How To Handle Antique Photos


A few years ago, an incredible story about a rare photo of Billy the Kid was published in media outlets throughout the U.S. and world. The lucky guy picked up the rare tintype photo at a Fresno junk shop for $2.00 in 2010, it was valued at $5 million and sparked a heated debate about its authenticity over the next few years. An authenticated photo of Billy the Kid from 1880 sold for $2.3 million in 2011. Unable to prove without a reasonable doubt that the Fresno junk store find was Billy the Kid, it remains unsold. But the point of this story is that antique photos hold a rich treasure trove of history, whether they depict an infamous outlaw and gunfighter of the Old West or long lost ancestors. 


Speaking of old photos, the collections of the Prints & Photographs Division at the Library of Congress include more than 14 million negatives, photography, and other printed ephemera, most of which have been digitized for posterity. Although some are of historical importance, many are snapshots that likely resemble old photos in your family photo albums. The Library has professional restoration experts on staff, but anyone can take steps to preserve antique photos. For starters, the Library offers general care and handling tips you can follow at home to protect precious memories from the ravages of time.


Archiving Photographs & Negatives


Storage is an incredibly important factor in photo preservation. You should never store photos and negatives in attics, basements, and other locations subject to extreme temperature changes. The ideal temperature for storage is 65 degrees Fahrenheit. And forget about shoeboxes and those ubiquitous “magnetic” albums with acidic sticky pages. Here are some things to avoid and proper storage tips:


  • Avoid exposure to all kinds of light and never expose to direct or intense sunlight
  • Never store photos near direct sources of heat (e.g. radiators and vents)
  • Prevent exposure to atmospheric pollutants (e.g. smoke and chemicals)
  • Choose a dry place with 30–50% relative humidity and a cool, clean, and stable environment 
  • Store in archival boxes or albums 
  • Store negatives and slides in archival sleeves, preferably in acid-free three-ring binders
  • Create high-quality scans of all the photos you wish to preserve


How to Handle Photos


  • Handle photos with clean hands and wear non-scratching, microfiber, or nitrile gloves
  • Work in a clean area
  • Keep food and drink away from photos
  • Don’t mark photos, even on the back (ink and marker can bleed through the front)
  • Never use paper clips or other fasteners to organize prints
  • Never use rubber bands, self-adhesive tape, and/or glue


Restoring Old Photos

It’s common for antique photos and other paper materials to degrade due to brittleness, acidity, tears, holes, wrinkles, fading, and stains. If you’ve inherited old photos from relatives in poor condition, restoration may be possible. The arduous process of restoration starts by scanning images and then retouching them using software like Adobe Photoshop. It’s a rather big investment both in terms of time and cost to do this yourself. At ScanCafe, our advanced photo restoration techniques enable restoring nearly any photo to its former glory. In addition to restoring old photos faded and dulled by age, we’ve worked our magic on photos damaged by fire, light, water, mold, pets, and children.