How to Preserve Old Photos: 7 Ways to Keep Antique Family Photos Looking Their Best

Updated: Jun. 18, 2018

Don't leave the fate of irreplaceable keepsakes to chance. Follow these guidelines to preserve your photos for many years to come.

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Don’t: Store them in the Basement or Attic

The ideal environment for photographs is a relatively dry, cool, and temperature-stable space. Your basement is likely too damp, which could cause your photos to stick together or become moldy. Avoid a hot attic, as heat can speed up the degradation of paper and ink. Choose a space that is room temperature or below, and a safe distance from radiators and vents, such as in a spare closet. This is how you SHOULD store your old print photos.

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Do: Protect them from Light

Photographs thrive in dark spaces. Overexposure to light will eventually cause photos to fade. Keep this in mind when framing treasured original prints. A safer option is to display a high-quality copy.

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Do: Write Down Who’s Who … but Not In Pen

Use a pencil (never use ballpoint pen) to mark the names, dates, and locations for each picture in the margins on the back of the photo. To label a newer, slick-backed photo, use an archival felt-tipped pen. Even better, choose an enclosure that allows you to write labels on a page or card instead of directly onto the original print. Remember to allow the ink to dry before stacking your photos. It could smear or transfer.

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Do: Invest in Proper Enclosures

The two safest types of enclosures are photo albums (paper and plastic) and photo boxes. All paper enclosures should be acid-free and lignin-free. If your storage space is humid, choose a paper enclosure as photos might stick to a plastic album. (Plastic enclosures should be made of uncoated polyester film, uncoated cellulose triacetate, polyethylene, and polypropylene. Do not use plastic to store negatives.) If you choose a photo box, make sure the photos lay flat and are not cramped for space.

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Don’t: Use These Supplies

Paper clips, rubber bands, tape, glue, adhesive, ballpoint pens, and non-archival quality papers (which might contain harmful acids) can all damage photos. Using certain fasteners might seem like a temporary solution (for example, holding a batch of wedding photos together with a rubber band), it’s best not to take the chance. If you forget to remove them, those photos could be bent and marked-up forever.

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Do: Set Up a Safe Workspace

When organizing your collection, keep food and drinks far away. If you plan on doing a lot of handling at once, invest in a pair of 100 percent cotton gloves. These will keep your photos safe from the natural oils on your hands. If you don’t have gloves, handle your photos only by their edges.

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Do: Digitize Your Most Prized Photographs

In the early stages of your organizing process, set aside your most important photos (think weddings, births, headshots, or any other important memories you’d like to be backed up), and have them digitized. It’s possible to scan them yourself, but there are many options for outsourcing this task to professionals. Try ScanMyPhotos, ScanDigital, or ScanCafe, which will all take your boxes of photos, create digital files, and return the originals to you in perfect condition. Once you’ve gotten your files, keep several copies of them in different locations. For example, upload your photos to an online photo service (like Photobucket or Google’s Picasa), a flash drive, and an external hard drive. We’ll show you the best options for restoring your old print photos.