A photographic image looks like something that will last forever, but even the most modern prints are not designed to last for more than a few decades. Black-and-white photographs, made up of light-sensitive silver salts known as silver halides, last longer. But color photographs and slides, which are made up of dyes and plastics, are more fragile. Still, any photograph will eventually succumb to the effects of a hostile environment - and a host of natural enemies.
The Bad Guys
-High temperature and relative humidity
The emulsion layer of a photograph - the light-sensitive component that actually captures the image - is made up of organic materials, including gelatin. That makes the emulsion susceptible to mold and fungi - especially when subject to the combination of heat and moisture. Photographs should be stored in a cool, dry place - below about 68° Fahrenheit and under 50% relative humidity.
Go ahead. Tempt the fates. Hang a color photograph on a wall in your house where the sun hits it every day, and you can start watching it fade within just a few years. To prevent fading, keep your photographs out of direct exposure to sunlight. If you absolutely must display that picture in that perfect spot, you buy special filters to protect the photo. Another good idea is to make one copy for long-term storage and a second for display.
-Wood and Paper Products
What could be more natural than a tree? That may be true, but many wood and paper products contain harmful acids, bleaches and other chemicals that can damage the emulsion of your photograph over time. Use only acid-free paper products. When shopping for "archival" products, make sure you are getting what you pay for - there is no accepted "archival" labeling standard.
-Adhesives & Rubber
Remember those easy-to-use sticky-back photo albums? Bad news and we all know it. But most adhesives, including the rubber cement often used in so-called "magnetic" photo albums, contain harmful chemicals such as PVC that will eventually destroy your photographs. Rubber bands can have the same effect. That makes them both a big no-no.
It may come as a surprise, but even the fumes from household cleaning products and fresh paint can damage photos. You probably won't notice the effects right away, but in time they will become painfully obvious.
On a more practical level, metallic objects such as keys and paper clips can scratch the surfaces of your prints and negatives. Don't clip your photos together, and try not to store them in the same box as your screwdrivers.
A Word of Hope
Preserving photographs, which are organic and temporary by their very nature, may seem like an uphill battle. But with smart decisions about storing and displaying your photos, it doesn't have to be. Follow the tips in our next article and you'll be that much closer to making your photo collection last a lifetime.