Top 5 Steps to Preserve Old Photographs

I gave a talk to the Swain County Genealogical Society on Thursday night. They wanted a subject that had broad appeal for genealogists so I suggested the topic of dating and preserving old photographs. The idea stuck so I got my slides prepared and pulled together some old photos from my collection to take for “show and tell”.

Two children, Franklin and Virginia Antrim Kelsey, photographed in the early 1900s.

Two children, Franklin and Virginia Antrim Kelsey, photographed in the early 1900s.

Now that the talk is behind me and the audience told me how many new ideas they got, I thought this would be a good topic for the blog. The subject of dating old photographs has been covered very well by some really great experts on their websites such as Phototree and The Photo Detective so I won’t cover this topic here.

But I did think that boiling down suggestions into five steps that could help anyone preserve their old photographs would be helpful and interesting. Then at the end of this post, I’ve provided a list of tools to have handy when you want to start on this project.

TIP #1 – Set Aside Time to Work


This is the most important step after gathering your box full of photos and bringing it to a table to work. Taking the time to work allows you to focus on the task and get your photos organized in several steps. Most people can stay focused for 2 hours to work on a project like this at each sitting. Taking your time will help you zero in on the details and get the job done. It may take several days to get a lot of the work done, but it will be worth it in the long run.

TIP #2 – Organize Your Photographs

First, you want to separate your photos into families – perhaps your father’s mother’s family, father’s father’s family, etc. Once you get them into separate piles, you can start to see resemblances and remember names. If you find a photo that has no name or date, write down what you might know on the back of the photo with a pencil as you work. Do not use a pen of any kind as the ink can bleed through and leave unwanted marks on the actual photograph.

TIP #3 – Scan Photos into Electronic Files for Long Term Preservation

It is best to use a flat-bed scanner (see below) to protect your valuable photos. You simply lay the photo face down on the glass bed and then perform the scan. Do not save the photo as a JPEG file, the most popular format, because that format compresses the image to make the file smaller. That may be good for e-mailing a file to your friend, but compressing the file leads to some loss of quality of the picture and each time you work on the file it gets compressed further.

Canon Scanner as reviewed by The Wirecutter Feb 2015

Canon Scanner as reviewed by The Wirecutter Feb 2015

Instead, save the file in the non-compressed format TIFF (Tagged Image File Format) as this process saves all the details. Then, make a “Master File” of the TIFF files and when you want to post a photo to the web or send a copy to your family, open the Master File, make a copy and then convert the copy to the JPEG format. Now you’ve converted the file to a much smaller size making it easier to e-mail. Also, if you want to edit the file like cropping out someone or fixing stains or other problems, use a copy of the TIFF digital file to make corrections, then save the updated copy in JPEG format for further use.

In short, a JPEG format is fine for copies of photographs, but not for saving originals or editing a photo file. If you’re worried about how large the TIFF files will be, make a decision ahead of time to create a storage place for your scans. Use an external drive for storage or use an online system such as Dropbox or Carbonite. For a review of these kinds of online services read this article from PC Magazine for a chart of comparisons!

TIP #4 – Store Photos in Protective Covers

Hold pictures by the edges and keep them in protective sleeves such as plastic bags or folded paper so that you don’t leave oils and dirt from your fingers while you work. The bags can be simple Ziplock bags of different sizes or other types you can purchase from craft stores or online. As long as they are made of polyethylene, they will protect your photos for a long time without imparting damaging fumes or other substances.

You can also use folded copy paper to hold a photo (see below). Most common copy paper and manila folders are acid-free (the most common cause of paper and photo degradation over time) so they are safe to use for long term storage.

Photo albums are ok to use if the pages are made of acid free paper and you use black corners to hold the pictures (don’t glue or tape down pictures). Also, it is safe to use pages made of plastic sleeves to insert the photos. But do not use the kind that have a plastic film that peels up with a sticky surface for the photos. The sticky page will decay in just a few years and your photos may be destroyed as well. If you have some albums like that full of pictures, I suggest scanning the pages then try to remove the pictures to save them in other, safer materials.

Store the originals in a manila folder, a larger plastic bag or in a photo box such as those you can buy at craft stores with a label on the front and a lid. Even if you need to return the photos to someone, they will be ready for long term storage.

TIP #5 – Identify the People, Places and Dates in the Photographs

Use original identification by others to get started.

Use original identification by others to get started.

If you are lucky to have names and dates marked on your photos, you are ahead of the game. If, like most of us, your photos have no identifying marks, do your best to identify the people, places and dates of each photo. Have a magnifying glass handy so you can look at details such as jewelry you might recognize, names on signs, dates on books, etc.

Use a pencil and have a white rubber eraser available to name the people on the back of the picture. The pencil will not mar the photo and the eraser will not damage the paper backing on the picture or leave color smudges behind.

Mark the back of the photo with simple details such as names, dates, locations, or events. If you can’t add the info to the back of the photo, add a sticker label to the outside of the protective bag identifying the photo or you can slip a small piece of paper in the bag. If you choose to store your photos in a folded piece of paper, just mark the outside of the paper.

For your digital files, create a naming system that will be easily understood by someone else. I recommend you name by the date, person’s name with their birth and death years and any other identifying words such as graduation or wedding. With so many similar names in most families, the dates help discern who is in the pictures. For groups, try to use the event and the key person’s name on the file such as the father or mother which will help with organization.

To finish up, here is a list of common tools you may need to organize your pictures:

Pencil and white rubber eraser

Magnifying Glass

Family Trees

Plastic Bags

Manila Folders

Copy Paper or Stick on Labels

Scanner and Computer

Take your time and have fun preserving the past for the coming generations!

About Edith

I learned many things in my previous career, but the most important was that communication opens minds and changes lives. I want to apply the same to my new venture in genealogy because we can all benefit from sharing tips and techniques. I have really enjoyed teaching adult classes in genealogy research techniques and want this blog to act as an extension of that experience. I'm currently researching my family surnames including Hawkins, Thomas, Bolling, Alexander, Gudger and Rogers. Enjoy the hunt!
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