A Complete Guide To Safely Handling And Storing Old Photos

How To Handle Old Photographs Without Damaging Them

A photo of the past is so much more than just a piece of paper – it’s a tangible reminder of the people, places, and events that have shaped us into the people we are today. This is why it’s so important to know how to handle and store old photographs without damaging them.

In this blog, we discuss the best methods and materials for handling old photographs, especially for those looking to sort, store, and even restore old photos in Photoshop.

Preparing To Handle Old Photos

Old photos are fragile, light-sensitive, and vulnerable to damage from oils, acids, and even humidity. If possible, avoid handling old photographs as much as you can.

With that being said, if you must go through old photos, keep the following advice in mind:

Arrange A Clean Workspace

Before working on old photos, make sure you have a clean and clear workspace. Use a dry, dust-free table to work on, and keep food and drinks off of it at all times. Remember that exposing photos to too much light can cause them to fade too, so try not to handle photos in bright, sunny rooms.

Try not to smoke when handling old photos – the residue can discolor your images. Even worse, one wrong move and you could end up burning your only copy!

Wear Cotton Gloves

Your fingerprints – a combination of oil, sweat, and dirt — can leave permanent stains on old photos. Always wash your hands before touching photos to avoid this. If you can get your hands on some, it’s best to wear non-scratching cotton, microfiber, or nitrile gloves when handling photos.

Remove Paper Clips, Rubber Bands, Etc.

Sometimes, people use paper clips, rubber bands, or other types of fasteners to bunch photos together in one place. While these can help keep photos organized temporarily, leaving them on too long can leave permanent scratches, holes, and marks. Rubber bands also contain sulfur, which can affect image colors.

Make Digital Copies

Whether or not you’re planning to restore old photos in Photoshop, it’s always a good idea to make digital copies. Remember, photos are fragile – they fade when exposed to too much sunlight and are vulnerable to things like water damage and mold.

By making a digital copy, you can keep your old photo in a box or album to preserve its integrity while still having a printed copy to display in your home or share among friends and family. And with a digital copy, you can attempt to restore your old photo with Photoshop and have it looking good as new again. -You can later turn the digital copies into one beautiful photo book where you can merge images together and edit them.

To make a digital copy, all you need is a high-quality camera or a scanner. Make sure to save backup copies in a flash drive, hard drive, or cloud storage.

Label Your Photos – But Never With A Pen

According to the New York Times, labeling photos with “the who, what, where, when, and why, also known as metadata, gives it historical context”. After all, the people and places in your old photos may be familiar to you, but they might not be so obvious to your children or grandchildren.

When labeling photos, it’s best to write descriptions on a separate index card, using your preferred sorting/numbering system. If you’d rather write on the back of your photos, avoid using a pen – the pressure from the tip and/or the ink can destroy the image. Instead, use a graphite pencil and write around the edges to avoid making any marks on the center.

Properly Storing Old Photos

We’ve said it already but it can’t be stressed enough – environmental factors such as light, temperature, water, mold, and humidity all affect a photo’s lifespan. Aside from these, exposure to insects and even certain chemicals can be detrimental to a photograph.

Here are some key storage tips from the National Archives that’ll help keep old photos intact for longer:

  • Make sure old photos are stored in a cool, dark, and relatively dry place. “Cooler temperatures slow the rate of chemical decay and reduce insect activity”, says the National Archives. The recommended room temperature is 75 degrees Fahrenheit or lower.
  • The relative humidity level should be at 65 percent to prevent the growth of mold.
  • Damp basements, attics, garages, and laundry rooms are some of the worst places to store your photos – they can be too humid, wet, or hot.
  • Don’t leave your photos on the floor, as this can put them at risk of getting wet. Keep photos away from pipes, windows, and roofs for this reason as well.
  • Make sure photos are stored away from food and water so as not to attract insects and rodents.
  • Don’t store photos near chemicals like fresh paint, cardboard, plywood, cleaning supplies, and sulfur dioxide.

Storing Old Photos In Albums

If you’re using peel-and-stick albums, stop what you’re doing. Certain types of plastic and adhesives contain acids and lignins – a compound found in wood that causes paper to turn yellow and brown. When lignin breaks down, it releases acids that can cause photos to deteriorate.


  • Look for photo albums with acid-free sleeves, typically made with polyester or polypropylene.
  • Avoid using adhesives.
  • If possible, get an album that uses photo corners.
  • For the cover, make sure it isn’t made of textiles that attract moths and cloth-eating insects.

When placing photos into albums, ensure that they’re flat and fit into the sleeves properly to avoid folding and creasing when the book is shut. Finally, store photo albums in boxes for an added layer of protection. For the best type of box for storing old photos, consider the next tip.

Storing Old Photos In Boxes

A shoebox may seem the ideal place to keep photos – if you want to attract roaches, that is. Dyes, glues, and recycled paper are also not very friendly to old photos.

According to the New York Times, you’ll want to avoid plastic boxes, as it isn’t clear yet how much plastic can affect photo quality. Instead, look for photo-safe, acid-free, lignin-free, and PVC-free boxes like Archival Method’s Short Top Boxes.

Keeping Photos In Picture Frames

You may think that keeping an old photo in a frame means it’s safe from the elements, but unfortunately this isn’t true. Overexposure to sunlight will result in fading, while lignin in backboards can result in yellowing and brittleness. Plus, an image can stick to the glass if it’s in its frame for too long.

So, what can you do if you want to display a precious memory without destroying your photo? The simple solution is to scan the original and store it away for safekeeping, then print out a copy. And if for some reason you can’t do that, just make sure that your photo is displayed in an area of your home that doesn’t get hit by direct light.


Whether it’s a photo of your kids as babies, your parents at their wedding, or one of the last surviving photos of your great-great-grandfather, chances are that you have old photos that mean a lot to you. We hope that after reading this blog post, you will be able to better store your old photos and preserve them for the future.

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