The family photo album filled with old printed photos still is among our most valuable possessions because it is an irreplaceable history of our family and our ancestors and their times. Even if we create digital copies of these photos (a smart thing to do, see below), the original prints themselves always will resonate with us as precious objects, literally created and treasured by our ancestors, in a way that pixels on a screen never could. But time is not kind to print photos, and when they’re gone, they’re gone.
Problem: Many people keep these photos in albums that actually accelerate their deterioration. Happily, there are simple steps you can take to preserve your cherished photos for generations to come…
Move prints to archival storage. The pages and glues in many photo albums contain acids and other chemicals that accelerate deterioration of photos. And popular “magnetic” albums, which let you easily move photos around, often have clear sheets that cover each page—but over time these sheets stick to photos, ruining them.
Solution: Store your valued photographs in “archival,” acid-free albums or boxes. Look for labels that show the product has passed the Photographic Activity Test (PAT). Reliable online sources include Light Impressions and Gaylord Archival.
Archival albums and boxes are more expensive than nonarchival types but are well worth the price. You can buy self-adhesive archival “corners” to mount on the pages to secure the images.
If the photos in your old family albums were placed there by the people who took the photos, be sure to maintain the order of the original photos on each page. Odds are your relatives knew the family time line and relationships and arranged photos accordingly—and even if they didn’t, the way they displayed their photo treasures adds to the collection’s authenticity. Tip: Use your smartphone to take snapshots of the original album pages before you transfer the photos to an archival album, then use these snapshots as a placement guide.
Scan originals to create digital files. Since digital files don’t fade, the only truly permanent solution to saving the images in your photos is to scan them and digitize them. It’s easy to do on a flatbed scanner. The scanner on a basic all-in-one home printer usually does a very good job. No scanner? Your local library likely has one for free use. Local photo labs or photo studios may provide scanning services for a fee.
The correct scanner setting for photos is 300 pixels per inch (ppi)—it’s a simple menu option. Tip: If you want to make a print that’s larger than the original, simply increase the scanner setting. Example: If you double the resolution to 600 ppi during a scan and then reduce it back to 300 ppi when you go to print it from your computer, you can double the print size on the printing/editing software with no loss in quality. You even can triple the resolution to 900 ppi in a scan and then bring it down to 300 ppi in printing to triple the size of a printed photo.
If scanning your photos isn’t appealing, use your phone. The quality won’t be as good, but it’s very convenient, and at least you’ll have saved the images. Useful app: Photomyne for Android and iOS (free for up to three albums, unlimited use for $19.99/year with a free trial). It is geared specifically to turning print photos and albums into digital photo albums.
Important: Back up your new digital files onto DVDs or thumb drives, and store one copy at home and another in a safe-deposit box. Alternative: Back up digital files to the cloud.
Restore damaged prints. Almost any amount of damage to an old paper photo can be magically repaired in digital editing. When the new digital image is printed, it will look like the old one—without the blemishes. You can master the basic skills (such as cropping and adjusting brightness and contrast) using a basic editing program—one great free one is GIMP, but you’ll want to turn to a pro for restoration to, say, hide a water stain or fix a torn photo (especially a tear through a face). I’ve seen photos that I thought were a total loss brought back almost as good as new. You’ll still have the original for authenticity, but the new digitally enhanced print will be closer to how the original looked when it was taken. Cost for pro restoration of old prints: $25 up to several hundreds of dollars, depending on the restorer and what’s involved in the restoration.
Store your new archival albums safely. The National Archives suggests storing print photos in a dark place (away from direct sunlight even in an album), at room temperature (60°F to 75°F) and with a relative humidity less than 65%, which means not in an attic or a basement.