding around
  • Use pencil to write information on the back of photos
  • If you must label your photos, write with a soft graphite pencil on the back along an edge instead of with pens or markers which can bleed or leave permanent indentations
  • Display photographs away from direct light sources
  • Light will cause severe fading in color photographs, and will also damage black and white images 
  • Handle photographs carefully
  • Hold photographs with two clean hands for support to avoid creases, wrinkles, or tears
  • Avoid touching the image area; oils from your fingers can cause permanent stains
  • Consult a conservator for damaged photographs you wish to repair
  • Do not try to repair tears with tape, the tape will cause long-term, permanent damage 

Don’t let your photographs deteriorate in a poor quality album or a shoebox in your attic or basement; just follow these simple steps to prolong the life or your valued images.  If your collection includes photographic negatives, they also should be handled carefully and stored in a cool, dry environment in acid-free containers.  For further information on how to care for your photographs and negatives, consult the resources below for emulsion-based photographs.

Digital Images

The most commonly taken images today are digital and have very different care and storage needs.   For further information on preserving digital files, consult the resources below for digital content.  

Resources for Emulsion-Based Photographs

"Care of Photographs"

Northeast Document Conservation Center

"Care, Handling, and Storage of Photographs"
Library of Congress

Caring for Your Treasures: Photographs

American Institute for Conservation

Preserve Your Family Treasures: Photographs
Minnesota Historical Society

How to Preserve Family Papers and Photographs
The National Archives and Records Administration

How to Determine if a Product is Photo Safe

IPI Authored column in Science of Scrapbooking

Resources for Digital Content

Preserving Your Digital Memories
Library of Congress