Preserving Your Family Photographs

Here’s a tip: photos hate basements and attics. Photographs are finicky objects and sensitive to myriad contaminants, but most especially light, pests and fluctuating temperatures and relative humidity. These four elements alone can rapidly deteriorate your photographs if not controlled. Fortunately, there are some simple, cost-effective ways to protect your family photos.

One of the best and first steps to preserving your photo collection is to store it in a proper location. We recommend a dark closet on the main level of your house. Ideally, that closet shouldn't share a wall with the outdoors, kitchen or bathroom.

Photo from the Benjamin H. and Helen W. Berry photograph album

We’re not sure if the door above actually leads to an interior closet, but let’s pretend it does. Photo from the Benjamin H. and Helen W. Berry photograph album (Ph.00026)

All too often, personal photo collections are stored in attics or basements. Logistically this makes sense, since you don’t usually look at those photos on a regular basis. Unfortunately, photos hate the type of environmental conditions often found in these spaces. Basements tend to be damp and are prone to flooding, while attics tend to be too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. And both are prone to having pests. Environmental conditions are just too hard to control in these spaces. The more the temperature and humidity fluctuate, the more damage that can be done to your images: discoloration, fading, curling, molding, shrinking film and much worse.

Photos love stable temperatures and humidity levels. Color prints and film negatives thrive in cold temperatures. For example, the Image Permanence Institute in Rochester, New York, recommends you store your color prints at 40 degrees Fahrenheit with 50% maximum relative humidity with fluctuations of no more than plus or minus 5%.

deteriorating film negative

We found this deteriorating film negative stored in a scrapbook in History Colorado’s collection.

With these environmental conditions, photos can remain in stable condition for over 300 years. We definitely don’t suggest, however, that you throw your photos into the fridge right next to your leftover meatloaf and chocolate pudding. There are vital supplies, and steps you’d need to take, in order to properly prepare photographs for cold storage. And, they should never be stored with food. (As always, get in touch with a photo archivist, curator or conservator if you have any questions about photo preservation and storage.)

What we do suggest is an interior closet, which will most likely provide the most stable environment in your house and will help ensure a long life expectancy for your photo collection. So move those winter sweaters and ski gear over to make some room in that dark closet today. Your photos will thank you!