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Photo Care

Photo Care Ideas

Ice Glow

Proper photo care requires special attention to storage & display.

1. Making them last / Intro. 8. Light
2. Conditions to Avoid 9. Moisture 
3. Materials to Avoid 10. Temperature
4. Things Not to Do 11. Conclusions
5. Good Things to Do 12. Archival Inks
6. Three Levels of Photo Care 13. You Can Help!
7. Print Life 14. Other Resources

1.) What you can do to help your prints, negatives and slides last as long as possible. The focus of this article is to simplify the information available so that the end user can make some fairly easy and logical decisions in regards to print care and protecting your investment.

It is important to note that it will usually be a combination of factors that will shorten the life of a print, negative or slide. The most important of these being the conditions the print is stored in; light, moisture and heat.

This subject can get a little complex because it deals with what materials are made of and environmental factors. I will break it into several parts, and still it is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to print storage and display. I can see this page expanding as time goes on. I'm going to use the word "prints" instead of "photos" during this discussion because many of the ideas cross over to other materials that might be stored or displayed. Please see the section You can help if you have any questions, comments or would like to link to another useful site on photo care.

2.) Conditions to be avoided when mounting, displaying or storing your prints.
  • Exposure to direct sunlight or above average exposure to fluorescent lighting.
  • Moisture; store prints, negatives and slides in the driest location possible.
  • Hot temperatures and extreme temperature changes.
  • Exposure to dirt, dust, scratches and finger prints.
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3.) The following materials should be avoided when mounting, displaying or storing your prints. They either give off gases or leave a residue that is harmful to prints.
  • Materials with high acidic levels.
  • Plastics containing pvc or acetate materials
  • Cellophane tape
  • Masking tape
  • Rubber cement
  • Cardboard
  • Wooden boxes; This is interesting because a wooden frame might be considered a wooden box. Robert E. McComb PH.D., a 26-year veteran of the Library of Congress' Preservation Research and Testing Office and one of the leading authorities on image stability, recommends the use of a good frame, preferably metal. I must admit this seems a little picky but might be considered an archival measure.

4.) Things Not to Do
  • Don't mount your photo so that it is directly in contact with the glass in a framed display. Instead, use good quality acid-free or rag mat board and cut a window in it to provide an air space between it and the glass.
  • Don't mount the photo onto a piece of cardboard. The chemicals in the board will eventually leach into the photo. Use quality acid-free or rag mat boards.
  • Don't store prints or negatives in damp basements or hot attics.
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5.) Good Things to Do

Carefully handle prints and negatives. White cotton gloves, available through a photo retailer or mail order store such as Light Impressions ,are recommended so as not to get oils from your skin and fingerprints on the prints or negatives. Fingerprints are hard to remove which is especially true for negatives or slides. There are products made especially for removal of inks and oils on prints and negatives. One such product is PEC-12 which is available through photo supply.

Look for good quality!
Acid-free or archival materials for storing or displaying your photos.

Allow an air space behind your hanging photos. The use of the little button wall protectors allows some air flow. Make sure to apply or have a dust cover placed on a wooden frame print, and be sure to use spring clips on metal framed prints. This will avoid having insects, such as fruit flies or moths, finding their way into your photo or art work frames.

Most large museums have environment controlled rooms in which they can control temperature, light and humidity.

6.) Three levels of photo care

At some point you need to decide how long you'd like your photos or other art work to last. There are really three levels of photo care:
    1. I just don't care - Throw those prints into a box and sift through them when you want to find one. It's fast, it's quick but, in the long run, it's murder on those prints.
    2. Non-archival - This involves making an effort to separate photos and displaying them in albums and frames using acid-free materials that will not promote the deterioration of the print.
    3. Archival - This involves the non-archival method above but then involves seeking out rag type materials to store and display them in. Rag type mats cost approximately twice as much as regular acid-free mat materials.

If a print is one you like and want to enjoy during your life time, use the acid-free/non-archival method of preservation. If a print is one you would like to see passed down for generations to come and it is capable of lasting that long, then use archival/rag materials.

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7.) Print Life

An interesting aspect of this whole process is determining the expected life of the print itself. If a print is only expected to last say 30 years, maybe using rag mat on it would be a waste of money. But if your print will last 200 years, rag mat is the only good answer. You may have noticed many of your "precious moments" color photos taken during the 60's, 70's and 80's are quite faded. This is a result of the paper they were printed on loosing some of its dye over time. The environmental factors that control print dye loss are light, humidity and temperature. These subjects are covered below. Dyes are the coloring agents used in the standard color printing papers. They have less resistance to bleeding, fading and color shifts than do pigments.

What about pigments

There are processes available to produce prints with pigments. These processes are currently quite expensive but may be worth checking out. Some of these prints have an expected life of 500 years or more. Examples, as taken from Henry Wilhelm's book: "The Permanence and Care of Color Photographs" are UltraStable Permanent Color Prints, Polaroid Permanent-Color Prints, Fuji Potocera Color Photographs, all with expected display life of over 500 years. Also worth mentioning are the EverColor Pigment Color Prints, which were new at the time that Wilhelm's book was published in 1993. His book, while it is very through, may be out of date with the on-going development and improvement of papers and processes. He is, however, providing updates to current tests on dye and pigment inkjet inks and certain print papers on the net at: His web site. But for the purposes of this discussion, I think it would be good enough that you are aware that not all prints are created equal. You need to consider the life of the print when looking at what materials to use when displaying them

Black and White prints, on the other hand, being made from silver, are very stable. They do not contain the dyes as do the color prints. They have outlasted, and continue to outlast, many color prints. Some B&W prints do have problems, mostly because of improper processing or washing during the printing process. There have been many different processes over the years. One of the most stable print processes known is that of the platinum print which is said to be as stable as the paper it is printed on. Even though these B&W, platinum and other processes are relatively stable, they still need to be properly stored and displayed to make them last as long as possible.

8.) Light

Ultraviolet light can cause a print, especially a color print, to fade. You may have noticed some of your 60's, 70's, and 80's prints are showing signs of fading. This is because most color prints have been made with, and continue to be made with, dyes that will tend to loose saturation over time. By this, I mean they simply fade away and loose detail, producing a low contrast print. Henry Wilhelm's book explains, "Light fading-photos displayed in normal household conditions will suffer a progressive loss/color shift in the highlight areas". To reduce these effects you can make sure prints are not displayed in direct sunlight or in windows. I've seen old prints in museums that were covered with cloth material that would have to be lifted to see the print. They were trying to extend the life of the print by providing a dark environment for it. This may seem a little extreme, but photos are our memories, and we don't like to see either of them fading away.

Remarkably, dye shift will happen even to photos kept in dark storage, such as an album, only at a much slower rate, and the color shifts are different. Also, during dark storage prints are more likely to show signs of yellow staining."

Ultraviolet absorbing glass - Framed prints, that are for display, can be protected with the use of ultraviolet absorbing glass or special lightweight acrylic that have UV absorbing properties. These products are quite expensive (two to three times the cost of regular glass), and I have seen conflicting reports as to their effectiveness. Henry Wilhelm's book, "The Permanence and Care of Color Photographs", mentions some extensive tests which show that UV glass increased the fade life of a color print, in most cases, by less than 10%. Some catalogs claim that UV protection will increase print life substantially.

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9.) Moisture

High humidity can lead to a much shorter life for your photos. Ideally, photographs should be stored at approximately 40% relative humidity. These figures will vary depending on the types of materials and manufacturer of the product. This is the indoor storage area and not the outside conditions. While this is very difficult to maintain, depending on where you live, 70% RH and above should be strictly avoided. It is also important to maintain as small a fluctuation in RH as possible. When temperature and humidity vary greatly and you are not using the proper storage materials, damage to your photos will result at an accelerated rate. Generally basements are not good places for prints, negatives and slides unless some sort of climate control/dehumidification system is used.

10.) Temperature

The higher the temperature, the quicker a print will be affected by fading. Avoid attics, automobiles in the summer heat or any other excessively hot areas. The cooler the better, as far as print and negative storage is concerned. Robert E. McComb states, "that the simple storage of prints or film at 35 degrees F will give you at least 300 years with no noticeable color shift." For archivists storing materials at zero degrees F, he confidently says will preserve images without noticeable color shift for at least 1000 years. A bit optimistic? Maybe.
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11.) Conclusions

I'm mildly enthusiastic about some of the increased print stability numbers. Henry Wilhelm continues his research into Iris ink sets and papers, Ink-jet ink sets and papers and other photographic papers. His current results can be seen at At the same time, I feel a lot of people are going to be disappointed by the foreshortened print life, from both the past standard color photo prints and from the present short lived ink-jet inks/prints. However, the future holds a lot of promise with the development of new prints, papers, and inks. With that said, the next best thing is to provide the best environment possible for your prints, negatives and slides and maybe consider cold storage or alternative storage methods such as PhotoCD. Learn all about PhotoCD's at: Philip Greenspun's Photo pages. This is a wonderful source for information and ideas about photography. As I mentioned at the beginning, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Hopefully it will get you thinking. I can see more coming in the near future to these pages. Stay tuned.... things are a changing.

12.) Archival Inkjet Inks

Recently a number of companies are developing and marketing archival inks for the inkjet printer, with claims of outlasting traditional prints. The things to be aware of from the beginning are that most testing has yet to prove itself and is only numbers, yet numbers that look impressive. Also, while most archival inks will print on traditional papers, the numbers quoted are for special archival papers, usually watercolor paper, which can drastically change the way a print looks as a final product. Some names that I've seen in the archival ink for inkjets are MIS Associates inc., Lysonic, and Luminus Inks by Fotonic. Another consideration is that most printer manufacturers would void their warranties if you use anything other than their inks.

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13.) You can help:

If you have read anything here that is questionable, please do contact me with your comments. If you have other information you wish to share, I would be glad to include it here or provide a link to the information.

14.) Other resources for photo preservation ideas:

The Library of Congress FAQ

International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions

"Care, Handling and Storage of Photographs Bibliography" Light Impressions FAQ An excellent source of quality archival materials. This page explains very well about their line of archival plastic sleeves and bags for storage. Plus, a good "glossary of terms" is available.

Century Photo Products & Associates: They tend to run a lot of specials. A good source of archival poly photo pages, good for keeping your snapshots, slides and other photos up to 8 x 11 in 3-ring binders/albums: Century Photo Products & Associates, P.O. Box 2393, Brea, ca 92822-2393. Tel. # 1-800-767-0777

Scraptures acid-free photo albums: At Scraptures you'll find a variety of products including hand-crafted photo albums and pre-made scrapbook pages. Their products are made with acid-free and lignin-free papers and are hand-crafted using the latest techno-crafting techniques.

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