I talk about digital photography here most of the time, but I’ve recently been scanning some old photos from the 1930s (the photo above is NOT one of them) and it gave me the idea to talk about preserving old pictures.

I think the best way to preserve old photos is to scan them and then make a copy of the scan onto both hard disk and DVD. Additionally, making a print is, always has been, and always will be a viable archival method for preserving old photos.

Beyond that, if you want to store either the old, original print or the new one, there are some things you should know.

1) Avoid garages, attics or basements. Since these places rarely have insulation or controlled temperatures, they are terrible places to store old pieces of paper. Temperature swings are harmful to photographic papers. Consistent temperatures in the 65-70 degree range are best. These places are also breeding grounds for pests. Rats for instance love to eat paper. So do most bugs.

2) If you’re making new archival prints, only use top-quality acid-free, archival paper to print on. It makes a difference. This isn’t the time to go to Office Depot looking for a bargain.

3) Avoid humidity. If you can, keep relative humidity under 50%. If you’re storing actual photographic prints made with a photographic process, high humidity could cause the emulsion to separate from the base of the photo.

4) Store pictures in plastics like polyester, mylar, plypropylene and tyvek. Avoid wooden boxes since they are rarely acid free.

5) Wear artists’ gloves when handling photos and negatives. They keep the oils on your hands from damaging the photo materials.

Note, this list is not complete, but a good starting point for anyone interested in the topic.

This post sponsored by the Digital SLR Store

Join the conversation! 16 Comments

  1. Hey Scott;
    What is the highest (useful) resolution for scanning 35mm transparencies?
    I had a Minolta Dual Scan III that would scan at about 3950dpi…almost in the range of Coolscans…and even then, grain structure was becoming vidible on output tif files that were 31meg. (ASA 64 Kodachrome and 100 ASA Ektachrome)
    My friend is getting his 35mm transparency archive scanned, but he says the files will be about 1 gig each!! Wtf? What sort of scanning process produces 1gig tifs of 35mm transparencies? Wouldn’t that pretty much bring out film detail at the molecular level? :D (Methinks the lab he’s using is conning him into getting 8000 samples p/i drum scans in CMYK…or there’s some 35mm scanning process I’m not aware of…)

  2. You might want to change “where” to “wear” in the last tip. Great advice in the post.

  3. Oh, I just thought of something…if he’s getting them done in 16 bit, that would certainly bloat the filesize…
    But to 1 gig each?

  4. Good tips, but next time you post good information, try not to overshadow it with awesome nature photography. :P

  5. No consideration of photographic preservation is complete without reference to the work of Wilhelm Imaging Research (http://www.wilhelm-research.com/). Henry Wilhelm has been urging photographers to pay attention to the longevity of their images for more than 40 years, about eight times longer than most color images retained their hues when he started his work (if he sees this, he’ll probably correct me and point out that it was actually 6.645 times, or 3.768 times, whatever). Full disclosure: Henry is an old friend, but he never lets friendship, or even beer, trump his devotion to the science of preservation.

  6. hate to be the guy who points things out. But you made a typo in the 5th step. I think you wanted people to Wear gloves, not where.

  7. Sorry, this comment has nothing to do with the actual blog topic. I just wanted to say how much I like that photo. That’s one of the best pictures I think I’ve ever seen in all my life.

  8. So coincidental that you should post this today, as I just organized all my old film last night for archive scanning. Thanks for the tips, they will come in handy…

  9. Thanks to everyone who caught my typo. This is why I don’t hire editors. I know I can get that done for free :)

    Up late and early the same day doing sunrise/sunset at Grand Teton National Park. Bleary eyed!

  10. Scott,

    Could you or would you suggest a good quality printer for doing your own archival prints? I have been looking at the Epson R2880 or R2400? Or do you only use pro shops?


  11. Scott, Thanks for all you do. What do you scan with ?

  12. @Vern I use an Imacon Flextight.

  13. @Neil I use Epson 3800.

  14. @Chuck – thanks. Made it on my recent Alaska bear trip.

  15. Great article. You give some great tips. Too many people don’t appreciate the value of a vintage photo. I’d like to be able to show my grandchildren pictures of their great great grandfather.
    I found this other page with a few extra useful tips. Also, they have photo-friendly storage products:


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