Winston-Salem Time Traveler: Preserving Your Family Photographs



Family get-togethers provide many opportunities for sharing family photographs and usually result in more photographs being added to the collection. So how do we manage these precious images that remind us of special people and special occasions?

If you’re lucky, you may have inherited family photographs from several generations of family members. The people all look different and so do the photographs. There are different methods for handling, treating, and storing images based on the method used to produce the original image.

Early photographic images are described by processes such as calotype, daguerreotype, albumen, collodion, dry gelatin, and Polaroid. These processes may result in one-of-a-kind images placed in wooden cases (daguerreotypes) or images affixed to different sizes of cards (carte-de-visite) or images on polished glass (ambrotypes) or images on a thin sheet of lacquered metal (tintypes).

If these types of images reside in your family photograph cache, and if you have questions about how to handle, clean or store the images, be sure to identify the kind of image you have before you attempt to treat it. One helpful book is “An Ounce of Preservation: A Guide to the Care of Papers and Photographs,” by Craig Tuttle. The National Archives offers in-depth information on photograph preservation, with a good online reference source at

We think of photographs as inactive items that just sit in boxes or in frames or in albums. But photographs are constantly in danger of deterioration because of temperature, relative humidity, fungi, insects, rodents, light exposure, pollutants, water damage, and mechanical disfigurement. Even when we put them into albums or scrapbooks or plastic enclosures, we may be placing them in harm’s way.

Here are a few photograph preservation tips:

  1. Store images in a controlled temperature and relative humidity environment that is about 65-72 degrees Fahrenheit and 45-55% relative humidity. An excessively high or low temperature and relative humidity will stimulate chemical reactions which cause photographs to deteriorate.
  2. While photographs may be a feast for our eyes, they provide an edible feast for fungi, cockroaches, silverfish, bookworms, lice, mites, termites, moths, mice, rats, and squirrels. The omnipresent fungi are active in warm, stagnant air when the relative humidity is above 60%. Remove food and beverages from the storage area, keep the air circulating, and check images frequently.
  3. Check the photographic storage location for sunlight and other light exposure. Use an air purifier to remove pollutants and clean the storage area frequently. Handle photographs with clean hands, void of lotions or perfumes, or wear cotton gloves.
  4. Avoid water damage problems by storing photographs away from water pipes, air conditioner units, radiators, windows, skylights, or exterior walls. Store them at least one foot above the floor.
  5. If you place images in a frame, consider using a copy rather than the original, unless it is professionally framed using archival mats and backing paper. Make sure the image neither touches the glass nor hangs in direct sunlight.
  6. Do not laminate photographs as a method of preservation. This is a destructive process which damages photographs and is irreversible. Instead, encapsulate the image with acid-free materials if such a method is needed.
  7. Do not staple or clip photographs with metal holders, and do not use rubber bands or string to bind images. Rubber bands dry, crack, and stick resembling dead worms.
  8. Store photographic prints and their negatives in separate locations. Copy photographs and digital images onto a flash drive and/or an external hard drive that is stored away from your home, or use an online backup service.
  9. Use acid-free folders, boxes, photo albums, scrapbooks, and plastic enclosures (no PVC) for photo storage. Remove images safely from magnetic albums with a microspatula device.
  10. Identify your photographs by writing names and dates on the image back with a soft-lead pencil, written on a hard surface. For digital images, add metadata or put them into digital albums with names and dates. If you don’t identify the photographs, why bother with all of the above?

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Identify and preserve your photographs to keep the conversation going. Your descendants will thank you!

Coming in February: “Winston Builds a Library.”

By Molly Grogan Rawls, author of the Winston-Salem Time Traveler website. Contact Molly at or