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Photo Storage: If a Picture is Worth 1,000 Words, Be Sure it Lasts 1,000 Years

It could be a picture of a great-grandparent leaning against the old farmhouse porch, or just the farmhouse itself. It could be a picture in the earliest days of downtown Boston, Philadelphia, or San Francisco. It could be a picture that depicts a scene in which so much depends upon a red wheelbarrow. If you have a picture that’s truly worth a thousand words, you’re going to want to do more than just snap a picture and download the file on your cloud storage. You may also want to preserve the original photo without any further degradation to the print quality.

Photo Storage 101: Temperature and Consistency

We kind of knew already that the best practices for photo storage involves cooler temperatures, indoor storage, and consistency. But we wanted to get more details about exactly what’s involved. We reached out to a professional archivist to find out how they stored their photos. What we learned from Archivist Brienne Coombs at the Salt Lake County Archives helped us understand how the basics of photo storage play themselves out in real-world storage environments.

For their historical documents and photos, the county maintains a tightly-controlled storage environment. “Our storage is kept at a temperature of 76 degrees” Why 76 degrees? Coombs explains, “That’s the lowest temperature we can afford to maintain in the summer, so that’s what we keep it at year-round.” The archive office has also requested funding from the county and other local authorities to fund a cold-freeze compartment for their most sensitive items.

Storage Costs and DIY Cold-Freeze Storage

The difficulty in maintaining cost-efficient, cold-freeze photo storage at a widespread scale is easy to understand, but what you may not recognize is that you can find a great answer inside your own home. This strategy doesn’t work for everyone—nor is it necessary for every type of photo storage—but a secondary freezer in the basement or garage is a great solution. It should be pretty easy to create separate compartments for your family photo album and the bulk meat storage you use for winter stews and meatloaf. These interior compartments can also protect your photos from condensation that may form in household freezers.

If you’re wondering what kind of difference freezing temperatures can make, look at this old, but nifty chart from the National Park Service. At freezing temperatures, photographs can, in theory, be preserved for millennia. At the same time, if you’re moving across the country, the opposite extreme also comes into play. At mid-summer temperatures and exposed to sunlight coming through a car window, photos can be ruined over the course of a single afternoon. That’s why if you’re storing photos, family heirlooms, or other personal memorabilia for a season or for a year we recommend you seek out one of our climate-controlled locations.

High-Tech Evaluations for Photo Storage

Digital storage dominates the landscape for photo storage, but there’s also an historical, sentimental, and financial value to many photo originals. Some people get really serious about their photo storage environments. You’d think someone would develop a comprehensive diagnostic tool for determining the overall quality of your photo storage environment? You’re in luck. Check out the IPI’s Photographic Activity Test.

Two-Pronged Strategy for Photo Storage

We recently visited our local county archives to see a picture of an old house in our neighborhood. Like a lot of towns, Salt Lake City was canvassed by appraisers in the early 1930s as part of the fallout from the Great Depression. Instead, the photo on file was from the 1960s. Coombs says that it’s not uncommon for photos to get lost, tossed, or damaged. She also explains that, in general, the culture of preservation wasn’t the same 75 years ago. “The county office back then could have thought that because they had a newer photo of a home appraisal, there was no point in saving the older one.”

More than just its compatibility with modern devices, digital photo storage is essential for redundancy and insurance. But there’s also no direct replacement for the original photo history. Plus, digital photo files are not always as surely recovered as we like to think. That’s why when it comes to secure photo storage, we always recommend taking at least a two-pronged strategy.