Every few years during my childhood, my family and I would purge as much as possible from our overstuffed garage. But we could never bring ourselves to touch the big blue bin overflowing with stacks of photographs, its contents spanning several lifetimes’ worth of birthdays, vacations, and friendships.
Lately, whenever my mom brings up organizing the big blue bin, I suggest something drastic: Pick the five favorite photos from each year and trash the rest. After sorting through the houses of a few grandparents after their deaths, it’s become clear to me that print photographs can be a precious, tangible connection to the previous generation. They also open a door to conversations about family with living relatives. But it’s easy for the important photos to get lost when people save too many.
In the age of boundless digital photograph storage, it can feel a bit old fashioned to worry about maintaining a print photograph collection. But experts we spoke with from the Smithsonian Institution Archives and National Geographic agree: A print photograph can serve as a crucial backup to your digital collection and act as a way to interact with history, both for this generation and for those to come.
“We don’t know what form digital photography is going to take in 100 years, or whether our grandchildren are going to access our hard drives or cloud accounts,” Smithsonian Institution Archives photograph archivist Marguerite Roby says. “I think there’s a big risk of losing a lot of digital photography, unless you’re really good at keeping up with it and making backups and printing your favorites.”
Photos you throw in a shoebox today are still likely to be in good condition in 30 years. But if you would like to give your photographs the best chance of lasting for hundreds of years, we offer a few techniques that are recommended by professional archivists. The goal is to find a photo organization system that helps you see your most important photos more often and in a more fulfilling way.
Focus on print quality
Photograph printing technology has changed a lot over the past century, and the truth is we don’t know how the photos we print today will look in 200 years. Photos from the 1950s tend to turn red over time, while pictures from the 1970s take on a yellow tinge, according to Roby. Pictures from the 2020s may reveal their own distinct signature.
Still, it’s a good idea to look for a printing service that excels at producing high-quality photos. At Wirecutter, we prefer Nations Photo Lab for its color accuracy and detail, though we found the differences between most photo printing services to be slim.
It’s just as important to pick the right photos to print. Your digital photo library might be an exhausting quagmire of priceless moments mixed in with food shots from long-forgotten restaurants. But a print photograph collection is most useful if it is curated. Consider how many photographs you would like to leave to your children; saving just 10 photographs a year blooms to a collection of 800 if you live to be 80.
“You can find thousands of pictures of the Eiffel Tower, but only this one of you in it,” Roby says. “That has more historical importance.” A good rule of thumb for determining which photos to keep is to consider whether an image holds both personal and historical value. Put on your best Marie Kondo voice and ask yourself whether the photograph sparks joy. Then consider whether the faces in the photograph are in focus and large enough to recognize. A place of interest in the background (such as a family home or cityscape) or an important event (like a wedding) can add additional merit.
Use an archival-quality box or album
Whether you prefer to stack photos in a box or arrange them in an album, it’s best to look for a storage option that’s free of acid and lignin (an acidic compound that gives trees their rigidity). It’s also good to avoid dyes and recycled materials. That rules out shoeboxes. Instead, consider Archival Methods’s Short Top Boxes—they are stackable and made from boxboard, and they come in several sizes. You may be tempted to use a clear plastic box that’s advertised as being acid-free. But Smithsonian Institution Archives conservator William Bennett advises against this because we don’t yet know how plastic interacts with photographs over the course of a century. It’s safer to use time-tested paper boxes.
The same wisdom applies to photo albums. Avoid exposing your photographs to any glue or other adhesives. Since you’re unlikely to find an album that has paper sleeves, you should look for an album that has acid-free plastic sleeves, like the Pioneer Photo Albums 3-Ring Photo Album. The binder style has the advantage of being easier to reorganize as you add and remove pages.
If a photo is already deteriorating or especially precious, Roby recommends using a Mylar sleeve for extra protection. Mylar Sleeves from Talas are acid-free and available in standard photo sizes.
Include a safe index card
It may be obvious to you that a beloved photograph depicts your child playing in your backyard, but it won’t be as clear to future generations. Pairing a photo with the who, what, where, when, and why, also known as metadata, gives it historical context.
“A lot of people are researching their family history. That’s the first place you can start, with those family photographs,” National Geographic senior image archivist Susie Riggs says. “You have to capture that information from the older generation immediately and keep sharing. Keep looking at those photographs and remember who they were, because they’re part of your personal history.”
Writing directly on the back of a photograph can damage it, due to pressure from the tip of your writing utensil, or as the ink degrades and interacts with the paper over the years. Instead, use a separate slip of paper. We like Archival Methods’s All-Purpose Index Cards because they are acid- and lignin-free, so they are less likely to damage photos. They also come with lines for important information like date, subject, and place. You can slip them behind a photograph in an album or slot them into a box between images.
Write with a No. 2 pencil
It may come as a surprise, but archivists actually favor pencils over pens for durability. The lead is less likely to fade over time or interact in a harmful way with a photograph. It’s possible to purchase archival-quality pencils, but National Geographic image archivist Rebecca Dupont suggests a good old-fashioned No. 2. The General’s Cedar Pointe pencil is a favorite at Wirecutter because it writes smoothly, sharpens well, and is comfortable to hold.
If you must write on the back of a photograph, Dupont says it’s still a good idea to use a pencil instead of a pen. Write lightly around the edges to avoid damaging the focus of the photograph at the center. Once you are finished writing, avoid touching the pencil marks; although lead is more likely than ink to avoid fading, it’s not impervious to being smudged away.
No matter how you store and label your photographs, the single most important thing you can do is select a safe location for them. Photo collections should be kept in climate-controlled areas that are not too hot, cold, or humid. That generally means keeping them in your living space instead of in an unfinished basement or attic. Dupont recommends an upstairs closet, where photos are less likely to be affected by flooding and a door will protect them from exposure to sunlight.
Also, when you store photographs in an easy-to-access place, you’ll interact with them more. Build a gallery wall in your home, and swap photos in and out regularly. Place some photos out on a table at your next family gathering.
“It does take time to think about these pictures and remember them, and that’s part of the fun,” Riggs says. “This isn’t a way to put things away. This is a way to have them be seen more.”