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Caring for photographs
Photographs are vital visual memories that need to be protected. Here are some suggestions on how to best care for them.
This fact sheet covers the care, handling and storage of photographic prints and negatives but not digital files. You can read more about preserving digital images here.
Photographs are captured using a range of processes on glass, paper, plastic, leather, and metal. Photograph formats include
- traditional black-and-white and colour prints
- colour transparencies
- historic photographic images.
Each photographic process is unique, but general guidelines can be given about their care, storage and use.
- Image Permanence Institute, Graphics atlas
- Victoria and Albert Museum, Photographic Processes
Care and handling
- Start with a clean, dust free workspace.
- Handle items by the edges only, with clean, dry hands or wear nitrile gloves.
- Keep food and drink away from photographs.
- Protect surfaces of photographs from dust and fingerprints, as they 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 B pencil. Inks and pens can seep through the surface and damage the items. 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.
- Do not use metal fasteners, paper clips, rubber bands, self-adhesive tape and/or glue on photographs.
- Photographs should be stored in cool, dark and dry conditions with stable humidity and temperature. Locations where conditions fluctuate to extremes such as sheds, garages, roof spaces and basements are unsuitable. It is best to store photographs in the centre of a building where conditions are generally more stable.
- Enamelled steel filing cabinets are suitable for storage of prints and negatives. If using second-hand 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.
- When choosing storage albums or boxes, use inert, pH neutral paper materials and plastics (e.g., polyethylene, polypropylene). Do not use PVC plastics and cellophane.
- Use archival, lignin-free storage material which has passed the Photographic Activity Test (PAT). The National Archives of Australia has a list of products which have passed the PAT standards.
- 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. Alternatively, you can store the photographs in an archival ring binder.
- Separate prints and negatives 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.
- Store larger photographs flat to prevent distortion.
- 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.
- Do not over-pack albums, as crushing may damage the emulsion.
- Do not use ‘magnetic’ photograph albums. In these albums, the photographs are kept in place with a slightly tacky adhesive and a plastic overlay. In time, this adhesive may turn brown and stain your photographs.
- Display photographs in cool, dry, low-light 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 bulbs. Colour photographs, including digital prints, are especially vulnerable to light damage and fading.
- 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.
- Consider displaying copies rather than original prints, especially as historic photographic processes, such as albumen prints and those produced on salted paper, are extremely light-sensitive.
- Do not laminate photographic prints as this will cause permanent damage.
- Use archival lignin-free board with high alpha cellulose content, which has passed the PAT. Do not use glues, spray adhesives or adhesive sticky tapes to mount your photographs. These materials degrade over time, become yellow and tacky, and often cannot be removed.
- Archival quality corner mounts are the best option for attaching your prints into an album or mount. Conservators use Japanese paper hinges attached with reversible wheat starch paste.
- Dry mounting (the 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 objects provides protection against dust, dirt, pollution and environmental changes.
- Use ultraviolet filtering glass or 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. Use archival mount board or a framing spacer to prevent contact between photograph and glazing.
- Chemicals used to control insect pests may damage photographs. Ensure that insect control sprays do not touch photographic materials of any kind.
Printed digital images
- Storage, handling and display recommendations for photographic prints from digital colour printers are the same as for traditional photographic prints.
- The Digital Print Preservation Portal (DP3) and Wilhelm Imaging Research have more information on the stability and preservation of digital prints.
- Cellulose nitrate and cellulose acetate (safety film) are early film negative bases. They are inherently unstable formats and require greater care than polyester negatives and film.
- From 1889 to the 1950s cellulose nitrate was used widely as a motion picture film base and for still photographs. Acetate film was used from the 1920s to today.
- Both nitrate and acetate negatives should be stored separately from each other and from other collection material because of the damaging vapours they produce.
- Digitisation is recommended as a means of capturing the image and information on the film base, as they are both unstable formats.
- The Life of a Photograph: Archival Processing, Matting, Framing and Storage by L Keefe & D Inch, Boston: Focal Press, 1984
- Conservation of Photographs by George T Eaton, Kodak Publication, no. F-40, Rochester NY: Eastman Kodak Co, 1985
- IPI Guide to Preservation of Digitally Printed Images
- Image Permanence Institute: a non-profit research laboratory devoted to the preservation of visual and recorded information, which has excellent guides, downloads and tools
- National Archives of Australia: information about the Photographic Activity Test (PAT) and a list of products that have passed the test
- National Film and Sound Archive: Caring for film
- Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Materials (AICCM)
- Research related to traditional and digital photographs
If you have further questions or would like specific advice about conservation, please contact us through ASK A LIBRARIAN
We are unable to give advice on the conservation treatment of heritage items. We recommend you contact a professional conservator, who can assess each item and recommend options. A conservator will charge a fee.