Preserving Your Pictures & Prints
We may be in the digital age of photography, but an image still needs to be printed in order to be displayed on your wall.
There are still some photographers using the chemical process to produce images, but most of us have become digital converts.
However a print is created, it will be susceptible to fading over time.
How can you prevent photos from fading? The most important thing is protecting the print from exposure to sunlight. But airbourne contaminants, pollution & humidity are other culprits that can be avoided by storing your photos in a cool & dry environment.
We all take photographs for different reasons.
For some it’s a living, others a passion, & for many it’s a wonderful medium for keeping a visual diary of family life or keeping travel memories alive.
If we want to enjoy your prints for years to come, it’s good to learn what causes them to fade & deteriorate in the 1st place so we know how to prevent it.
There's many different papers & print mediums to choose from which you can explore with this guide to print materials.
Why Do Photos & Prints Fade?
The main reason photos fade is exposure to sunlight.
It’s sort of ironic that photographs are captured using light & it’s the number 1 reason for them fading or bleaching.
Matter absorbs certain wavelengths in the light spectrum & it’s the colour that doesn’t get absorbed, in other words reflected back to our eyes, that creates the colour we see.
Modern photographic prints, whether on photographic paper, canvas or other mediums available today, are created with an inkjet printer.
The inks & dyes used are made with colour absorbing chromophores which act as chemical bonds.
Sunlight, or more specifically UV (ultraviolet) light, is what breaks down these bonds & causes fading.
Can Indirect Light Cause Prints To Fade?
Yes, although not as severe as direct sun. A print without any UV glass or protective coating will gradually fade over time.
It’s difficult to enjoy a lovely photograph in a dark room!
Avoiding ambient light is obviously impossible, so for prints that are displayed on a permanent basis, make sure to use a UV glass or clear coat.
Other Factors That Cause Photos To Fade
Incandescent & Fluorescent Lighting
Although nowhere near the levels of sunlight, incandescent & fluorescent lighting actually emits ultraviolet radiation.
An example of this are the lights used in tanning booths, although the levels of UV emitted from home lighting is insignificant.
There have been cases though of prints exhibited under strong gallery lights that experienced a noticeable fade over a period of time.
High Temperature & Temperature Swings
A photograph can be stored in darkness & still fade if exposed to high temperature & temperature swings.
Images created from colour negatives using the wet chemical process, known as chromogenic prints, are highly susceptible to this phenomenon.
But modern printed images will also degrade if exposed to fluctuating temperatures.
How Humidity Causes Pictures To Degrade
Photographs & prints can be subject to residual chemicals from the printing process, as well as mounting materials, airbourne contaminants & general environmental pollutants.
These can contribute to fading, as well as causing discolouration & degradation of the print.
The reaction to these contaminants is accelerated in humid & high moisture environments.
Older photographs created with the chemical process & emulsion papers are more vulnerable to humidity & high moisture levels.
Even newer photographic papers can absorb moisture in high humidity environments & this causes the paper to eventually warp.
As well as taking care when handling & storing print materials, modern print labs are temperature & humidity controlled environments.
If you’d like to explore in more detail why & what causes prints to fade & degrade, you may find this article useful:
How To Print Your Photos To Prevent Fading
You’ve probably heard the old saying “prevention is better than cure”, & this holds true for protecting your photographs too.
There’s a few choices you can make when having your images printed that will safeguard them well into the future.
UV & Fade Resistant Inks
Whatever print medium you’re using, there’s 2 types of inks that are used:
1. Dye- Based - made by using a colourant that is dissolved in liquid, these inks are mainly used in dye-sublimated prints like metal, otherwise known as aluminium prints. Dye-based inks do deliver vibrant colour, but are generally regarded to be less fade resistant & because of how they’re produced, less water resistant.
2. Pigment Ink - made by suspending microscopic colour particles in a liquid gel, pigment inks are used for archival printing. Although not as vibrant as dye-based inks, they are more fade resistant.
So now you’re asking “ Which ink is best? ”
Years ago, pigment inks were more robust & fade resistant & dye-based prints could get ruined if they came in contact with moisture.
But modern ink production has come a long way & both inks are used for different print applications.
Both these inks are available with UV protectant properties.
Dye-based inks are used for creating dye-sublimated prints.
Through a heat process, the dyes are actually absorbed into the aluminium.
This process protects the inks from UV & airbourne contaminants anyway & combine that with the fact that most print labs will use dyes with UV protectants added.
Pigment inks are used for most prints created with an inkjet printer.
This is where the ink is laid down in dots to the surface of the print medium.
So as you can see, although pigment inks may have that slight edge, they are left more exposed to sunlight & contaminants .. or are they?
Archival papers & canvases are made from cotton or linen. This allows the inks to soak into the medium instead of simply laying on the surface.
But even with non-archival print mediums, both types of inks are given extra protection.
Using A Clear Coat To Protect Your Print
Canvas, metal & face mount acrylic photo prints are always finished with a clear coat.
This coat has UV protecting qualities, but it also seals the inks & prevents exposure to airbourne contaminants & other pollutants which can degrade an image over time.
Preventing Photographic Pictures From Fading
Your typical photo prints don’t have a protective coating applied as a standard practice.
So if you want your image to last for decades to come, you’ll need to consider archival printing.
Archival prints, when kept in optimal conditions, are rated to last for at least 100 years.
They use acid free cotton paper alongside UV safe inks. Then usually via a spray gun, a UV protective top coat is applied that seals in the ink.
Does Laminating A Photo Prevent Fading?
Lamination offers no UV protection, but it does seal the photographic paper protecting the image from airbourne pollutants, contaminants & moisture that can degrade the image over time.
The more reflective a surface is, the less prone it can be to the effects of sunlight.
As mentioned, lamination has no UV protection as such, but it’s available in gloss or matte finishes, so the glossy finish may have some slight advantage.
Laminating needs to be done well & once it’s done, trying to remove lamination is risking ruining the print.
Protecting Your Photographs Under Glass
Archival printing can be expensive, but using good quality photographic papers with UV safe inks are still going to produce an image that is resilient to fading.
But any print exposed to direct sunlight is going to fade eventually, just some sooner than others.
One of the main ways to protect your photographs if they are being framed & displayed is mounting them under UV protecting glass or acrylic.
You can learn more about mounting photos & the various substrates available with these articles:
Acrylic is a popular choice, as it’s lighter than glass & still blocks up to 98% of ultraviolet radiation.
Although it’s a type of plastic, it’s often referred to as “ acrylic glass “ because it has the same qualities of glass.
Glass tends to have a slight tinge to it & clear glass with no tinge is much more expensive to produce.
Acrylic is also available with a matte surface, so reflections aren’t such an issue.
Archival Mounting & Framing
When a photograph is mounted, it comes in contact with mounting tapes, adhesives as well as the mounting board itself.
Conservation & archival framing is costlier, but care is taken by making sure the photograph is mounted using acid-free materials.
If the print is being framed, a dust cover is used which not only prevents dust, but insects finding their way onto your print.
Archival framers will also use a high grade UV safe glass or acrylic.
9 Tips For How To Store & Preserve Old Photographs
Even newer photographs can have sentimental value, but older images that were made with negatives are more precious.
If a newer image is lost or destroyed, as long as you still have the digital file you can print another one.
But this isn’t the case with historical photographs.
1. Get Them Scanned
The 1st word of advice I’d offer is to have them digitally scanned.
Although it’s not the same as having the original, physical photograph, should it go missing or get damaged, at least all is not lost.
2. Keep Then Cool
Heat & humidity aren’t photographs' best friends, especially when an environment can swing between both.
So find a cool, dry environment that doesn’t get hot in the summer months & cold or moist in the winter months.
3. Consistent Environment
Avoid attics & basements unless they have been specifically insulated & retain a fairly consistent temperature all year around.
Ideally, below 70 Fahrenheit (21C) & humidity no higher than 50% are recommended for storing photographs.
4. Food For Critters!
Insects & rodents love eating the cellulose & gelatine used in old photograph print emulsions.
Again, basements can be home to these critters as well as garages, sheds & sleepouts.
5. Acid Free Storage
Choose archival boxes & folders for keeping your old photographs in as they are acid free.
These boxes are also available with reinforced metal corners in order to be stacked upon each other without buckling.
6. Avoid Toxins
Polypropylene plastic containers are recommended as PVC & other plastics can emit toxins.
Polypropylene is used for food products & won’t leach any harmful chemicals that can contaminate your photographs.
7. No Touching Please
Avoid photographs touching each other by using individual sleeves.
Make sure these sleeves are archival quality & acid free of course.
8. Stay Clear Of Generic Photo Albums
Don’t use standard photo albums as they are made from vinyl which emits harmful vapours.
As already mentioned, use an album made with polypropylene or other archival material.
9. Repairing Old Photos
Avoid using sticky tape or glue to repair torn photographs.
These products contain sulphur & other acids which can cause deterioration.
If you have to repair a photograph, archival glues & tapes are available through craft stores.
Temperature & Relative Humidity Chart
Apart from sunlight, temperature & humidity will be the other major contributing factors that affect a print's longevity.
Below is a handy chart that gives you an indication of the time scale & the impact that various environmental conditions have on a photographic print.
This information was provided by The Image Permanence Institute who also has this free handy tool for calculating combinations of temperature & relative humidity & the preservation quality of your environment.
Preserving Digital Photo Files
Of course digital photographic files don’t fade, but I thought it relevant to mention that just like old negatives, if you lose your original digital file, then you’re no longer able to create more prints.
Modern print technologies & print materials now mean we have prints that can last upward of a century. But what about that file stored on your hard drive?
Technology keeps changing & so do the formats we store information on.
Remember floppy disks? CDs? So keeping up with these changes is important.
Print labs generally print from JPEG or TIFF files.
Most phone cameras save images as JPEG, but DSLR cameras can save a RAW file that can then be converted to JPEG, TIFF & other formats.
Either way, it’s always a good idea to have your image files saved to various locations on different devices.
Should your computer crash & the hard drive become irretrievable, you’re going to be one happy bunny knowing you have the files stored on a 2nd external drive or even on a cloud based server.
Whether you’re using your phone or a camera, it’s possible to connect to cloud based storage that will save your images almost immediately.
This can be a lifesaver if you’re on holiday, or a travel photographer, where you may not be able to access your usual storage devices.
it’s a good insurance policy should your camera get stolen or damaged.
It’s not until something’s gone that you miss it.
Photographs are the same.
An image can be a memory you don’t want to lose, or an amazing one of a kind shot you’ll never get again.
There’s original photographs from the early 1800’s that are still preserved to this day.
So it’s possible for the photographs we take today to last well into the future.
I love digital photography & it’s easy to view images on our devices & share them online.
But there’s still nothing quite as satisfying as seeing your photograph come to life in printed form.
I hope this article was helpful & please don’t be shy if you’d like to share it.