Preserve Old Family Media — 2. Photos
Updated: Jun 26, 2020
Preserve Old Family Media
A Six Part Series
Part 1 Restore & Digitize — an overview of: (1) types of old family media; (2) why & how they are being destroyed; (3) why & how they should be properly stored and digitized.
Part 2 - 6 — specific preservation information for each family media type:
Part 2 Photographs — loose and in old albums
Part 3 Paper — handwritten letters, important documents, newspaper clippings etc...
Part 4 Film — negatives & slides
Part 5 Movie Film — film reels
Part 6 Videos — VHS videos & and camcorder videocassettes
1. A Brief History of Photo-Taking
The Digital Revolution
The 21st Century Digital Revolution has already seen the fastest uptake and quickest eradication (in 10 short years) of a revolutionary new technology — THE DIGITAL CAMERA — because something even better came along — THE SMARTPHONE!! With each new version (rolled out on virtually an annual basis), smartphone manufacturers have focused on improving the camera function in some way: better storage, image resolution and/or cool new image-enhancing features. So another 10 (short) years later — with the odd swipe and tap — our smartphones are capable of taking professional quality photographs.
The Industrial Revolution The Industrial revolution of the mid-19th Century introduced many new technologies and more affordable products to the market. In that era, photography also saw new technologies become popular and then rapidly decline.... as something new came along. Photography entered family collections when the relatively low cost of daguerreotypes (lithographic sketches) — and reduced sitting times — led to a rise in the popularity of portrait photography — over painted portraiture — among the newly affluent of the Industrial revolution. Soon after a number of other less expensive photography techniques were introduced: Ambrotype, Cabinet card and Tintype... These all but disappeared when Kodak’s Brownie Box — so called for its compact, rectangular shape — hit the market at the turn of the 20th century. It's affordability & simplicity allowed people to take their own photographs and revolutionized family photography. First only in black & white because although color photography emerged early it took a long time to move into the mainstream of family collections.
This changed from about 1935 when Kodak introduced affordable Kodachrome film. Instant photography can be traced back to the introduction of Polaroid cameras in the late 1940’s. It took the whole of 20th Century for film camera technology to steadily improve; and separate into (1) more sophisticated & expensive cameras for serious practitioners (SLRs) and (2) cheaper & easier to use cameras for casual use (disposable, point-and-shoot, rangefinders etc... AND THEN ALONG CAME THE DIGITAL ERA.
2. Old Family Photos are...
Family photos are our most treasured possessions, they capture unique family memories — that cannot be conveyed in any other way — that are meant to be shared and enjoyed across generations!
... anything from rare 'vintage' crumbling, yellowed portraits of great-great-someone, through to our (at least 20 year old) 'modern' albums and all the vintage albums, scrapbooks & loose photos in between.
It used to be that family stories were passed down from grandparents by word of mouth, and got lost within a generation. The few vintage photos that survive — of distant great-great grand relatives sitting in formal poses, staring solemnly at the camera — are mostly unlabeled.
A few more photographs of our great grand relatives survive. We may have inherited some of these — still mostly portraits taken of them in their Sunday best but with some smiles — and know some of their names.
Old Albums & Scrapbooks
Our grandparents started taking their own photos and selecting the best photos that they put in photo albums and scrapbooks. The Classic Album (popular before 70's) comprised sheets of black construction-type paper... to which photos and clippings were attached with photo corners, and written captions added... then bound with yarn or string laced through the spine.
We may have inherited attic boxes full of these old albums and loose family photos ( stored in shoe boxes!!!) ... maybe some of our own childhoods.
'Modern ' Albums
We took capturing memories to the next level! Our (above Gen Z) children — when they were children — are featured in plenty of 'more recent' color film photos, likely tucked away in family photo albums in our homes.
These might be 'sleeved' albums, comprising plastic pages with individual (same size; 4 x 6 in standard) transparent sleeves for each photo to be inserted in to. Magnetic albums (also called ‘Sticky’ albums) were also popular in the 70's & 80's as a replacement for the Vintage albums to combine different size photos and for scrap-booking. The photos were attached to pages covered with adhesive, and a plastic sheet protector folded over the entire page.
3. Old Family photos get damaged...
Photographs were not made to last forever and are very susceptible to deteriorating.
What are photos made of?...
Printed photos have three major parts:
— "durable?" resin coated paper support
— gelatin layer to hold the image in place
— light-sensitive emulsion, consisting of silver halide salts suspended in a colloidal material, that forms the image.
Why are photos ruined?...
Very old photos can be ruined because of the breakdown of these materials over time...
The most destructive elements are Sunlight, heat, humidity, dust & acids :
Lignin and other residual acids present in wood pulp used to make paper are activated by heat & humidity. This causes the photos to yellow and curl at the edges and... in the worst cases... can cause the paper to crumble.
Sunlight and heat also interfere with the chemicals used in the processing of photos causing the images to fade and/or discolor. Damp environments are a breeding ground for mold and insects that eat away at the photos and dust particles are very electrostatic-ally attracted to photos causing them to get scratched and speckled with debris.
Old photos can also be harmed with handling... stained from fingerprints, oils from the skin and solvents... or from being folded, creased, or torn.
Old albums also do damage...
Vintage album pages and covers were also made from lignin containing wood pulp, so they too can crumble over time, and the resulting abrasive black dust can scratch up the photos.
Beyond the paper, the tapes, glues, and photo corners used to attach photos to album pages can be 'off-gassing' chemicals that discolor and damage photographs. Even photos stored in photo development envelopes, or just in old shoe boxes, can be at risk.
Magnetic Albums - A special case
Even the more 'modern' Magnetic Albums are now destroying the very images they were meant to protect. The cheap cardboard pages, the adhesive, and the plastic covering are all contributing. The acids in the glue are eating through the back of the photos and the plastic page covers are trapping the acidic fumes and damaging the front; they can also ruin the photos by getting stuck.
4. How to Store Photographs
Our most precious family photographs are likely already stored in photo albums. Whether we leave them in these or consider moving them to modern alternatives depends on the condition/type of the album.
Unless our vintage albums have been stored in poor conditions, they should still be in reasonable condition. The post-binding could be a bit loose, which can cause the pages to shift and damage the edges, resulting in the abrasive black dust.
Properly aligning the pages and retying the post-binding for a tighter fit may be all that is needed. It is a good idea to interleave each page with non-abrasive acid-free paper (or mylar) that has passed the Photographic Activity Test. For added protection each album can be stored in an archival horizontal storage box which will keep the photo album from shedding its black dust throughout the rest of the collection. If the album pages are badly deteriorated, there are plenty of alternate 'modern' photo storage options.
Plastic Sleeved Albums
On the whole, plastic is inert and safe for the photos housed in individual clear plastic sleeves. The only problem with some of the 'older' albums is that they are quite bulky.... so not much fun to carry and flip through.
For photos stuck in ‘Sticky’ albums from 70's & 80's, there is NO option. If not already too late, the only chance of saving photos from these albums is to get them out. Again there are newer photo-safe 'magnetic' albums that will allow the photos to be arranged in the same configuration as the original album, which should just be thrown away.
Our grandparents/parents may have been onto something when they chose to store their photos in old shoe boxes. Provided they didn't get wet, they provided the photos a solid platform to stand up/lay in and afforded protection from light and dust. However, very old shoe boxes are also made from acid containing wood pulps that could be 'off-gassing' . Newer archival photo storage boxes are a safer option and come with dividers to help with organizing your photos.
5. Why Digitize Photographs?...
Family Memories are Priceless
The memories that our family photos hold are worth more than the paper they are (im)printed on ... AND much like old photos, our memories fade over time. Creating digital copies of the originals of these family treasures, and backing them up, is the BEST WAY to preserve, share and pass on memories across generations
Photographs have a shelf-life
Proper storage and handling can add years to the shelf life of precious family photos but these solutions aren’t permanent! Digitizing, backing up and uploading to the cloud is a MUST for preserving and sharing cherished family photos today... and passing them on to future generations, tomorrow!!!
Scanned photos can be "Photo-shopped" & "Enlarged"
Once scanned, old photos can be digitally restored. The photos can be adjusted for light, color and clarity or even given a new look with color filters. Unseemly tears, stains, scratches and debris can be made to magically disappear.
They can be enlarged on a screen to make it easier to identify specific family members and reveal dramatic detail that is otherwise lost in small format images like tintypes and snapshots. These enlargements can also be printed... to add to a framed family photo collection.
Scanned photos can be shared
Converting old photos to digital photo files helps reclaim our memories from those bulky attic boxes... They can be viewed without any heavy lifting and uploaded to the cloud to be easily shared with people who are not sitting right next to us in our homes. Proudly displayed framed photos that are starting to fade can be replaced by "better looking" replicas and safely stored... to stop further damage. Any number of photo prints, of any size, can be printed to be handled and shared without further damaging the original... AND added to framed photo collections of other family members.
Whole Photo Albums can be Replicated
Digital replicas of whole photo albums (sticky, vintage) and scrapbooks can be recreated. Sometimes it may not be possible to remove the photos (without damaging them), and/or the pages may also have fragile captions, clippings and other memorabilia stuck to them. A family member will have put thought into, and taken the time to arrange and stick these items to the pages, to tell a family story. An exact digital replica of the album can be made by scanning all the pages, with the exact layout that the creator intended. Digital copies of the pages can then be shared on a screen or reproduced in digital Photo books.
Photos can be Organized
Converting photos to digital files can also help organize and reclaim family memories.
Scanned image files can be named based on any scheme: photo album ( name/page #); time-frame (decade/year/date/ etc.); family relations (his family & her family / etc.); type of photograph (vintage / snapshots / slide image / etc.); event (wedding/vacation/family gathering/ etc.)... AND further organized in labelled computer folders...
... AND Digitizing is a great backup plan in case of flood, fire, or other mishaps that can destroy priceless memories!!!Digitizing and backing up these family heirlooms is a MUST towards preserving and sharing your memories across generations!!!
6. How to Digitize Photos
There are options to digitize photos 'at-home' or service the job out. The choice may come down to a dedication to DIY versus budget to carry out the project. While not a difficult task, scanning , cropping & 'touching-up' lots of photos is time consuming. On the other hand, digitizing service cost can vary widely depending on numbers, types and condition.
DIY - For the best quality use a Scanner
Despite the relentless drive to save our trees by going paperless, a desktop printer still remains a fixture in most households. Keeping pace with their counterpart personal computers, modern (all-in-one) desktop printers have continued to provide improved features (faster printing , better color copies, connectivity etc... ) — at lower cost. There are dedicated flat-bed photo scanners on the market but all newer (all-in-one) printers have high enough resolution photo scanning capabilities, and the resulting digital image files can be saved to a counterpart computer... with a label of your choosing !!!
DIY You can use a Smartphone
Despite the continually improving image resolution and image-enhancing Apps of the latest smartphones, where possible a scanner (dedicated flat-bed photo scanners are best) remains a better way to digitize photos: resolution selection, more accurate color, less glare, multiple photo scanning, less cropping ....
Sometimes a scanner isn't available, or a photo isn't accessible (e.g. in a framed photo collage) and using a smartphone is the only/better option. There are photo scanner apps, (e.g. Google Photoscan) that can vastly improve results over merely taking a photo of a photo.
See Guide to Scanning Photos at home for how to scan photos using a desktop printer/scanner set-up or smartphone with Google Photoscan
There are plenty of professional scanning service options (see Resources) which basically fall into three categories:
Drop-Off: national pharmacy, big-box, and warehouse clubs all offer photo digitizing services (best used for 'newer' photos).
Online Mail-in: usually digitize multiple analog media formats. You send them your photos (and other media) , and they send back all original material together with USB thumb drives of the digital copies.
Specialist services: with more high-end equipment and restoration techniques with larger scanners that can handle odd sizes and more sophisticated techniques to photograph pages that are too delicate to scan.
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To Learn More Go To:
Blog — to see more posts about Why and How -To preserve, organize, plan and present family media (there are a number in the works).
Resources — for external links, useful information, products, services... and more!
FAQ — this may answer some of the questions you have;
Services — to see the personalized guidance solutions that Digital Kreation offers.
The information presented in this Blog is an accumulation of my own experience and internet searches. I am not affiliated with any of the institutions, services or products that are mentioned.