How to Care for Professional Photographs
The ultimate investment in the longevity of your families’ memories isn’t digital media. While some people think it is the way to go, let’s take a minute and look at the history of the past 15 years. How many of you still have family memories on VHS cassettes? Have they been converted yet? Digital Media started off with the floppy disk, then the small 3″ disk, then onto CD’s, DVD’s and now flash drives, portable hard drives and thumb drives. The truth is: digital media is really meant to be temporary storage. Hard drives fail, burned CDs and DVDs become inoperable, types of storage media fade into antiquity before data can be transferred, offsite storage companies go bankrupt and/or charge for every upload and download, SD (or compact flash or micro SD or Memory Sticks) have, can and will fail at eventually. The only REAL way to achieve longevity of your images is via printed photographs. When you think about it, this is really why you commissioned portraits of your family in the first place..
In using Fine Art Printers today, professional photos labs and manufacturers like Canon, Epson, & HP (to name the top 3) say that by using a Fine Art Printer (the machine & someone trained in fine art printing) with Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) inks and OEM papers, photographs printed this way should last from between 150-200 years. Of course we can automatically conclude that the price of this equipment, inks and papers aren’t going to be cheap-and the reason for that is longevity. Investing in professionally printed photographs in just that, an investment; and this investment will be passed onto your generations so your Grandchildren and Great Grandchildren will be able to see you, and your family as you were when you purchased these photographs. That’s why the commissioning and printing of professional portraits are more expensive. Professionals, photograph and print with your investment in mind.
So you have ordered professionally printed prints from your photographer, and you will be framing them yourself. Or, if you are like me, you might have recently inherited all the photographs from loved ones that have recently passed, (or several boxfuls) of snap shots, personal images that tell the story of your family’s life. What steps should you take to preserve the investment of memories? What can you do so they precious heirlooms can be passed down to future generations? Here are some guidelines to help you with this task:
What you should do:
Photographs should be protected from extended exposure to intense light sources, particularly direct sunlight.
- Sunlight causes damage to the chemical composition of photographs, resulting in color shifts and fading. Sunlight (and its’ accompanying heat)will cause warping of your artwork. If you choose to display a wall portrait in an area that is brightly lit by sunlight, you should invest in museum-quality glass with UV protection. This type of glass minimizes the potential for fading and color shifting. This will help to protect it, but can’t thoroughly protect the photograph from light damage. Keep in mind the amount of light in the room your investment will be hanging and keep it out of direct light.
- If you choose to frame your photographs under glass, always use either a mat or spacers so that the photograph does not come into direct contact with the glass. If a print is in contact with glass, over time moisture will cause the print to become permanently stuck to the glass. A reputable professional framer will do this for you however if you buy an off the rack frame try to have a mat with it to avoid the image touching the glass surface.
- Most damage to photographs results from poor handling. When handling your prints, be sure your hands are clean and dry. Always handle photographs by their edges. Never touch the image surface because the oil in your skin can damage the print. Better yet, use white acid free gloves to handle your images. These are very inexpensive and can be picked up at your favorite art stores like Michaels or Aaron Brothers.
- Always use albums with acid-free paper or use photo sleeves made of polyester, tri-acetate or polyethylene. Look for albums that have a neutral acidity, are labeled “acid free” or designate an acidity level of 6.0 or higher.
- When identifying your photographs, try an acid free adhesive label. Please do not directly label your photographs with a pen; the ink will bleed through onto the image. Once your photograph is framed, consider printing on a label to be placed on the back of the frame that includes the following: Name of subject, date and place taken. This way as your precious family heirlooms are passed down your generations, they will also know who they are looking at.
- There are a few companies out there now making acid free adhesive labels, specifically for scrap booking and photo labeling.
- Don’t use albums that are not designated “acid and lignin free”. Most photo albums are actually harmful to your photos and while they may keep them organized they will be prone to fading and yellowing due to the acidity of the paper and/or adhesive unless the album was manufactured for archival use. Lignin is in all paper products but archival papers have lignin removed. Lignin is an important compound that happens to be the second most common bio-compound on earth. BUT that makes it bad for archiving. When lignin breaks down it turns paper brown. If you have ever seen an old newspaper, turned brown by age – that’s the lignin breaking down.
- Never use self-adhesive or magnetic albums. Conservators have tested the “magnetic” quality of these albums and have found that the adhesive contains very high levels of acid. The acid from the adhesive was literally eating away at the backside of the photos tested. Even worse, the plastic cover that covered the magnetic page to keep these photos “safe” was actually sealing in the acidic fumes causing deterioration on the front as well as the back. I have albums like this that have turned my photographs red-wish I would have known!
- Never use adhesive tape, glue, metal paper clips, thumb tacks, or rubber bands on photographs-all will cause damage.
- Never use pens that are not labeled acid free. Even pens that are labeled “acid-free” can contain minute amounts of harmful acids and this will take a toll on your photos that labeled with that ink.
- Do not include mementos such as postcards, ticket stubs, etc with your photographs. Those items are often manufactured/printed with acid containing ink which can cause photos to fade away.
These are just a few important guidelines for caring for your portraits. Much of this information comes from discussions with my Fine Art Printers, the professional photo labs I use, Instructors from Fine Art Printing courses I have taken and of course, research on the web. I don’t mind sharing, but should you copy this, please remember to use my name as author.