Skip to content

Best Way to Preserve Old Photos

6 tips for safely storing and displaying your precious family snapshots

Experts say that the best way to preserve old photos is to store them in archival boxes, handle them sparingly and never expose them to light.

See also: How to date your old family photos.

Good advice, I suppose, but not very practical. Most families love to enjoy old photos, passing them around at gatherings, sharing stories about distant places and times. My own love of family history began while sitting with my Grandma at the kitchen table going through old pictures and hearing her recollections about the relatives who were depicted in them.  So while you should try to keep your family photos in good shape, don’t go overboard and forget their purpose — remembering those who are gone.

Here are some tips on preserving – and enjoying – family photos.

  • Get help identifying people in your family photos as soon as possible.  (When my grandmother first realized she was slowly losing her memory, she wrote names on the backs of her old photos using a pencil, which is precisely what she should have done. If you must write on the back of a newer, slick-backed photo, use an archival felt-tipped pen and write at the edges. Never use a ballpoint pen on any photo.
  • Make digital copies of photos using a scanner, which you can buy in a camera, office supply or even a big box store. Burn a copy of the photo collection on a CD or thumb drive, store it in a safety deposit box and print copies of the photos for display in albums and frames.  Keep the originals in an archival box and treat them the way experts say you should.
  • Share photos with relatives. I routinely send digitized copies to all my relatives, and I also have easily retrieved many old family photos from a cousin's albums on his Facebook page.
  • You should also photocopy any original writing on an old photo, and keep that attached to any copies you make.  This lets you preserve old handwriting — which may come in handy when trying to identify the author of an old letter or diary — and you will have evidence that the subjects in the photo were identified by someone who knew them, just in case a cousin challenges your claim that that really is Aunt Sarah in the flapper dress.
  • If you must frame and display an old photo, have it matted and mounted under archival glass by a framer with experience in such pieces, and never hang it in direct sunlight or in damp places. However, all the caution in the world can't prevent some fading over time, so it's better to frame a high-quality copy than the original.
  • If you want to keep your photos in albums, make sure to use albums with sleeves. Avoid adhesives. If you have old albums that used adhesives or photo corners, it's a good idea to remove the photos, scan them and put them in appropriate albums.

You May Also Like: How to begin building your family tree.