How to preserve old photos

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Preserving Family Pictures
Antique photographs of your relatives and ancestors are some of the most irreplaceable items in your home. Learn some smart strategies for making sure they stay safe and sound.

Feeling overwhelmed with the idea of organizing your family photography? Does the thought of losing all those family memories in a disaster leave you sick to your stomach? Feeling lost because you don’t even know where to begin when it comes to organizing and preserving all those old family photos?

This guide will help you.

Fire, floods and catastrophes are always a threat but so is procrastination, apathy and carelessness. This guide will take away the worry and mystery by giving you an actionable plan to preserve, organize and save your family’s photographic history. This guide is also meant to show you how to preserve old photos while having a little fun too.

A little time, organization and knowledge of the best practices plus a little effort can keep your photography in excellent shape for people to enjoy for years to come.

Article Contents

Preserve Old Family PicturesSpending a little time archiving your family photos is a fantastic way to connect with your own past and your loved ones’ pasts in new and profound ways. Who knows, you may need to keep a Kleenex box near.

The problem with doing important work like taking the steps to preserve old photos from your family collection is that it can feel so overwhelming. When something feels overwhelming most people have a tendency to put off doing it. Putting stuff off usually means it never gets done… until it is too late.

Because archiving and preserving your family photos IS a big job. We need to approach this in a way that makes it a more manageable task. Heck, maybe we can make it a little fun.

Set A Very Reachable Goal

Before you try and filter through thousands of printed photos and family documents it is wise to set a goal. My advice is to set a goal such as putting in place protection for 20 family images by the end of the month. That way you aren’t being devoured by the task of going through thousands of images and treating each one like it belongs in the Smithsonian, that’s a deal breaker.

If it helps, make an up-front contract with yourself to do something fun for yourself once you have done the steps outlined here to the 20 images. Be it ice cream, a night out, a massage – whatever gets you excited – make a pact with yourself that you get to do it if you accomplish the task with these 20 photos.

So which 20 images should you start with? What decides what goes through your family photo preservation steps?

Identify Which Photographs Are Most Important To You And Your Family.

Don’t get bogged down. Some photographs mean a lot more to you and your family than others.

Obviously, that beautiful studio portrait of your great grandfather looking handsome in his tux from the 1920s is a heck of a lot more important than the dozen or so out-of-focus photographs of your brother’s motorcycle from 1988. Take an hour or two and do a little editing. Don’t throw anything away but sort through and identify the photographs you know will mean the most to your family.

Photographs that are poorly composed, out of focus or just simply don’t show anything you care that much about aren’t worth putting the same level of time and effort into their preservation. By prioritizing the photographs into piles of very important, kind of important and not so important you should have a much more manageable group of photographs. Those very important images are the ones to focus your defensive efforts on immediately.

After going through my parents’ house they lived in for 35 years earlier this year, I developed a simple four question litmus test when I encountered a photograph. I found i could apply these four questions in a matter of 2 seconds. If the image met most of the four questions, I needed to include it in my preserve 20 photos goal. If it failed all four questions it was not a priority photograph to go through our preservation steps we will outline later in this article.

The Four Question Test For Photo Preservation

  1. Does the photograph appear 50 years or older? – Old photographs are scarce photographs. Scarcity means they are more emotionally valuable.
  2. How many other photographs are you aware of that show those family members at that approximate time in their lives?  – Not many other photos of these same people at this time and place means you know the photo needs to be given special attention sooner rather than later.
  3. Is the picture of a wedding, birth, or funeral?  – If yes, this pushes these photos to the front of the line for preservation steps. And yes, funeral pictures are not unheard of. Don’t scoff. Postmortem photography was a big thing at one time.
  4. Can you stand the thought of never being able to see that image again? This is just a simple, old-fashioned gut check.
Preserve Old Photos | Display Digital CopiesA great antique photograph should be displayed somewhere in your home. Make a digital copy of the original photograph via scanning and print a new copy from that digital. It probably won’t look quite as nice but storing the valued original in a safe place may be wisest. That way it can’t be damaged and you can always replace the copy you made should something happen to it.

Time To Digitize Those Old Pictures

The first line of defense for preservation and preventing a terrible loss to your most prized family photography is to use today’s technological tools and copy, copy, copy. It’s an excellent insurance policy. In the case of photography, digital backups offer safe, affordable and convenient storage. Scan the images and save the files to hard drives and burn to multiple CDs or DVDs. Store these discs at multiple locations. Even better, share the photographs with other family members by giving them the discs for their own storage. Online services will back up your images as well.

Warning: Be Careful Placing Too Much Faith In Technology

Digitizing your family’s memories is a critical step but it isn’t the magic bullet many make it out to be. Technology and innovation is progressing so fast, who knows if today’s popular digital storage methods won’t be obsolete in just a few years. The discs themselves are notorious for degrading very fast — many are unreadable just a few years after you create them. The online services (including cloud services) have no extended record of business survival, so who is to say they will even be around when you need them?

How To Create Digital Copies Of Your Family Photos

You’re going to need three things to create your digital copies: the original photos, a means of scanning them and a means of storing them in an organized manner. We already have the photos selected so let’s walk through the scanning and storage of your digital copies.

Your Scanning Options:

It’s an extra expense and takes up a little space in your home or office but a flatbed scanner is going to give you the best quality results without having to pay a service to scan these images for you. Here is a list of good quality flatbed scanners that are available for less than 0.
  • “The new Perfection V370 is an extremely accurate scanner that has the ability (albeit with some fine tuning) to deliver spot on clones of photos and other materials that you need to digitize. I threw all kinds of things on the flatbed during my testing and I came away very impressed by the V370’s ability to render even the subtlest details with sharp, color correct quality. That it can do this for a <0 price might be the most impressive feat.” from an Amazon reviewer.
  • “With a few caveats, this is a great little scanner. The best part is that it actually fits in my Targus computer case WITH my laptop. It weighs only 2-3 pds, and runs off USB power—no converter brick to haul around. Scans are sharp and fast. The automatic settings work very well for nearly all typical originals (old photos, business letters, receipts, etc.). Despite some shortcomings, the price and exceptional portability may make this series of scanners the choice for scanning books—because books which need to be scanned are often non-circulating items in libraries or archives.” from an Amazon reviewer.
  • – (Similar to the Epson V370 above but without the abilty to scan film negatives.)

Smartphones for scanning photos

At this point in time, I’m unconvinced using your smartphone’s camera as a photo scanner is going to give you the quality of print and reproduction you really want for preserving old photos. But if you want to give it a shot here are some interesting products and videos. Again, I cannot testify to their quality or performance.
  • – a foldable, portable device that works with most any smartphone to help scan documents and photos.
  • A Video Tutorial On Scanning Photos To A Smartphone – Again, I’m skeptical this is going to produce a reproduction quality photograph worth your time but you can give it a shot and tell me about the results in the comments below.
There are some choices out there for hiring the scanning duties to a third party. I have no personal experience using such services. So I can’t give you an informed opinion about their services. But I’d understand if scanning all these images one-by-one sounds like a big hassle you’d rather not mess with. If you feel that way this may be the best option for you.

– this is a service that will scan prints, video tapes and movie films for you. The prices are reasonable. Since I have no experience working wiTheth them, here are some online reviews.

– another photo scanning service.

What Software Should You Use?

If you are doing your own flatbed scanning, many of the scanners come with their own software. Use the scanner’s software rather than try to learn some other third-party software. Remember, let’s keep this task simple. Scan and save in some sort of organized manner (more on that below) that will help you find the images should you need to.

Organizing Old Family PhotosThere are two benefits of using cloud-based storage services when preserving family pictures: you have a theft, decay and disaster proof storage solution AND cloud-based services can make the images readily available across all kinds of platforms, devices and users.

Best Practices For Scanning Still Photos

Editor’s note: Since originally publishing this guide, we have received a lot of questions and a little friendly debate about how exactly to scan the photographs and what file format to save them. The main idea of this article is how to make photo preservation easier… not perfect. We have added this section to help you make informed choices in how you choose to create digital copies.

Digital Scanning: The Perfect Method vs. The Necessary Method


From The Smithsonian Institute’s


My recommendations for digitizing still photos without feeling overwhelmed

Scan everything at 600 ppi Scan everything at 600 ppi Minimum of 6,000 pixels along the long axis of the image

Estimate the length of the longest side in inches then multiply that times 600 to get the minimum pixels to scan the image.

For Example: A photo that is about 3 inches at its longest dimension should by scanned at 1800 pixels at 600 ppi. Likewise, a print that is 11 inches at its longest dimension should be scanned at 6,600 pixels.

Save as TIFF image Save as JPEG image For color images, a 24 bit RGB setting is used, yielding 8 bits per color channel. Same For black and white images, a 24 bit RGB setting is used. Note: for images from microfilm, a resolution of 300 ppi grayscale is acceptable. Same File Compression: none File Compression: Only slightly compressed

For example: In photoshop, when performing a “Save As” task, the JPEG Options dialog should open. Look at the “Image Options” and “Quality.” You will want to use “Maximum” or “12” as your compression setting.

  • TIFF images are a . Which means you save scanned image exactly as it is without your software and computer discarding any pixel data. This means your image is preserved perfectly as scanned.
  • The 6,000 pixel scans at 600 ppi eliminates the risk of scanning something too small and thus severely limiting its quality and ability to reproduce images.
  • JPEGs are a lossy compression format, which means the file format, when saved, eliminates “unnecessary” bits of information from the file to make it smaller. This means you do lose some data from the file but with the appropriate settings it should not take away from the quality of the image. JPEGs speed up your workflow and are much more efficient with storage, saving you time, hassle and money.
  • Varying the pixels to match the approximate size of the printed original adds efficiency of time and storage to the digital files without adding useless data that can not improve the overall quality of printed reproductions.
  • JPEGs are an immensely popular file format for images versus TIFF. This popularity provides greater assurance that future technologies, software and applications will have the capability of handling and reading JPEGs. Although I feel both formats will be readable on some software in the future. I don’t feel quite as confident about TIFFs.
  • TIFF images are very large and can take up five to ten times as much memory as a JPEG. This boosts your storage costs as well minutes and hours of work required to work with these file formats on most computer systems.
  • TIFF images do not have the widespread use and ability to open and readable in such a wide variety of software and applications that JPEGS enjoy. This also means JPEGs have a greater probability of compatible with imaging tools in the not-so distant future, regarldess of innovations that come along.
  • The overwhelming majority of your family’s printed images are probably going to be mostly 2×3’s, 4×6’s and 5×7’s. Scanning these images at 6,000 pixels is simply recording more visual data than you need. Plus, it’s almost impossible to have a high quality reproduction of any of these image sizes at a size that is larger than the original.

    Photographs look pretty bad when a digital scan from a 4×6 print is reproduce as an 8×10 regardless of the Smithsonian method, our methods or anyone else’s. Remember, you can not add visual information, detail and quality to a photograph that was not there to begin with. When it comes to fine visual detail, a reproduction can only be as good as the original image, not better or bigger.

NOTE: Use the Smithsonian’s 6,000 pixel standard when scanning negatives and slides.

  • JPEGS, being a lossy format, discard data. This becomes a significant risk when you work with the photographs. Opening, working with them and resaving these digital copies means your software is gradually stripping away data as it compresses the images. Soon the JPEGS will begin to show deteriorating image quality.

    NOTE: If you choose to create digital copies as JPEG images, somewhere in your archive you should store those files and protect them from being resaved multiple times. To do this, you can save JPEG files as LOCKED files on your hard drives (this prevents you from opening and saving the jpeg image over and over as you work with them, this degrades a jpeg image, plus save a backup to another external storage device (DVD,external hard drive, USB thumb drive)

What Is The Right Method For You?

If you love the whole archivist approach and don’t see this project falling to the wayside due to tight time and budget restrictions then follow the Smithsonian’s recommendations. After all, who am I to question the pros at the Smithsonian?

But if you aren’t sure, and/or worried this all might be a little too much hassle, my advice is to follow our method. Save the images as slightly compressed JPEGs. This file format compresses the image, so we lose a little data but the file format is universally read around the world and is very efficient in terms of memory usage. Remember, these are your personal family photos, not the original copy of the Bill of Rights.

Don’t let the perfect solution become the enemy of the necessary solution. The worst outcome is for you to do nothing at all to protect your family’s photographic heritage.

Where To Store Your Digital Copies?

So you have your images scanned and saved on your computer, DVD, external hard drive, etc. You’re done right? Nope. This is perhaps the most critical step of creating a digital image archive: get it saved someplace that can’t be wiped out by a disaster. That means we need to make use of the cloud.

For the purposes of this article, the cloud is any variety of subscription services (basic plans are usually free of charge) that allow you to store digital files in a kind of safe-deposit box, but instead of a physical safe deposit box, it is on a computer server someplace with a certain amount of memory space. This is the main benefit to us as family photo archivists: the remote storage protects you from all sort of calamities and theft.

What cloud-based storage services are available? Many. I will briefly cover the most popular options:

Cloud Storage Services: A Comparison

Free Storage? 15GB 15GB 10GB 2GB Paid Plans plans start at 100GB @ .99/per month plans start at 100GB @ .99/per month plans start at 100GB @ /per month 1TB @ .99/per month Can You Earn Extra Free Storage? No Yes No Yes

I personally use Google Drive for my archiving. I will sometimes use Dropbox for my day-to-day photography needs. As a subscriber to Google’s Fiber services in Kansas City I am given 1 terabyte of storage at no extra charge so that makes their service a no-brainer. Those services may not be available or the the right fit for you.

Archiving Family Pictures

Once you have the images scanned and saved in your cloud service of choice. Theres another additional step which will earn you the eternal gratitude of generations of family members and yourself down the road: use metadata to label and organize the images.

While you may know who is who and when certain photographs were made, other family members won’t. Incorporating metadata is a means of adding descriptive data to a digital image file. You can write descriptive captions, dates, keyword, names or any notes you like using software that supports metadata. Most professional image editors support this feature. This includes popular software like Photoshop Elements, Photoshop and Lightroom. Even free photo library software like allow you to add such helpful notes to your images. You can then search for the images after entering the metadata to find.

Helpful things to include in metadata are quite obviously who is in the image. But try to use complete names, after all he wasn’t Uncle Earl to everyone. Also, be careful with nicknames. If everyone called your brother Scooter when his birth name was Scott, go ahead and include both names in the metadata info. Provide your best guess as to when the image was taken. Locations and such are always helpful too.

Without adding metadata you’ve taken that mess of shoebox photos and turned them into a mess of photos in a digital shoebox on your devices and hard drives and cloud services. .

Here is a helpful list of from the International Press Telecommunications Council.

Preserve Old Photos: How to Keep The Originals Safe

Whew! The digital process is underway, you have them scanned, saved, backed up on the cloud with metadata that makes them easy to find and search for going forward. But remember, digital copies are crucial but it isn’t the end al be all, the paper and film originals deserve an enormous amount of love and care.

Often The Actual Prints Themselves Are A Thing Of Beauty Too And Are Worth Preserving.

The lost papers, formats, techniques, printing styles and surfaces that are so prevalent in older photographic prints and materials are worth preserving too. These aspects of the photographs add to the beauty and enjoyment of the images. Scanning such images successfully preserves the image but does little to preserve the beauty, texture, warmth and feeling of the original print. Scanning frequently obscures those precious details or completely loses them forever with unintended color shifts and strange contrasts that can take away from the originals’ beauty.

So How Do We Keep The Original Prints and Negatives Safe?

There are three principal causes of damage and deterioration to photographic materials: poor environmental storage conditions, poor storage enclosures/shelving conditions and rough or inappropriate handling that results in unnecessary wear and tear.

The Storage Environment: Keep It Cool, Keep It Dry

Store your photographs in the coolest, driest part of your house. This means no basements and no attics. There’s too much moisture in a basement and way too much heat in an attic. Store your photographic materials in an area that stays fairly consistent year around. Only use a basement if it can be .

Good Storage Enclosures:

An excellent, affordable storage option is an enameled steel storage cabinet. These sturdy cabinets resist crushing should there be a traumatic event in the house such as a fire, earthquake or a destructive burglary.

An even better option for the most important photographs and other critical family documents is a fire-proof safe. Be careful, only invest in a safe that is rated by Underwriter Laboratories, an independent non-profit product safety and testing organization. It is best to only invest in safes that are rated at UL125. This means that the safe has been tested by UL to allow for just 125 degrees farenheit internal temperature during a one hour or longer fire.

Why are humid environments a threat to your photographic prints, negatives and transparencies? Mold thrives with moisture. Mold spores are everywhere and unavoidable and mold’s favorite food source is stuff made of dead tress… you guessed it, paper. The very same material so many of our oldest most prized images are printed on.

A second floor room closet is a safe bet to store your family’s prized photography. This is a fairly consistent climate with fairly dry air. It’s dark too.


Proper Handling: Make It Easy

Just like with your digital collection, being the caretaker of a family’s photographic history is a bit of a responsibility that requires some effort to keep things organized and safe. You don’t want it to be a chore to do find photographs.

Of course be gentle handling the images, you don’t need to have some National Archives white-glove system to do all this but remember you are handling your family history here. Keep snacks and drinks free from your work area.

Store the items at chest level or higher. It’s a lot more convenient to not be stooping constantly to sort through and find specific photographs. When something feels like a chore is when we start cutting corners and exposing our photographs to disorder, apathy and potential damage. More precious photographs are lost by apathy, procrastination and carelessness than any fire, flood or catastrophe ever destroyed.

There are a variety of ways to organize photos but my recommendation is choose a method or system that works for you, make it simple but organized and stick to it only making small adjustments as you go.

I like to group photographs by decades. I have albums groupings for the 1990’s, 80’s, 70’s, 60’s, etc. You can do it by family members or by the kind of photographic media. Whatever you choose to do, getting this part in place makes photo preservation an easy system and less likely to fall into neglect and disrepair.

What To Store The Prints And Negatives In?

The materials that are in direct contact with the image surfaces of your photographic originals can do a lot of damage so it pays to choose wisely here.

Albums are a terrific means of storing images. The albums keep the images organized, safely stored and offer great protection when being handled. They are also an enjoyable way to see and view the photos.

Avoid self-stick albums, their adhesives stain photographs. That same adhesive dries up after several years. Paper or plastic pages? Again, .

Boxes are another handy storage method although don’t over stuff the boxes or under fill them. Overfilling risks damage to the photos because the images are more likely to fly out when the box is opened or moved. Under filling the boxes may allow the prints to curl and slump in ways that may damage the emulsion over time. They will also have a greater chance of scratching as they rub and shift against one another.

If you are going to use plastic such as sleeves or page protectors, use uncoated pure polyethylene, polyester or polypropylene plastics. . Over time images touching such plastics are likely to transfer to the plastic from its paper. Plastic such as PVC usually has that characteristic new car smell. Avoid it.

If you are using paper enclosures such as envelopes then use a high-quality, non-acidic, lignin-free paper made from cotton or highly purified wood pulp. Look to make sure the materials have passed the (IPI).

Here are a few online retailers that supply archival storage solutions for photography that meet these industry standards:

  • : I remember using a ton of their slide and negative storage sleeves back in my newspaper photographer days.
How To Preserve Old Photos | Archiving Your Family PicturesDepending on the quality of paper and processing. Color prints can be particularly vulnerable to long term damage if left out where decades of light can deteriorate the colors. Again, make digital copies and display those, storing the original in a safe place.

It is one of the most heartbreaking moments in life to lose your family’s photographic history due to some calamity such as a flood, fire or other catastrophe. Far more common – but just as tragic – is to lose these images due to procrastination, neglect and carelessness. Making digital copies is critical but your most valued images deserve even more safe keeping than a delicate disc or computer hard drive can offer. Following these common sense steps and you will enjoy watching amazed faces as you show these images to several generations of your family for decades to come!

Other Helpful Links:

[box type=”info”] This post is part of our “100 Questions in a 100 Days” blog post series meant to answer some of the most common questions we receive from you, our clients. We will be answering a single question each day over the course of the next 100 days. Do you have any questions about photography you would like to have answered? Ask us in the comments section below.[/box]

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