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Shropshire Archives is open in a phased way from 21 April 2021.

Preserving your photos

June 2, 20204:20 pmJune 4, 2020 4:44 pmLeave a Comment

Our conservator, Seren Fisher, gives some warnings and advice on handling and storing prints, negatives and slides in this two-part blog ….

If there could be a silver lining to this horrific pandemic, it might be the opportunity it gives us to work on all those projects that have been waiting for a rainy day. One such venture is putting our family history documents and photographs in better order, talking about them with our older generations to identify forgotten people or places, before storing them in conservation grade materials to ensure they are preserved for future generations.

Pre-digital images

Photo album from the late 1930s

Up until the advent of digital photography, we either inherited photo’ prints and negatives from our parents or enjoyed taking photographs ourselves before dropping them off at a photo’ shop or chemists to be developed. We then spent time compiling albums and collages based on family adventures, milestones and memories to revisit periodically, or to display on a wall or mantlepiece and viewed daily.

If we didn’t put them in albums or frames, most of us will have kept our prints and negatives in the paper wallets and plastic sleeves used by the company who processed them.

You might not be surprised to learn that these, and the card framed mounts and photograph albums that your images are displayed in, are often made of low-quality materials which can damage photographs and reduce their lifespan.

Page of photo’ album showing acidic staining
& fading of certain dyes/pigments

The first task is to remove these forms of packaging from the prints and negatives, remembering to transfer any identifying annotations to either a piece of acid-free paper which can be kept with the print, or written lightly on the back of the print in HB pencil (if names, places and dates are mentioned). Alternatively, you can write lightly on the new packaging with a 2B pencil if using acid-free paper or card or in ink – light fast, waterproof and permanent – if using a polyester sleeve. If the packaging is of historic interest it should be stored separately from the photographs.

It might be possible to keep your prints in the older styles of albums which hold the prints in by the corners and don’t have plastic covers or adhesive to keep them in place, by simply interleaving (i.e. inserting between) the pages with photographic conservation paper (trade names Silver Safe™, pHoton™) to minimise damage.


Always use gloves – the oils in our hands acts like acid on the image layer of photographic material and unguarded fingerprints will eventually burn into the surface and become visible.

Handling prints without gloves can lead to fingerprint marks
  • Wherever possible, copy treasured photo’s and display the copy to reduce the risk of damage to the original.
  • Do not stack loose prints/glass plate negatives or place anything on top as this will damage the surface.
  • Do not attempt to flatten rolled or curled prints – they may crack and tear.
  • Do not use adhesive tapes, staples, pins, metal paper clips or rubber bands.
  • Do not use ink to label a photograph. Use an HB pencil to write on the reverse of material and do not press hard.

Photographs can be on paper, glass or film, but also tin and leather too. They contain several layers of many different elements which often makes treating them complex. The simplest thing to do is to repackage them, and make copies of the more treasured images. Care should always be taken to ensure that the process of copying or scanning does not damage the original. Some photographs may be too fragile to copy or digitise.

Seren will give more tips on storage of photos in the second part of this post: storing your photos.

Written by sarahd

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