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Caring for photographs

About photographs

Photographs include traditional black-and-white and colour prints and negatives, colour transparencies and historic photographic images captured with a range of processes on glass, paper, plastic, leather and metal.  

Each photographic process is unique but general guidelines may be given about their care, storage and use. Digital prints are a relatively new type of photograph and will be discussed separately.

Processing for permanence

Imperfect and incomplete processing may accelerate photographic deterioration. Photographs will last longer  if they are processed with permanence in mind. The  following recommendations for long- lasting  photographs may be made:

  • For long-lasting black-and-white prints use silver- halide processes on archival fibre-based paper and remove all residual processing chemicals.
  • For long-lasting black-and-white negatives use silver-halide processes on polyester film base and remove all residual processing chemicals.
  • All colour processes are short-lived relative to black-and-white. The best photographic paper to use for chromogenic prints according to Wilhelm Research is Fujicolor Crystal Archive paper which produces prints that last up to 40 years.
  • Slow-speed, fine-grain films last longer than high- speed, coarse grain films.

Display

  • Display photographs in cool, low light, dry environments, with stable conditions of humidity and temperature.
  • Avoid strong light sources and direct sunlight as these will accelerate deterioration and fading. Use low ultraviolet light emitting light tubes. Colour photographs are more vulnerable and will fade faster than black-and-white. 
  • Avoid contact with bathroom, kitchen, laundry and external walls as humidity in these areas fluctuates greatly and can cause physical distortions. High humidity causes mould growth so keep display areas well ventilated.
  • Keep photographs away from heaters, fireplaces and other sources of heat. Heat can speed up the degradation of the paper.
  • Display copies rather than originals; this applies especially to historic photographic processes such as albumen prints and those produced on salted paper as they are extremely light sensitive.
  • Do not laminate photographic prints as this can permanently damage the emulsion layer.

Mounting

  • Use archival lignin-free board with high alpha cellulose content which has passed the Photographic Activity Test (PAT). The PAT was developed by the Image Permanence Institute of USA to test the quality of photographic storage materials.
  • Do not use glues, spray adhesives, or adhesive sticky tapes on your photographs. These degrade over time and are detrimental to your photographs. These materials become yellow and tacky and often cannot be removed. Archival quality corner mounts are the best methods of attaching your prints. Conservators use Japanese paper hinges attached with reversible wheat starch paste.
  • Avoid using metal paper clips or staples.
  • Dry mounting (use of a pressure sensitive or heat release adhesive on a flat backing sheet) is not a preservation mounting technique and should be avoided for your valuable photographs.

Framing

  • Framing objects provides protection against dust, dirt, pollution and climatic changes.
  • Use ultraviolet filtering acrylic as glazing to reduce the impact of light damage.
  • Ensure the surface of the photograph never touches the glazing of a frame. Heat and humidity can cause the photograph to become irreversibly stuck to the glazing.

Storage

  • Photographs should be stored in cool, dark and dry conditions with stable humidity and temperature. Locations where environmental conditions fluctuate such as sheds, garages, roof spaces and basements are unsuitable, whereas the centre of houses where conditions are generally more stable are preferable.
  • Store photographs in paper or plastic sleeves within acid-free folders. The folders can then be stored either vertically in flip-top archival boxes or flat in shallow print boxes.
  • Use storage material which is archival, lignin-free and has passed the PAT. The National Archives of Australia has a list of products which have passed the PAT standards.
  • Photographs can also be stored in plastic sleeves in archival ring binders.
  • Store larger photographs flat to prevent sagging.
  • Store cased photographs (daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, etc.) in their cases. Wrap the case in archival material such as acid-free paper to create a dust cover.
  • Prints and negatives should be separated from each other with pH neutral material such as paper to prevent abrasion. Alkaline buffered paper should not be placed in direct contact with the silver images of prints and negatives.
  • When choosing storage albums or boxes, be sure to use inert, pH neutral paper materials and plastics (e.g. polyethylene, polypropylene). Do not use PVC plastics and cellophane.
  • Do not over-pack albums, as crushing may damage the emulsion.
  • Do not use ‘magnetic’ photograph albums where the photographs are kept in place with a slightly tacky adhesive. In time, this adhesive may turn brown, be absorbed into your photographs and stain them. For suppliers of archival storage materials see the fact sheet ‘List of suppliers’.
  • Do not use metal staples and clips, as these materials are likely to rust. If your album has metal fittings, ensure that these are not in contact with the photographs.
  • Enamelled steel filing cabinets are suitable for storage of prints and negatives. If using secondhand cabinets check for rust and treat before use. Wooden cabinets and enclosures must be coated with paint, lacquer or wax to prevent the discharge of vapours that are harmful to the silver content of prints and negatives.

Handling

  • Handle items with clean dry hands or wear nitrile or latex gloves. Handle the edges only.
  • Protect surfaces of items from dust and fingerprints, as these will damage the emulsion and shorten the life span of items.
  • Do not write on the back of photographs. Instead, label the packaging and use a soft pencil (B grade). Inks and pens can penetrate the surface and damage the item. Label negatives with permanent pigment ink on the outside edge of the negative on the dull side. Slides may be labelled on the edge of the white border mount also with a pigment ink pen.

Insects

Chemicals used to control insect pests may damage photographs. Ensure that insect control sprays do not come in contact with photographic materials of any kind.

Digital prints

With the widespread use of digital cameras and scanners has come the production of photographic prints from digital colour printers. This technology is different from the traditional developing process which uses chemicals, light and specially prepared papers. 

Some digital print processes are more stable than others. Storage, handling and display recommendations are the same as for traditional photographs, however, there are a few additional points that may be helpful:

  • Inkjet prints have been known to blur in high humidity, so it is important to keep storage and display environments stable, cool and dry.
  • Inkjet prints are also prone to surface damage and abrasion. Avoid touching the surface of the print.
  • As with traditional prints, exposure to light will cause the colours in digital prints to fade.
  • Prevent exposure of digital prints to harmful air pollutants by sealing your item in a picture frame behind glass.
  • Stacking digital prints may cause the ink to offset onto adjacent material.
  • Ensure your prints have dried fully before storing to avoid smudging and offsetting.
  • The stability of digital prints can vary greatly depending on the composition of the colourant and the paper. For long-term preservation use acid-free, buffered, lignin-free paper and pigment-based, rather than dye-based inks. Ensure that your inks and paper are compatible with your printer (see Wilhelm Imaging Research ).
  • Recent research shows that certain prints can last up to 100 years before noticeable fading occurs, so long as they are framed, glazed and under controlled lighting.

Conservation

If your photographs require repair consult a trained professional conservator. A list of member conservators working in private practice can be obtained from the Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Materials (AICCM)


Further reading

Research related to traditional and digital photographs.

We are unable to give specific advice on conservation treatment of items. The advice we are able to give is limited to what we understand to be ethical and safe for people and items. For treatment purposes  we recommend that you contact a professional conservator, who will be able to assess each individual item and give it appropriate treatment. A conservator will charge a fee.

For further information:

Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Materials (AICCM)