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There are three major factors that you should think about when looking after your printed photographs:
Read on for more information and the reasons why these environmental elements need to be considered.
Traditional printing from a negative was a time consuming three stage process. A light is shone from an enlarger through a negative onto a piece of paper coated in a silver compound, usually silver halide. The light reacts with the silver halide converting it to silver. The coated paper is then "developed" in a bath of a variety of chemicals and then washed in a "stopper" to prevent the developer from continuing to react with the chemicals. The final bath is in a "fixer" - this prevents the remaining silver halide on the paper reacting with light. This whole process involves at least six chemical reactions - something worth remembering when we get to describing Ultraviolet light.
Developing digital prints is less time consuming and quite a bit cheaper than the old fashioned method described above but many of the precautions that should be taken with traditional prints should also be applied to modern prints made in very different ways.
The biggest and most obvious cause of damage to all printed materials is the tool that we use to view them - light. However, light is in no way simple - just ask a physicist! Ultraviolet radiation is the most damaging frequency of light to printed materials. Sunlight is made up of about 10% ultraviolet before it hits the earth's atmosphere, and while oxygen and the ozone layer block out large amounts of it, there is enough ultraviolet radiation in the light that hits the earth's surface to cause significant problems to many things - our skin and photographs being two of the most obvious. Wikipedia tells us this is due to "the ultraviolet photon's power to alter chemical bonds in molecules, even without having enough energy to ionize atoms". Impressive stuff. When you consider the number of chemicals involved in the printing process described above, and in inks used in commercial and private printers, the scope for damage shouldn't be a surprise!
Therefore it is imperative that photographic prints, especially those made from negatives and containing silver, are kept out of direct sunlight. The British Museum recommends light levels of 50 Lumens, up to a maximum of 100 Lumens, to view photographs. This is not a great deal of light - about the strength of a 5 watt filament bulb. Fortunately many modern bulbs now carry a Lumen rating. For loved photographs that you would like to mount in an area you know will be receiving a lot of sunlight it is possible to purchase frames with glass that filters UV, although these will add considerably to cost.
Beyond light, the second most damaging environmental factor is temperature. Lowering the temperature of where your photographs are stored may not be easy, but it is worth considering a few suggestions. Do not place photographs above radiators or fires. If your photographs are in storage, a cold, dry environment is the best - the colder the environment, the better. The highest temperature suitable to keep photographs in is around 25° Celsius - but if your photographs are at this temperature you will want to ensure that the room is not humid.
Humidity causes less damage to the surface of the photo than it does to the substrate, the surface the photograph is printed on. We have all seen paper curl as the humidity of an environment changes, so the lower the better for your photographs.
The final cause of much of the damage that we repair is microscopic and often not visible to the naked eye - dust. Particles of dust might seem unimportant, and the natural reaction if you spot them is to wipe them off with a finger, but DON'T - this is guaranteed to cause damage to the print! Dust is made up of many tiny particles that will cause abrasion to the print if rubbed off. While most non-photographers do not have an air blower to hand, a small, preferably camel-hair, brush can be used to move the dust from the surface. Do not apply any pressure to the printed surface of the photograph though.
Similarly, avoid touching the surface of a print at any time - you ideally want to carry all photographs by putting pressure on the edges of the photograph - ideally with your thumbs on the edges and your index fingers providing support underneath. The oils on the skin of your finger can cause long term damage to the print, and will make the photograph unpleasant to view from certain angles. If you have caused a fingerprint on the surface of your photograph, a lint free cloth can be used to gently wipe it off - but if there is any dust on either the print or cloth you will cause significant damage. Best not to get any prints on the print!
So you've got your photographs all together in a nice cool dust free environment, but what are they stored in? This is perhaps the trickiest part of storage. While we would like all our prints to be mounted and framed we probably don't have sufficient space or money to do this and so often seek alternative ways to show them off - photograph albums being the most popular. The factors covered above, dust, temperature and light, should all be taken care of with a photograph album, and keeping photographs flat for as long as possible often helps prevent the printed surface cracking. If you have photographs loose, in envelopes of some sort, it is a good idea to avoid using Glassine bags - the non-absorbent surface means that precipitation can occur on the surface of the photograph if humidity and temperature change. Avoid storing old photographs in loft spaces. You will be unable to control the environment and there is a higher chance of insects or rodents gaining access to your materials.
A great deal of the information on this page was gleaned from a very helpful document published by the British Museum intended for archiving practices. It offers a lot of useful advice on storage materials and best practice when looking after photographic prints.