Preserving Your Family Photos

As family historians, I think we could all agree that we are always on the hunt for family photos. We beg family members for originals and copies alike, peer at film negatives, and look through albums time and time again searching for a clue that will send us off on a renewed quest for information. I keep up with a great project via Facebook called The Rescued Film Project, following a photographer who has taken up the mantle of processing previously unprocessed rolls of film from decades past. The photos he processes are incredible (and I hope you'll check it out), but something he said really struck me, and I'll paraphrase: Every day that these film rolls sit unprocessed, they are degrading to the point of being lost to time. Degrading to the point of being lost to time; the same is happening to our family photos. Print photos are fading or being degraded by album adhesives, strips of film negatives are stuck together in an envelope, boxes of prints are unorganized, and there's always the worst-case scenario in which photos are completely lost due to unforeseen circumstances. I mention all that to say that, as the keepers of our family history, an important part of our role is to make sure that our photos and documents are preserved, and one of the best ways to do that is to digitize and organize. I've been on a year-long (and counting) quest to digitize my family photos and documents. It's a daunting job, but it's worth it to know that I've done my part to extend the life of these family treasures. In this blog I wanted to share some of the tips for digitizing and preserving family photos that I've picked up along the way.

Photo Albums

Albums can be an excellent way to organize and view our photos, however the chances are probably high that you have an album with adhesive pages to hold the photos in place. If this is the case, you'll probably want to think about removing the photos. Both of my grandmothers had no shortage of those albums and as much as I'd like to keep the albums in their original state, the adhesive is destroying the photos and any labels are unreadable on the backs, so I decided to scan and disassemble the albums.One of the things that I wanted to keep in mind was how the photos were arranged. The arrangement was something that the album's creator thought about and it may help you later in identifying unlabeled photos. The first thing I did was to peel back the cellophane layer (to eliminate the glare) and scan each page on my flatbed scanner.I scan all my pages as PDF files because I can join the files together to create a copy of the full album, in this case I even scanned the cover because I like the colorful, funky patterns from those sixties-era albums, and it gives it analbum-like feel even though it's a digital file. I also grouped loose photos and scanned those together at the end because they were also part of the album. Be sure to check the quality of each page to make sure that you have a good scan. From there you may choose to leave the album as is, digitally clip individual photos from the file, or rescan images after removing them from the album.

scanning old family photo albums, preserving family photos

The last step is to gently and cautiously remove photos from the album. This process can get tricky, especially when the adhesive is 50+ year strong!Tips for removing photos from adhesive albums:

  • Start at the corners and loosen as much of the outside edge as will easily come up.
  • Don't pull from the corners - it causes tearing and strain on the paper. Instead, use both hands and move down the sides of the photo, pulling up with gentle and even pressure.
  • Don't force the photo. If you start to lose some of the backing try it from a different angle or clip the torn backing away with scissors so that it doesn't peel more of the photo. If the photo won't unstick at all, you may choose to let it be or cut the photo (page and all) from the album.
  • Use letter openers or knives sparingly - it seems like a good idea as a way to remove photos, but these things can punch through the middle of your photos easily or slice between layers, leaving you with more damage.

Loose Photos & Prints

You may have boxes of loose family photos (or a stack that you just pulled from the album!) that, at the very least, need to be organized. There are a variety of ways to organize, such as by event, by date, by person, or even by type of print. The choice or combination of choices you may use depends on the method that works best for you and the photos you have.A favorite method of mine is to group photos by type of print and/or printing date. One of the best things about those older cameras and photographs were the different types of prints that were received once developed. Prints varied a lot, like the width of the border, scalloped edges, a print date on the border, even the size and shape itself. Some of those unique styles of prints can help you group unlabeled photos. One of the coolest and most rewarding things you may discover are that photos you previously thought were unrelated, reveal a larger event or grouping. While I was grouping the photos from the photo album I spoke of above, I discovered a large extended-family Easter gathering at my great-grandparents' home, and I was able to notice which of my dad's cousins, aunts, and uncles appeared repeatedly throughout the photos. Most of the photos were unlabeled, but by viewing them this way, I was able to figure out the "who's who' in the individual prints.Tips for Photo Scanning & Storage:

  • Scan photos at the highest resolution (which is about 600 dpi for standard home scanners) and in the .tiff format. This will allow you to zoom in and see details, crop or enlarge photos without losing the quality of the scan.
  • Rename scanned files with details. I try to name my files with the names of the individuals in the photographs, Â the date, and location (if known).
  • Invest in archival quality sleeves or envelopes for photos. This will keep photos from being damaged by both the oils in your skin or other spills, as well as keep photos from sticking together.
  • Keep displayed photos out of direct sunlight. Sunlight fades photographs – especially types with older printing techniques. If you have original photos in frames, consider removing the originals for storage in a safe place, and replacing it with a quality copy.

Film Photo Negatives

Don't discount the value of film negatives in your collection. Before photography was affordable for all and photos were printed en masse, people had to be more choosy about what they photographed and how many photos they took because film and printing were expensive. Many times, the best of the photos went to grandparents and other relatives, so the chances are high that you may have the film negatives of photos you've never seen before! Case in point, this year we discovered negatives of the only known photograph of my grandfather and all four of his siblings as children and photos of my great-grandmother, her sister, and my 2x-great-grandfather visiting Niagara Falls in the 1910's! We were able to view these photos on a negative scanner & accompanying software (available affordably from Amazon) that hooks up to a desktop or laptop.Tips for storing film negatives:

  • Store all negatives out any type of light or moisture. A photo box with one of those little silicone gel packets though in is a great option.
  • Store all negatives or negative strips individually or with acid-free paper between them. They stick together easily, and this could allow images to transfer onto one another or loss of the negative.

Lastly, take pride in and enjoy your collection of family photographs. These are some of the most precious things we have as the preservers of our family legacy.

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September 29, 2017
Wesley is the founder of

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