We all want our photos to last as long as possible. This article is about maximizing the life of your prints (with a few references to film). Just like color film (both slides and negatives), color prints fade with time. That’s the bad news. The good news is that print life is getting longer and longer with digital prints. Displaying a print properly can double it’s life.
We’ve all seen faded prints that turn green or blue or red over time, depending on which dyes are fading fastest. Color dyes in film fade with time. If you have precious prints that are fading away, there are things you can do to save them if it’s not too late. Damage to old prints can be digitally repaired. Even torn photos can be restored. The digital age is saving a lot of old analog prints.
What about the prints you make or have made now? How can you insure a longer print life? There are two things you can do to make your precious images last as long as possible. One is to use analog and digital materials that are more resistant to fading. The other, which most of this page is about, is to display and store your prints for maximum print life. this page is about, is to store them under the right conditions and in the safest materials.
Print Life: Paper Choices and Display Conditions
Some prints will last longer than others and the difference is significant. Some have a normal display life of less than 20 years. Other have a normal display life of over 80 years. The best source of information on the life of film and prints is Wilhelm Imaging Research. Wilhelm has a wealth of information that you can read and download as pdf files.
For example, Wilhelm compared two analog papers (analog meaning traditional, wet chemistry, darkroom materials) with a number of digital papers. A print on Kodak Edge Generations paper, matted and framed under glass has a display life of 19 years without significant fading. On the other hand, a print on Fuji Crystal Archive paper, displayed in the same conditions, has a life of 40 years. Fuji Crystal Archive is one of the best analog papers. Moving to the digital realm (using digital printers where ink or pigments are sprayed onto the surface of the paper), a digital print on Epson Premium Luster paper, printed with Epson archival inks with an Epson printer will have a display life (matted, under glass), of 83 years, much better than the best analog papers.
FYI: I print all of my own photos with an Epson archival printer on Epson archival papers, with Epson archival inks. I want my prints to have a long and healthy life.
Light, heat, and humidity fade prints. That is why museums usually display prints in rooms with no outside windows, in subdued light, with the temperature somewhere around 70 degrees Fahrenheit and the humidity around 40%. Hot, humid rooms, with lots of sunlight dramatically reduce the life of a print. We don’t live in museums but we can display our prints on walls or places that don’t receive direct sunlight. A number of years ago, my wife said to me, “If we get central air conditioning, your photos will last longer.” She was right. And 70 plus degrees is much nicer in the summer than 90 plus degrees. A dehumidifier in the summer is helpful too.
Photos last longer if they are matted and displayed under glass. The mat keeps the print from being pushed up against the glass. Print-to-glass contact for long periods of time can ruin a print. The mat, frame, and glass protect the print and UV glass extends the life of the print even longer. According to Wilhelm, a Fuji Crystal Archive print has a display life of 26 years without glass, a life of 40 years framed and matted behind normal glass, and 50 years behind UV glass. An Epson Premium Luster digital print has a display life of 45 years without glass, 83 years framed and matted behind normal glass, and 200 years behind UV glass.
Print Storage Conditions
The three big words for proper film and print storage are COOL, DARK, and DRY. Heat, light, and humidity accentuate the aging of prints. The lower the temperature, the darker the storage conditions and the drier the air, the longer your prints (and processed film) will last.
How cool is cool? At a minimum you should try and store you prints, slides, and negatives where the temperature doesn’t exceed the 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit. You certainly don’t want your photos in a hot, humid attic. Some professional photographers keep their most precious images in low humidity refrigerators. the cooler the temperature, the longer your pictures will last.
As to humidity, keep your photos in a room where the humidity does not get higher than 40%. You can buy a simple humidity indicator for less than $30 at places like Radio Shack. Run a dehumidifier in the room if necessary.
The darker the storage area the better. Some file storage containers are black. A dark closet for your storage containers would help.
NASA stores their priceless chromes from the moon missions at 0 degrees Fahrenheit, at very low humidity and in light tight vaults. The average person can’t do that, but we can take the simple steps above to preserve our most valuable images.
Storage Containers and Albums
The good words are POLYPROPYLENE, POLYETHYLENE, and POLYSTYRENE. The bad word is POLYVINYLCHLORIDE (PVC). PVC gives off harmful gases that damage film emulsions and prints. The three safe polys are the preferable storage material.
One of the best ways to store slides, negatives, and prints is in poly pages with slots for negatives strips and mounted slides, and pockets for prints. There are several sources for these storage pages. I have been using Light Impressions (800-828-6216) for a number of years but other companies make archival storage pages. These pages can be put in black binders or albums to put on a shelf, or lside an negative pages can be hung in file cabinets. Just be sure the pages you but are made out of the good polys: POLYPROPYLENE, POLYETHYLENE, or POLYSTYRENE, and not PVC.
If you have a choice, have your analog prints made on Fuji Crystal Archive paper. Have digital prints made on one of the papers that has a long life span (check Wilhelm’s site). To safely store your precious images, remember: cool, dark, dry and one of the good polys.
For display, mat and frame your photos behind glass or UV glass, in a room that isn’t too hot or humid, and as far from direct sunlight as possible.
If you already have damaged or faded slides, faded prints, or torn photographs, there is information in the Digital section of my web site as to how to save them before it’s too late.