Family History Preservation: Preserving Photos

April 4, 2017  - by 

Photos are usually among a family’s most treasured possessions—whether they are old black-and-white photos of distant relatives sitting in formal poses, staring solemnly at the camera, or more recent, brightly-colored photos of sun-kissed children on vacation, laughing as they glance backward at the camera. Our family photos tell stories, capture memories, and allow glimpses into lives we often can get in no other way. While photos themselves might not be invincible, if you follow a few tips, you can prove that all good things don’t have to come to an end after all.

Keeping Cool: Preservation Tips for Photos and Slides

digitizing old family photos
Many of the same rules that apply to documents and letters apply to photos. Store photos in cool, dry places to protect them from mold, insects, and hot temperatures that can cause them to discolor, curl, or stick together. If you do have extremely damaged photos (such as from insects or mold), weigh how important the photos are to you and then consider calling a conservator. Store slides in their carousels in boxes to protect them from dust and light. If you must touch photographs, negatives, or slides, wear gloves. Damaging substances on your hands can cause permanent stains.

Putting a Name with a Face: Labeling

Perhaps the most important way to ensure your valuable family photos aren’t lost is by labeling them. A photo without a name quickly becomes meaningless and can easily get thrown out or tossed into a box in the basement and forgotten. There are techniques to help you play the detective and figure out who might be in your photo. But if you recognize the people in the photos now, save future family detectives the work, and label the photos!

More than just knowing you should label photographs, it’s important to know how to label them. Remember that markers and ink can damage photos. Try writing on the back of the photos with pencil. If the photo won’t accept pencil, use an acid-free scrapbooking pen to write on the back, in the margin, or on an accompanying plastic sleeve. Include in the label the names of the people in the photos and information about the event, location, and date. Here are some other ideas on labeling.

happy family looking through old family photo album
Sharing Your Smiles: Display Tips

What good is a photo if you can’t share it? Nearly every family has photos hanging on their walls and arranged in books or albums on shelves. A few simple steps can help keep your photos safe while you display them:

  • Display a copy and store the original whenever possible.
  • Keep photos out of direct sunlight.
  • Use photo corners instead of glue or tape to mount photos.
  • Use acid-free, archival safe albums and books for photos.

To learn how to best preserve photos that are already in scrapbooks, read about Preserving Artifacts.

Storing and Restoring: The Benefits of Digitization

Scanning and saving your photos to your computer creates important, versatile backups. Digitizing photos also allows you to restore and share them. Specialized software can help even out the coloring and correct faded or dark spots and patch together torn sections. You can hire a professional to do these tasks, or you can attempt them yourself. Read FamilySearch’s series Restoring Damaged Photographs to learn how.

As with documents, digitized copies of your family photos can become part of your online family tree. This online platform allows anyone researching your family, even if it’s someone you’ve never met, to find the photos of deceased relatives. One great way to feature family history photos is with FamilySearch’s Memories. Upload photos and attach them to your tree. Or download the Memories App to take new photos, and add them directly to your tree from your phone.

Maybe today is the day to take some steps to ensure your photographs last. There has never been a better time.

For More Information

1. The National Archives, “How to Preserve Family Papers and Photographs,” and “Preserving Family Photos

2. Maureen Taylor, “Learn from the Photo Detective

3. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Church History Department, Preserving History: Instructional Videos


Family History Preservation: Preserving Photos
Family History Preservation: Preserving Your Family’s Letters and Documents
Family History Preservation: Preserving Electronic Information
Family History Preservation: Preserving Audiovisual Material
Family History Preservation: Preserving Scrapbooks, Family Bible and Other Books
Family History Preservation: Preserving Artifacts

Don’t foget to add everything to the Memories Gallery when you’re done!


Leslie Albrecht Huber

Leslie Albrecht Huber has written for dozens of magazines and journals on genealogy and other topics. She currently does communications consulting and contract work for nonprofit organizations. Leslie received a bachelor's degree in history from Brigham Young University and a Master of Public Affairs (MPA) from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has worked as a professional genealogist, helpingothers trace their families, and has spoken on genealogy and history topics to groups across the United States.

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  1. EXCELLENT article! I would also suggest getting a copy of a book that is still available on – “An Ounce of Preservation : A Guide to the Care of Papers and Photographs.” I see only one new copy on Amazon, but there are still some very good condition used copies available for around $6.00 (it was originally more than twice that when published in 1995). I HIGHLY recommend it, not only for photos, but also clothing or other fabrics, recording tapes, etc. I heard that there may have been a second edition, but did not see that on Amazon if it exists. We’ve got the original 1995 edition, and still refer to it from time to time. It’s almost as detailed as you want to get, yet is easy to follow if you’re just interested in doing the best possible job of preserving and even to a relatively minor extent, restoring precious memories that we collect in form of keepsakes, photos, clothing, documents, etc. The author covers paper deterioration and what to do about it, what kinds of paper to use, how to properly store things (such as NEVER to use contact paper to cover things, never use paper clips, never use rubber bands, etc.).

    Grab this book while it’s still available! The author is apparently not marketing it anymore. It’s a keeper!

  2. When digitizing, remember that all your notes can be stored WITHIN a JPG image file (and some other formats), so if you do that, they all stay with the image itself. Just keep in mind two things – to eliminate image quality loss, always convert the JPG to a non-compressed file format for editing, and then resave the image as a JPG afterward. Also be sure to copy the notes from the original JPG to the new one because in many cases the conversion process will NOT save those comments in the image file. The comments can be saved to the image simply by using Windows File Explorer and turning on the “show details pane” then fill in whatever information you want to share and be sure to resave the image.

  3. Thank you for all of your help to a world full of people who are working on their family history and mountains of memorabilia!
    Keep up the great work

  4. I have a lot of old photographs of my childhood, and I’ve been thinking of buying picture frames where I can place some of them. Although, I’m glad you shared this; I’ll make sure to store the other photos in a cool and dry place. I’d also keep in mind to label the back of the pictures.