How to Preserve Old Photos

Old pictures are a powerful window to the past.

They tell stories about the people and times they represent. They preserve the likenesses of important historical figures and everyday people. They give us clues about how people lived and what they valued.

If you are the custodian of old pictures, one of your top priorities should be caring for them properly. But it can be bewildering to know how to preserve old photos, given the array of photo supplies out there and the unique nature of every old picture. Ask yourself these questions about your historical photos:

What type of photograph is this?

Whether the picture is a daguerreotype, tintype, etc. matters. They may require different handling and preservation.

What kind of damage has it suffered?

Fading or tarnished images, broken glass or cracks in the varnish or emulsion, scratches or rust–each kind of damage may or may not be treatable by you or a professional conservator. You may be able to handle some fixes digitally, like enhance faded faces or remove evidence of cracks.

What information should be preserved with the photo?

Sometimes old pictures are found with documents, memorabilia or text that tell you more about the photos. You’ll want to save that information about the picture, but not physically with it. The photos (and likely the other items) should be stored in an archival environment, away from items like news clippings, letters, etc that may chemically or physically damage the photo over time.

How important is this picture?

Determining its value to yourself, your family or to a larger community will help you decide how much time, effort and expense to invest in its care.

The answers to these questions will help you determine:

  • whether you should care for it yourself or enlist an expert in photo conservation;
  • what you can do to reverse any damage (digitally or physically) and preserve the image from further deterioration;
  • what kind of storage container you should put it in and more.

Learn more about all these topics in my book Preserving Your Family Photographs. If you’d like some cost-effective expert advice about your old picture(s), send me a digital image. I can help you start answering these questions! Finally, contact me here if you’re looking for a speaker for your group on historical photography, photo preservation, family history and related topics.