Preserving Your Photographs

archiving photographs

After reading the last blog post by Boris about archiving his negatives and saving his memories, I was inspired to share some suggestions for organising and storing your prints, family albums and negatives. Some of these images could be almost 100 years old so making sure they are well cared for will help them last another 100 years, and allow future generations of your family to see them as well. This information also applies to more modern prints, including silver gelatin and inkjet prints you may have made last week. Whether your images are family photos, images documenting the city or town where you are from, or are creative images that a future person will want to frame and hang on their wall, they are all important, and deserve more than the envelope they came back from the lab in!

old negatives

In his post, Boris talked about storing his 35mm negatives and slides in Print File pages filed in Beseler binders. This is a very good way to store these formats. Print File also makes storage for 120, 4×5, 5×7 and 8×10 film, and also pages for some print formats. Keeping the sheets in fully enclosed archival binders helps keep dust and other contaminants out. Many older negatives are odd formats and you can put them into a Print File sheet that will fit them. This does make the Print File pages less efficient since there is extra space around the negatives, but if you don’t have many, this is a good option. Another option is to use archival paper enclosures. Many negatives that people still have around have remained in the envelope or glassine strips they came from the lab in, but these envelopes are acidic and they can cause damage to the film. If your film smells a bit like vinegar, or is looking warped, the film base is starting to deteriorate and you should move them into a different envelope as soon as possible. In this case, making an enclosure out of buffered paper, or using a buffered envelope is a good idea. There are options to help prevent further damage and we are happy to help you figure out the best solution for you.

Storage boxes are also important to consider. That box your favourite pair of shoes came in isn’t a good option for your precious negatives or prints! There are actually archival quality boxes referred to as shoe boxes that are much safer. They are usually sized for 4×5, 4×6, or 5×7 prints vertically, but can be used to store other sized prints and items. For larger prints, clamshell boxes or drop front boxes are a good choice. They are available at Beau in sizes up to 20×24″. When you stack a number of prints in a box, it’s a good idea to put them into folders first so they don’t slide around and get scratched. Make custom sized folders out of archival quality paper or folder stock. You can also write information about the print on the folder. This is a great opportunity to go through your family photos with a parent or grandparent and get the names and stories of the people in the photos. So often the family photos don’t have any information as to who the people are, and this information is lost over time, making the people anonymous even if they are related to you. A big part of archiving is recording the context of the image and the people in it. Why else would we work so hard to preserve the photographs themselves?

clamshell box
A clamshell box
shoebox photograph storage
Shoebox for print or negative storage
dropfront box for prints
Drop front box for print and album storage

Many people have family albums that have been passed on to them that are full of amazing images of the past adventures of the people in them. Albums can be a challenge because they are often not in good condition, or are an awkward size. Older albums usually have paper pages with photos mounted with photo corners or glued in. If the images aren’t faded, and generally seem to be in good condition, they can stay in the album. The way the photos have been carefully curated on each page, and the notes that are often written in white pencil on the pages are an important part of history and should be preserved if possible. If you are concerned that the photos facing each other may be causing damage, you can put interleaving tissue between the pages. The album itself can be stored in one of the archival boxes used for prints. If it doesn’t fit well into any of the pre-made boxes, you can also make a custom sized box from archival corrugated board. There are many templates online for making clamshell style boxes that you can follow.

Family album

Photo albums from the later 70s and 80s with the plastic sheets covering sticky pages are not really safe for the images, and you may see that the images are fading or becoming discoloured. A good way to deal with these albums is to first document the pages as they are, recording the image order, and any writing that has been added, and then carefully removing the photos and storing them in an archival enclosure or box. Often the photos are so stuck to the page that removing them will damage them and in this case, they may be best left alone.

Of course the fun part of having these historical images is to share with friends and family. This can be a challenge though, especially if all you have are boxes of slides or negatives, or if family is far away. Scanning your images is the best way to share them but may seem a daunting task. Fortunately there is a scanning service available at Beau that will scan negatives, prints and slides, and provide you with a USB drive with all the files that you can send around. This is a good way to make these images available to more people, but isn’t a way to permanently archive your images! The original hard copy is always the best, most permanent copy so don’t have things scanned and then get rid of the originals! We offer a discount on archival storage supplies when you pick up your items after scanning so ask us to help you figure out some good storage solutions for your items. The Vancouver Public Library also has scanners available to use for free if you would like to do some scanning yourself.

A note about digital files… Digital images, whether recorded in camera, or scans from other sources, present a special challenge in terms of archiving. It is important to always have a backup of your files stored at another location, and to regularly migrate your data to newer storage. Mike has written a good article about hard drives and backing up that you can read for more information.

Now that you have put your film, prints and albums in safe enclosures, you need a place to put them. Archives have specific climate controlled areas where photos are stored. This is often in an area that is about 18C and 35% humidity, or in a freezer at -17C. Practically speaking, this isn’t generally a climate that people have in their houses! Proper storage is very important to the long term stability of your items and even if in good enclosures, photographs will deteriorate quickly in a hot, humid environment. The best storage spot for your boxes of images is usually an interior closet on a shelf so they are up off the floor. The temperature and humidity are usually more stable in this location. The damp, possibly flood prone basement, or cooking in the summer attic are not the best places, even though that’s where people usually have extra storage space. If you have a problem with silverfish, you might want to put your boxes in clear plastic bags before putting them in storage. Silverfish can be very destructive, and they find nice, tasty paper and undisturbed spots in photo albums. Another very important consideration when choosing a storage location is accessibility. In an emergency like a fire or flood, people usually care less about the ‘stuff’ they have, and more about the irreplaceable family photos and other important documents. Keep all of these in the same, easily reached location, just in case.

All of this may seem overwhelming at first, especially if you have a large collection of objects. The most important thing is to make a plan, put your items in a safe location in your house, and slowly start to work on going through them and putting them in appropriate enclosures. Make it into a family project and share stories about the people in the images, or the vacation photos your grandparents put into albums. It’s probably more fun and productive than watching reruns on TV, or scrolling through Instagram for cute cat videos – though I think there is value to cuteness overload sometimes too!

If you have questions about archiving and storing your images, or want to know more about the products that will be best for your specific situation, we are here to help.

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Beau Photo Supplies Inc.
Beau Photo Supplies Inc.