4 Photo-Preservation Rules to Live By

By Maureen A. Taylor

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Contrary to popular thought, it’s neither expensive nor time-consuming to preserve your family photos. All it takes is a few rules to live by (and some proper storage items).

1. Avoid Temperature and Humidity Extremes

While you can’t do anything about the weather outside your house, you can somewhat control the interior environment. First, avoid all the problem storage areas such as basements, attics and garages. Not only are those zones subject to temperature and humidity variations, they are usually home to critters that love to eat or nest in paper including your family photos.

Try to manage temperature fluctuations by storing your photos in a spot away from drafts (winter cold can harm as much as summer’s heat) and heating systems. The ideal temperature for many photographic materials is 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

Humidity can be controlled by the use of a de-humidifier or if your house is too dry in the winter, a humidifier. There is a cheaper alternative. A reusable desiccant container can help. It’s a small box that contains an inert substance that attracts and holds water vapor. When it’s saturated (the indicator dot changes color)all you do is bake it in a ventilated oven to dry it out. While I wouldn’t put one of these boxes in direct contact with my photos you can use it in closets. The cost is around $13 to $20.. They are available from museum suppliers such as Archival Methods.

2. Buy the Right Materials

When purchasing storage materials look for industry appropriate phrases such as acid- and lignin-free paper/cardboard and non-PVC plastic. All you really need are some good quality boxes and sleeves that fit that criteria. You can buy materials in art supply stores, from museum storage companies and even from storage stores. Just check the labels for the right terminology. Buy in bulk with a friend and save money.

3. Scan Once and Store

You should have a digital back-up of your important images. Scan at a minimum of 600 dpi resolution and 100 percent scale (that’s the same dimensions as the original photo, instead of reducing the size) and then put the items in those storage containers. Back-up your digital files using a portable hard drive or an online back-up system such as Once you’ve scanned at this resolution, you won’t have to scan them again for any projects.

4. Identify and Label

OK, I know this can be an overwhelming task, but take it slow. A picture at a time. Write on the back of a photo—name, date, occasion, and your name and date—or as little as you know. By adding your name and the current date your descendants will always know who labeled the photos. Labeling tools include a soft lead pencil for paper based prints or a waterproof, fade-proof, quick-drying pen (not a Sharpie) that’s safe for resin coated pictures. I like Zig markers. They are widely available in scrapbook, art and office supply stores.

These four basic rules will help you save your pictures so that generations can appreciate them. You can learn more about photo preservation in my book Preserving Your Family Photographs.