Top tips for caring for photographs

Young woman examining a photograph

What to do – and what not to do – when caring for family photographs

Family photographs are often treasured possessions, but preserving and organising them can seem like a daunting prospect. Who better to turn to for advice than the conservation team here at The National Archives – their tips for caring for photographs offer simple guidance we can all follow:

Do …

Handle photographs with clean hands and wear gloves where possible

Unlike many other items in our collection, we recommend wearing gloves to handle photographs. This reduces the risk of damage, as fingerprints can leave oily stains on the emulsion. Read more about the importance of gloves in this blog post.

Store photo albums flat, preferably in an acid-free box

Not only will this prevent physical and environmental damage, it will also help to keep images organised.

Reduce exposure to light

If you think a photograph is likely to fade, having it professionally reproduced means that the original can be stored away from light and you can display the duplicate without needing to worry.

Store photographs and negatives in folders

It’s important to store photographs securely, ideally in chemically stable plastic or paper enclosures – free of sulphur, acids and peroxides. This protects the images from dust, mould and insects.

Store film-based negatives separately from other photographic materials

Film-based negatives – often single sheets or strips cut into lengths of four to six frames – can produce acidic gases as they age, so it’s best to separate them from other photographs. Again, we recommend acid-free enclosures to separate photographs.

Don’t …

Have food or drink around photographs

Spillages can cause irreparable damage, so we recommend against eating or drinking while sorting your photographs.

Use pens to mark photographs

If you wish to label photographs, writing lightly in an HB pencil will minimise damage.

Store photographs in an attic, basement or along outside walls of a building

Environmental conditions in these areas are prone to extremes and fluctuations in temperature, as well as damp and condensation.

Clean photographs with erasers, water or solvent-based cleaners

Although tempting, using these materials to clean photographs can alter the image surface and cause irreparable damage.

Repair tears with self-adhesive tapes

The adhesive will chemically change the photograph, staining the image and making the paper very brittle. Refer to a conservator for specialist advice on how to repair your photograph.

If you’d like further guidance download our caring for photographs guide (PDF, 0.3MB).

10 comments

  1. Richard says:

    Excellent post. I’ve been looking for this information – even prepared to pay for an introductory event aimed at amateurs – for a while. Although some of the information is well-known (marking photographs with ink and the use of adhesive tape being my obvious no-nos) it is good to have.

    Any chance of more posts along the lines of repairing and restoring photographs as well as conserving?

    After all, with the National Archives closed due to coronavirus amateur historians/researchers will have more time on their hands!

  2. Emily Dutton says:

    Thanks for your comment, Richard, glad you found the blog useful. We’ve got a host of ideas to help people to continue to explore archives from a distance, so stay tuned for more resources under the ‘Boredom Busters’ tag.

    Emily

  3. Roger smith-howell says:

    Is there a way to digitise old photos onto a usb stick.

  4. Westville13 says:

    Thank you very much for this post. Similar advice on old slides would be particularly useful – we are currently going though a number of boxes which have not been stored in ideal conditions and would welcome advice particularly on long term storage and cleaning.

  5. Emily Dutton says:

    Hi Roger – Various outlets offer photograph scanning or copying services which provide high quality copies of images on a USB or DVD. Searching online will enable you to identify services in your local area. Alternatively, you could take high resolution images on a digital camera of phone (avoid using the flash if you can) and then upload the images to a computer. From there you could save them or upload to a USB stick. Hope this helps, Emily

  6. Emily Dutton says:

    Thanks for your comment. Our conservation team said there’s commonly two types of slides – glass lantern slides which are black and white, and plastic slides which are coloured – that could each present different problems. However, in both cases slides should be kept in boxes (ideally archival quality) and stored in a dark, dry place, such as a wardrobe. They recommend seeking advice from a conservation specialist before attempting to clean slides.

    We are actually planning a public talk on the conservation of colour slides later this year, so stay tuned and monitor our Eventbrite page for more details. Emily

  7. Jane Henderson says:

    Thanks for all this really useful info.

    A follow up on the digitising old photos issue.

    Is taking a photo with eg a phone (flash off) better than scanning on a home printer?

  8. Robert Hayes says:

    Many Thanks for the info, but do you have any ideas about storing pictures “flat” please, most are in shoe boxes etc so should these be pressed some how, some suggestions/ ideas would be very welcome.

  9. Graham Sharp says:

    Taking a photo (flash 0ff) is better than a scan, but make sure your camera is parallel to the photo. Defused daylight is the best so you don’t get reflections from the photo, use a tripod so there is no camera shake. focus is critical so take care that your image is pin sharp. If you are duplicating slides then an attachment to fit the lens of your camera which holds the slide is reasonably priced, have a look on line.

  10. JMB says:

    Isn’t the first rule to scan the photograph or transparency at as a high resolution as possible before you do anything to it? Then never edit the original copy of that file.

    Also a good to actually look at the scanned image, I regularly have scanned pictures sent to me that are useless because they are such low resolution. They have very obviously never looked at the scan.

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