How can I care for photographs?

Photographs are delicate, chemically created objects that are very sensitive to environmental conditions, in particular light, humidity, and heat. They should be stored somewhere with a stable temperature (between 10 to 18º C is ideal) and relative humidity (35 to 50% is best, but 40 to 60% is often accepted).

When displaying your photographs, try to use low artificial lighting rather than direct sunlight, which will cause the image to fade rapidly. Hold the photographs and negatives by their edges when handling them and be careful not to touch the surface. The dirt and oil from fingertips can cause long-term damage, so wear clean cotton or nitrile gloves when you can.

If you want to label the back of a photograph, use a soft 2B pencil instead of pen ink, which can seep into the image, and place the label on the edge of the photograph (away from the image). If you are numbering the enclosure, write the number before you put the photograph or negative into it. It’s always best to store photographs in Mylar sleeves or acid-free paper. Negatives should be kept in acid-free paper enclosures. It is better to number the enclosure rather than the negative or print. Negatives (acetate, nitrate, polyester) can also be kept in polyethylene sleeves – especially if using cold storage.

If you have digital copies of your photographs, make sure to have back-up copies as well. It is recommended that they are kept on an external hard drive or good quality archival CDs (CD R is the gold standard). Be aware that CDs can deteriorate over time, so store them in a cool dry place and check them regularly to see they are still working.

Learn more about how to care for photographs:


How to copy flat pieces of art and photographs

(Te Papa Tongarewa, NZ)

Care and handling of rare books, paper, manuscripts, photographs and archives

(Auckland Library)

Guides & Guidelines

CCI Notes

(Canadian Conservation Institute)

Scope of Collections

(National Library of New Zealand)

Graphics Atlas

(Image Permanence Institute, USA)

Photographic Negatives Nature and Evolution of Processes

(Image Permanence Institute, USA)

 Photo: Copyright Royal BC Museum.