Maintaining Memories: How to Save Old Photographs

by Jennifer Holder on 31 July 2012 7 comments

At the beginning of this year, my grandfather passed away. While going through his things, my family discovered photographs — amazing photographs from my grandparents' younger years, specifically the time my grandfather spent in the Korean War.

There is some ripping and fading, but overall, they’re in surprisingly good shape. I mean, after all, my grandfather left them in an old department store box on the top shelf of his closet for close to 40 years. They should be all but decrepit.

And now that we’ve pulled them down, my biggest fear is that something might happen to them. So, I volunteered to make sure all of their special memories stay intact. In a way, this article was therapeutic for me. I had no idea just how much my grandfather loved my grandmother (she passed away in 1993 from a brain tumor — I was too young to really remember) until we discovered the photographic evidence of their love. And now I’m on a mission so that we never forget. (See also: 7 Easy Photoshop Fixes for Your Family Photos)

Preserving Paper Photographs

To start off my mission, I consulted the professionals. The first place I turned was the Library of Congress (LOC). After all, they’re in the business of preserving paper. From there, a quick Google search lead me to the Minnesota Historical Society (PDF) and the American Museum of Photography (AMOP). As they all had similar advice, I’m going to detail the highlights below.

Let’s start with environmental conditions. According to the LOC, the photos should be stored at 68°F and 30-40% relative humidity. Since we don’t all have wine fridges, let’s say that if you keep the photos in a cooler place in your house, like a closet in the dark, you should be good. Just make sure that your closet won’t spring a leak. The AMOP says to steer clear of basements, attics, and garages, as they are hard to keep temperature-regulated, and the humidity will make mold grow.

As for storage, pick archival-quality boxes (prices start at $14.99 at the Container Store). Make sure the paper is acid-free and not cardboard. Keep the negatives separate from the printed photographs. If you want to display your photos, stick with a copy and keep the originals in the appropriate conditions. The light can fade the color dye on photographs.

In the process of handling your photographs, use clean cotton gloves to keep fingerprints and perspiration off. This is especially important for negatives.

Digitizing the Photographs

There are two main ways to go about this: One, you can pay a company to digitize (and therefore scan and retouch) all of the photos, or two, you can do it yourself. Pretty simple right?

It gets a little more complicated than that. Having a company do it seems practical: You mail them your pictures, they upload them to their website where you can edit and print them, and they’ll mail back the pictures with DVDs. There are many websites dedicated to this very thing, such as iMemories, starting at $19.99.

But of course, my fear is that the images will get lost in the mail, lost at the company, or ruined somehow. There might be no need to fear — after all, iMemories was just included in Entrepreneur Magazine’s list of 100 Brilliant Ideas. Also, even after your memories are returned, you can pay $4.99/month for unlimited storage, so you never lose anything. You can also try out Memory Hub, which offers similar prices.

The other option is more time consuming, but actually might be more rewarding, if you’re willing to put in the effort.

If you go this route, the first step is buying the scanner. You can buy a high quality scanner for prices starting at $99. After scouring a few review sites, the best ones seem to be the Canon CanoScan, Epson Perfection, and HP Scanjet. Each scanner is different in terms of quality, so shop around to get exactly what you need. Also pay attention to the photo editing functions included with the scanner, such as dust and scratch removal — they can be an added bonus.

Now it’s time to scan. First, ensure the photo is free from dust before scanning — and more importantly, that the scanner is. Clean the scanner off with a drive cloth. Next, make sure your scanner is set for 300 DPI and save the photo as a TIFF for editing purposes. For more advice, PC World has an excellent article on photo scanning, detailing every step.

The last step is editing. If you don’t want to spend any money, Windows Live Gallery is good editing software for PCs, and iPhoto is good for Macs. The best option is Adobe Photoshop, but if you don’t know how to use it, it would be a waste of money. No matter what, you should also peruse the internet for some tips and tricks on how to digitally restore the photographs. PC World offers some good ones, and HP’s website is surprisingly useful (even if you decide to go with an Epson or Canon scanner).

From there, you can burn the pictures to DVDs or use a USB drive to spread the love to family and friends.

Sharing the Photographs

Despite this being 2012, when I say “share” I actually don’t mean Facebook, Flickr, and Picasa. I mean sharing the photographs in the printed form. Ironically, the internet can help with this.

From Shutterfly to Snapfish to Tiny Prints, there are plenty of options for pretty much the same outcome. Each site offers the chance to play around with backgrounds, placement, captions, and more. The price is similar as well, but make sure to check out the special deals before purchasing.

Now, if you choose to use an old fashioned photo album, don’t forget that it must be acid-free and magnet-free. Also, the pages should be made of polypropylene plastic (plastic number 5) and not PVC (the pages with the strong plastic odor). Make sure your photo albums are stored in the same place as the archival boxes, but still accessible for visitors.

And finally, don’t forget scrapbooking (something my mother still particularly enjoys) — it’s probably the best way to take a trip down memory lane while simultaneously keeping the lane in one piece.

How do you save your old family photos?

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Guest's picture

I use Windows Live Gallery if I am only doing basic editing. It keeps the photo as original as possible. Photoshop editing would be better but most of the time, the photo does not look as original as it is anymore after the editing job.

Guest's picture

Jennifer,
Great ideas to preserve those old photos. Whenever I write a life story for clients, I always include some pictures - the older, the better. It can be a huge challenge sometimes to get good quality scans, but the bigger challenge is to document the details: who, what, when, where & why.

While your oldest relatives are still alive and coherent, take some time to go through the photos with them and document what they recall. If you can use an audio or digital recorder, that's icing on the cake. For other ideas on saving family memories, please check out the Association of Personal Historians at www.personalhistorians.org and the newsletter on my website at www.bethlamie.com.

Guest's picture

Thank you for this post, and it was quite informative! As a personal historian, I am personally a big advocate of preserving photos in several ways - digitally on a hard drive and the original paper photos in acid free photo boxes. I personally reprint the digital photos in an album and I am currently putting together all of my photos to be saved on the cloud.

I wanted to comment that if a person still wants assistance with preserving the paper photos as well as digitizing, there is local help available. The Association of Personal Photo Organizers (www.appo.org) can help you find a local photo organizer, so that if you want to personally hand-off the photos and have a face-to-face confidence in the professional it can happen. Also, a person can check out the Association of Personal Historians (www.personalhistorians.org). Some personal historians provide archival services, and if the person is interested in capturing the stories behind the photos, they can assist with that as well in both printed and video format.

Good luck with your project -- what a wonderful discovery!

Guest's picture

What a treasure you found! You have included much valuable information in your post. I would just add a step at the time of scanning. When dealing with a large collection, it is important to organize and label the images. I use the same techniques whether I'm doing a book for a personal history client or scanning my own family photos:

A numbering system can be whatever you want it to be. If you are doing hundreds of photos, begin with #001, so the images stay in order in your computer. For more detailed organizing, you can break them down into subsets such as decades and expand the number, such as 40-001 for photos from the 1940s. The subsets can also refer to folders on your computer. Use a soft-lead #2 pencil to lightly enter a number on the back of each photo. That number will also be your file name for the scanned image. You can also expand the file name to include a few keywords such as a name or place.

When I'm working on a big project, I then use Photoshop to make contact prints of all the images in each folder. This provides a handy reference when planning a scrapbook or other type of book, or just for perusing your photos.

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Bryan

I keep in a box my old photos from when I was young, as well as my parents' photographs from when they were young. I have scanned most of them since I have shared them to family and friends in my Facebook account so I have copies of them in my computer, too. As for recent pictures, they're mostly stored in my computer and CDs.

Guest's picture

I love this article. It really hits home for me as I also have some really old photos of my family and they are starting to fade (I want to preserve them for future generations). I will pick up a box like you described from the container store. That is an excellent first step. Thanks

Guest's picture
Guest

Another great company is: https://www.muchbetterpictures.com/pages/services/restauracion

They will restore and recover photos, not just to fix them but also to ensure they don't deteriorate or get lost.