Family Photo Storage: How To Prevent Scratches, Fading, Water Damage

by Tony Emerson on


This summer, the central Texas region experienced a serious drought that culminated in extremely destructive wildfires that raged through most of September. Although the fires didn’t reach our office in downtown Austin, families in neighboring cities like Bastrop, TX lost their homes. I always think about how emotionally trying it must be to evacuate your home in an event like this, where you may only be able to bring along an armful of your most treasured, irreplaceable belongings.

The Burning House is a blog that shows user-submitted photos answering the question, “what would you take in the case of a fire?” It successfully turns this gloomy sentiment into an artistic survey of sorts. Not surprisingly, digital photos and photo albums are a part of almost every submitter’s list.

In the event of a disaster or a life transition, you may find yourself putting the ubiquitous but priceless family photo album in a self-storage unit. Don’t despair— it’s one of the safest places for photographs. Nobody is going to spill a pitcher of water on your photo album while it rests in a storage unit, and it will remain free from grime and fingerprints as long as it is untouched. However, improper storage or a poorly conditioned storage unit can still damage your photos. This post will examine three major ways physical photographs are damaged or destroyed, and how to avoid them.


Dust and scratches
The most treasured photographs often accrue damage from scratches that result from handling. Of course, improper or excessive handling can ruin a photograph, but even the most gentle transfers will slowly cause light damage. Dust sticks to photographs and scratches off the image as the photo is handled – sliding it in and out of sleeves, picture frames, and scanners causes the dust to remove the ink from the paper. These same activities can smudge and scratch photos (even without the added damage from dust) if you’re not extremely careful.

The best way to avoid scratches is to limit the amount of handling of family photos. Ensure they are stored in an album that uses materials that pass the ANSI IT9.16 Photographic Activity Test (PAT), and keep them there. Use an additional layer of protection, like an archival film box, that has also passed the PAT. When handling the photographs, wash your hands first and avoid touching the photograph surface. Don’t unnecessarily bend or flex the photograph and wear lint-free cotton gloves if handling a large number of irreplaceable photos.


Fading and color damage

If you have a family photo album that spans a number of decades, you can almost identify the date of the photo by how much of its color has been drained by light, air pollutants and residual chemicals. It can happen to even the least-handled photographs and occurs so slowly that it may not be noticed for a long period of time.

This is where the importance of the PAT comes in. Not all photo albums, sleeves and envelopes that are labeled “photograph safe” are actually up to snuff. Manufacturers who have passed the test will market their products with the fact that they have passed the ANSI IT9.16 Photographic Activity Test, rather than with ambiguous phrases like “safe for photographs.”

Water and humidity damage
The fastest way to ruin printed photographs is probably fire, but water is a close second. A flood can ruin an entire family history of photos in minutes. While there are some refined techniques for recovering water-damaged photographs, the best method is to prevent water from coming in contact with them at all. Keep photographs stored off of the ground. This will help prevent flood damage as well as insect damage.

High relative humidity can contribute to damage directly, by reducing the strength of the emulsion layer that binds the pigment to the paper, and indirectly, by contributing to the growth of mold spores. According to the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, the ideal relative humidity level for photographs is between 30-40%, with fluctuations of less than 5% on a day-to-day basis.


Storing photos in self-storage
Self-storage can be a safe place for temporary storage of photographs. But some storage units are too humid, vary too much in temperature, are prone to flooding or pests, or are otherwise unsafe for such an important heirloom. For storing photographs, you will want to find an indoor-facing, climate-controlled unit, preferably on the second story or higher. This will mitigate the risk of damage from humidity and temperature changes, while also reducing the amount of dust that can creep into a storage unit.

Regardless of which facility you select, ensure your photos are stored in folders, sleeves, albums and boxes that have passed the PAT. To deter pests and further mitigate the risk of flood damage, store photos on top of a wooden table or another dry, clean area that is raised off the ground. Lastly, don’t store your photos along with any potentially harmful chemicals. Environmental fumes are especially damaging in an enclosed area like a storage unit. Avoid storing photos along with paint, cleaning materials, chlorine, gasoline, and other corrosive or combustible materials.

If Murphy’s law proves correct and the worst possible scenario occurs – that is, you fall behind on payments and the unit goes to auction – do your best to come up with a payment plan to get back on track. Most facilities would rather help you get caught up than auction off the contents of your storage unit. But if your finances simply won’t allow for payment of the unit, you may still have a chance. Attend the auction and calmly explain your situation to the winner of your unit. He or she may be willing, with some negotiation, to hand over those family heirlooms that are worthless in the resale market but priceless to you.