10 Things You Should Never Do With an Old Photo + What to Do Instead

Published by Genealogy-Research on

By Patricia Hartley

For genealogists, the older a family photo, the better. Who doesn’t love scouring old photographs for clues to an ancestor’s lifestyle? Or maybe you just enjoy looking for similarities in the facial features of you and your great-great grandmother. Whatever the reason, you want to be sure you keep your collection in the best possible condition for future generations to enjoy.

With that in mind, we’ve gathered our ten best tips of what not to do with your old photographs so they survive to be treasured by your family’s next designated historian.

1. Decline Your Invitation to the Cropping Party

Remember a few decades ago when scrapbooking was really popular, and all of your friends held “cropping parties?” Participants would use all sorts of nifty tools to cut their family photos into various shapes and sizes, “cropping” out backgrounds or extraneous people to focus on one subject. 

While this practice resulted in some stunning scrapbook pages, cropping original photos cuts away the context of the image. You may lose details that help you date the image or even other individuals you thought weren’t important at the time, but turn out to be great-aunts and uncles.

Photos taken by instant cameras, particularly Polaroids, could be destroyed if cut. Polaroid images seal within their several layers chemicals that create the instant photo magic. When you cut into those layers, you break the seal and speed up deterioration of the photo.

Do This Instead

Rather than permanently alter an original, make a copy (or several copies) of your old family photos on high-quality photo paper so you can cut or crop with abandon. If you’re putting your original photos into a scrapbook, choose archival materials and adhesive photo corners to secure the entire image to the page.

2. Don’t Give Photos Their Day in the Sun

Not many things in life are made to withstand extended exposure to sunlight (thus, the invention of SPF 100 sunscreen). Your family photos are especially susceptible to sun damage, specifically from the ultraviolet (UV) radiation within the sun’s rays.

UV radiation from sunlight or fluorescent bulbs can fade, discolor, or even destroy not only photos, but also papers, books, fabrics, and collectibles by breaking down the chemical bonds in the dyes used in these items. The longer they are exposed, the worse the damage.

Do This Instead

 If you insist on displaying an original photo instead of a quality copy in your sunny living room rather than in a room that doesn’t receive direct sunlight, replace the glass in your frames with UV-filtering acrylic sheets. These sheets can reduce harmful UV rays by up to 98%.

3. Know When to Hold ‘em, and When NOT to Fold ‘em

One of the reasons there are so many photo restoration companies in existence today is because so many old photos have been badly damaged from folding, rolling, or bending. Photographs are quite fragile — even the 19th century images like carte-de-vistes or cabinet cards, which were mounted on layered cardboard. 

Folding or bending a vintage photograph creates creases, cracks, tears, or breaks that distort the image or leave the photo in pieces. A rolled-up photo will retain its curved position long after it’s unrolled, also. While there are remedies to flatten and digitally repair these damages, it’s best to avoid these situations altogether. 

Do This Instead

Always store your photos in containers or albums that are large enough for the photos to lie flat without folding or bending. If you must mail an original photo, place it between two sheets of sturdy cardboard and clearly label the envelope with “Do Not Bend” instructions.

4. To Label, or Not to Label

It’s every genealogist’s dream to know all the details about old family photos: whose faces are captured and why, when and where the photo was taken, and what is the significance of the other elements of the photo, like clothing, automobiles, houses, or pets. We wish every photo we inherit came with at least a paragraph of descriptive text. Alas, this rarely happens.

To keep future generations from suffering the same fate, some of us have tried to record information conveniently on the backs of our old photos — and instantly regretted our decision. I personally cringe when I see photos from my childhood inscribed on the back in my blocky, heavy handwriting … in ball-point ink. 

Ball-point pens are one of the worst ways to label photographs. The pressure you apply when writing leaves impression marks on the front of photos, and the ink itself can easily smear or transfer to other images. Likewise, non-archival markers and felt-tip or paint pens can also bleed through. Plus, permanent inks can’t be erased, so if you’ve mislabeled an image, it’s impossible to erase.

Temporary labels like “sticky notes” may seem like a good solution, but any adhesive can leave residue or discoloration on a delicate surface. Even the Smithsonian has a “no-Post-It-note” policy!

Do This Instead

If you must write directly on the back of a vintage photo, use an archival pen that won’t bleed or feature, or a soft-lead pencil, and use a light touch, writing near the edges of the photo rather than in the middle. Your best bet is to envelope the photo in an archival sleeve, then label the sleeve, not the photo, with an archival pen or a label.

5. Don’t Make a Photo Even More UnaPEELing

Yes, the title to this section is somewhat of a stretch, but if you’ve ever come across an old magnetic photo album or a glass-front frame with old family photos firmly stuck inside, you know what I mean. While your first instinct may be to impatiently rip out or slowly peel off the photograph from the adhesive album page or glass pane, you can actually cause even more damage — the irreparable kind — by doing so. 

It’s not magnets that cause photos to stick to the pages of magnetic album pages. Rather, it’s the acidic chemicals in the cardboard page that grip the photo stuck to it. These glue-like chemicals combined with the clear plastic overlay on the album page eventually create a seemingly indestructible bond that also turns the images contained within its grasp a sickly 1970s yellow.

Photos usually stick to glass because of humidity. When moisture comes between a photo and the glass of a picture frame, the photo’s emulsion coating reacts with the water and becomes sticky. Eventually it becomes one with the glass.

Do This Instead

There are several remedies on the internet for getting pictures unstuck, but you should be wary of anything involving microwaves or hair dryers. Instead, try carefully and slowly sawing a piece of dental floss back and forth between a photo and an album page. Sadly, there’s no easy DIY way to separate a photo from glass. Leave that task to a professional photo restoration firm, or have the image scanned. Find out about scanning and enhancing your photos here. 

6. What’s Mine is Yours … Except for My Family Photos

Genealogists love to share. It’s a highly collaborative hobby. That’s why most of us wouldn’t hesitate to provide others with information, documents, and even photos we’ve collected during our research. Sharing is a wonderful thing. But sharing your original vintage family photos is not.

Think twice before you tuck your priceless original images into a mailing envelope or hand them over to a cousin who promises to scan them and return them as soon as possible. The risk of losing these photographs forever greatly outweighs the reward.

Do This Instead

Rather than part with your old family photos, offer to scan them yourself and share digital images or high-quality reprints instead.

7. It’s Getting Hot in Here, So Move Those Old Photos

We’ve already discussed the harm sunlight can do to your vintage photos. Similarly, excessive heat and water or humidity can not only damage, but completely destroy them. 

High temperatures can literally melt your photos, separating the emulsion which creates the image from its paper backing. When conditions turn cold, the temperature change can cause cracks or make photos so brittle they break when touched. Humidity can make photos stick together or allow mold or mildew to grow. For all of these reasons, uninsulated basements, attics, garages, and storage facilities are the worst places to keep your precious family photos.

Do This Instead

The National Archives recommends storing photos at room temperature (below 75 degrees Fahrenheit) and keeping relative humidity between 15% and 65%. They should also be kept away from sources of leaks or floods such as pipes and windows.  

8. Don’t Eat My Great-Aunt!

Another storage no-no has nothing to do with weather. However, the two go hand-in-hand, because in the right (or, more accurately, wrong) conditions, your old family photos become a tasty meal for a variety of insects.

Book lice, which are so tiny you can barely see them, love to eat any kind of paper, including photos, in humid conditions. Silverfish also thrive in humidity and, like book lice, will even wheedle their way into frames to get to your photos. Cockroaches aren’t as picky; they’ll eat anything, including photos or other types of paper products, in any condition. They’ll also chew through plastic.

Do This Instead

Control the humidity within your home and where you store your photos by keeping windows closed and using dehumidifiers when necessary, and take advantage of pest control services when you see any evidence of creepy-crawlers. To find out more about storing old photos and other memorabilia properly, look here.

9. Don’t Get Too Attached

A cute decor fad involves clipping a line of snapshots to a string or cord and draping it adorably across the wall like a pennant. Unfortunately, attaching photos to anything, or bundling photos together, can cause irreparable damage. Paperclips and binder clips rust and create permanent indentations. Glues, tapes, and other adhesives can bind to photos, and leave icky residue behind. And rubber bands can melt, destroying your vintage images.

Do This Instead

Always keep images separated from one another using archival sleeves. If you want to display your photos in this way (especially on a cute little clothesline), use a scanned copy rather than your originals. To keep several photos grouped together, use an archival-quality envelope or photo box.

10. Keep Your Hands to Yourself

You’re probably already extra-careful when you handle your family’s vintage photos, being acutely aware of their fragility. However, did you know the natural oils from your hands or residue from soaps, lotions, or foods can do just as much damage as ripping or cracking an old photograph? You may not see them immediately, but fingerprints left on images can become visible over time.

Do This Instead

Your best bet when handling your vintage family photos is to wear lightweight cotton gloves as the archivists do. If this isn’t an option, though, limit your contact with your photos to the outer edges, and be sure you’ve thoroughly washed your hands first.

If there’s one theme running through each of these “don’t’s” it’s to keep your original old photos in safe storage and use quality scanned copies for projects, sharing, and display. We’ve discovered a number of excellent tools (even an amazing free one) that are easy to use and produce great results. Remember, your original vintage family photographs are decades or centuries old and irreplaceable, so you’ll want to do everything you can to ensure they’re around for your own descendants years from now.

Discover Even More About Old Photos Here

For nearly 30 years Patricia Hartley has researched and written about ancestry. She has a B.S. in Professional Writing and English and an M.A. in English from the University of North Alabama and a M.A. in Public Relations/Mass Communications from Kent State University. 


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