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Why Do Photographs Fade?

faded photographs

Causes Of Print Deterioration & Prevention

Nowadays images are captured digitally, unlike the days of old when light was captured to a negative before it could be printed.

Some photographers still prefer to use negatives & create prints in a darkroom on emulsion papers.

But whether a print is produced by a chemical process or an inkjet printer, they are both prone to fading.

So what causes a photograph to fade? The main cause is exposure to sunlight, but other factors can cause a picture to deteriorate over time such as other light sources, humidity, acid burn, oxidation & other contaminants.

7 Main Reasons That Will Cause A Photo To Degrade

1. Exposure to Sunlight

This would be the most common cause for a print to fade.

Inks & dyes are made with colour or light absorbing properties.

The amount to which an ink absorbs a certain wavelength is the colour we see with our eyes.

Sunlight & UV radiation breaks down these inks & dyes & an image eventually fades.

Some print mediums are more prone to fading than others, but generally the more reflective the more resilient it will be to fading.

Many reputable print labs now use inks & dyes with UV protecting qualities as a matter of course.

2. Will Ambient Light Cause Fading?

A photograph doesn’t need to be exposed to constant sunlight in order to fade.

Indirect sun can cause fading, although not as quickly.

Let’s face it, we have our images on the wall so we can enjoy them, so it’s impossible to completely avoid all light.

But most photographs are displayed behind UV safe glass.

Combine that with UV protected inks, it’s not a major concern unless the sun is shining directly on the print for an hour or so on a daily basis.

3. Other Light Sources

Believe it or not, incandescent & fluorescent light emits UVs.

This is how tanning booths work, but the lighting in your home will be pretty insignificant in comparison.

But there have been artworks hung under strong gallery lights that have shown to fade over time.

4. Humidity

A high moisture content in the air can cause residual chemicals left behind in the printing process to react & create discolouration & general deterioration of the print.

Older photographs that were made using an emulsion to hold the image to the photographic paper are more prone to humidity.

And if the environment in which the photograph is kept swings from humid to hot & dry, this can really accelerate the breaking down of the emulsion.

But even modern papers & print technology isn’t immune from the effects of humidity.

The paper can still absorb moisture, becoming warped over time.

5. Contaminants

Airbourne contaminants, which are impossible to avoid, can also contribute to a photographic print’s slow decline.

These can be things like smoke from cigarettes or wood burners, household chemicals & general pollutants.

Again, most photographs are mounted to a backing board & displayed under glass or acrylic, thus significantly reducing this problem.


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Pigment-based inks hold up well to pollutants as the colour molecules are suspended in resin, thus protecting them from oxidation.

Dye-based inks are generally only used in the dye-sublimation printing process, where the dyes are absorbed into the print medium & sealed with a clear coat anyway.

6. Acid Burn

No, I’m not talking about having indigestion!

This occurs when a photograph is stored using acidic materials.

You can use acid free, archival mounting boards & photo albums to prevent this.

Any sort of tape used to adhere your photographs to a mounting board or in a photo album will create stains.

Again, special acid free, archival quality mounting tapes are available.

You’ve probably come across old yellow photographs.

They’ve turned yellow because the photographic paper wasn’t acid free.

Most good printers these days use acid free papers, but it never hurts to ask.

7. Fungus

Otherwise known as foxing, it creates unsightly brown streaks & splotches.

Unfortunately fungal or mould damage can’t be reversed, so prevention is better than cure.

By making sure your photographs are kept in a dry environment, not in a dank basement or attic.


For a deeper dive into preventing your photos from fading, check out this article on how to preserve your photographs & prints.

To learn about all the various print mediums available & how to choose the right material for your images , have a gander at this comprehensive guide.


Final Thoughts

Even in our digital age of photography, Mother Nature still has the upper hand.

So knowing what causes photographs to degrade helps you prevent it in the first place.

But the benefit of digital photography is that unlike a negative, the original image file isn’t prone to environmental damage.

Just be sure to not accidently hit delete!

I hope you found this article helpful & please feel free to share .. thanks!


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