What To Do With All Those Old Photos

Advice from a professional photographer

Keep your historical photos safe

Have you ever opened an album of old family photographs only to find them faded and obscured?  It’s disheartening to think that the effort put into making an album was wasted.  This kind of thing happens when photos aren’t stored properly.

We consulted with Margaretta K. Mitchell, professional photographer of 30 years, to give us the scoop about best practices for photo storage and archiving.

What about that big cardboard box, baggie or drawer full of photos waiting to be put in albums? 

According to Margaretta, one should organize “your photos in acid-free boxes.  Your pictures will be protected from the damage of light and heat and dust and dirt.  It would be better to leave them loose in the box than to put them inside any old plastic or paper envelopes.”

What part of the house would be best to store my photos?

“Store the boxes in a place that is clean and cool and has a stable temperature. In the bay Area we live in a climate that works well for such storage, but I would avoid any ‘raw’ attic or basement for storage of photographic materials because the chemicals will be affected by extreme temperature changes.”

What about negatives and slides?

“Ideally you should store your negatives separately from the prints. This can be done by cross -indexing but if that is too much, simply put them in separate paper enclosures and label properly.  The same thing can be said for your old slides. [They can be kept in] archival plastic pages in three ring binders that are designed to keep out the dust (clam shell boxes).”

What are some of the no-no’s of photo organizing?  Margaretta suggests:

  • Refrain from using elastic bands, glue, tape and paper clips to group your photos.
  • Write on them with a soft lead pencil not pens
  • Use only acid free paper enclosures so you can write on them with pencil
  • Use cotton gloves to protect the pictures form the oil on your hands
  • Keep your photos away from food
  • Avoid no-stick albums

How does framing affect photos?

“Wall frames have mat board that is archival, if the frame shop is reliable, and you can have whatever you want around and behind the picture. If the mat board isn’t archival, you can replace them, of course, but that is a pain. If the pictures are small (4 x 6 – 5 x 7) I would suggest that you enjoy them as they are and print several so there is a loose one in the box that will not be in the light.”

What kind of albums are best?

“There are all sorts of acid free albums are available now.”

 Should I scan all my old photos?

“Only if you want to incorporate them in your digital world, like a slide show or digitally printed book. A few pictures from the past give weight to your family album.”

All this makes the photo organizing process a little more work.  This is a project that requires dedicated space, special supplies and time allocated.  But in the end, you’ll have protected those memories for your family.

Margaretta K. Mitchell takes beautiful family photographs and helps people create family archives and helps people create family archives and digitize photos.  You can find her at  http://www.MargarettaMitchell.com.


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Filed under Closets, General Organizing, Memorabilia, Storage

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