When Allstate asked 1,000 adults which possessions they valued most a couple of years ago, more than half of the survey respondents chose personal mementos—including photographs, home videos, and scrapbooks. In fact, personal memorabilia ranked second on the survey’s list of possible answers, behind homes.
Clearly, many of us think of our personal photos as treasures. But we’re less likely to think about how to store them. Given their irreplaceable value, it only makes sense to protect them from the elements that could cause them harm, whether it’s excessive heat, moisture, even storage materials.
Not sure where to begin? We’ve compiled a list of photo storage do’s and don’ts—including a few tips from the U.S. National Archives. These should help you prolong the life of your prized possessions for years to come.
Some of your photos greatest enemies are heat, humidity, sunlight, and fluctuating temperatures. Any of them can seriously damage your photos, leading to irreversible fading, cracking, rippling, photos that stick together, and even mold growth.
Ideally, your photos should be in a dark environment that’s 75 degrees Fahrenheit (F) or cooler. That’s where climate-controlled storage units can prove valuable. They’ll keep temperatures cool and consistent and keep excess moisture at bay.
In most cases, a flat, sealed container will provide a safe home for your photos—if you pay close attention to type of materials the container is made from. If you want a plastic container, the National Archives recommends one made from uncoated polyethylene, polypropylene, or polyester (also known as Mylar D or Mellinex 516). Avoid PVC, which can severely damage photos.
As an added measure of protection, look for photo containers that pass the ANSI IT9.16
Photographic Activity Test (PAT), which determines whether a material will cause photos to fade or stain.
Once you’ve selected your photo container, you’ll want to pack the photos in there carefully to prevent scratches, tears, and bends.
Consider placing your photos in a photo box or shoe box, which will keep them flat, and then storing those boxes in your sturdy, waterproof plastic container. Make sure the photo box or shoe box is large enough for your photos’ lengths and widths, so your photos don’t get dog-eared. The box shouldn’t be crammed full, which also could bend or fold the photos.
To prevent photos from sticking together, you can place sheets of acid-free paper or flat dividers between them.
If you store your photos in an album, consider an archival quality option, made of non-acidic and lignin-free paper comprised of cotton or purified wood pulps.
As you’re organizing your photos, keep in mind that any fingerprints you leave on your photos or negatives will probably become visible over time, so handle your photos carefully. Try to handle the outer edges, wash your hands often, and—if you want to go the extra mile—wear cotton gloves.
No matter how many precautions you take, life happens.
That’s why it’s wise to make digital copies as a form of photo insurance. Making copies can be as simple as taking pictures of your print photos with your digital camera or phone. If you hope to reproduce print photos from your digital copies, you can scan them (or have them scanned at a photo store) for higher-quality image.
You can store the digital copies on your computer, a USB drive, and/or Cloud-based storage sites like Dropbox or Google Drive. To be on the safe side, it wouldn’t hurt to store them in more than one location.
Even if your photos are packed in a plastic box, it’s best to keep your collection off the floor of your storage unit, in case of flooding or moisture that inevitably builds up on concrete flooring. Instead, place them on shelving or a pallet.
While they may be convenient, albums with sticky pages have an acidic adhesive that can severely damage your photos or even destroy them.
If you already are using albums like these, and want to remove your photos, you may find they’re stuck to the album pages. Here’s a tip: Try running a piece of unwaxed dental floss between the photo and album page in gentle, sawing motions to separate them.
Another photo album warning: Don’t stack albums on top of one another in storage. Doing this can damage your album bindings and place harmful pressure on your photos.
Any of these tools can damage your photos. The sulfur in rubber bands will deteriorate your photos’ paper. The acid in tape can destroy your photos’ images. And paper clips can bend or scratch your photos.
Our site managers are happy to offer guidance, whether you want more details about climate-controlled units, containers, or anything else related to storage. They’re there to help. Consider them your resource.