A Guide to Archiving and Storing Film and Prints

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You might hear it all the time: "Protect your prints by storing them archivally" or "This paper is archival-rated for X years" or "Keep your film safe by storing it in an archival box." Whatever it is, it's easy to gather that you need to store your tangible photographic media in archival conditions to prolong its lifespan to the fullest and to ensure it looks just as good in several years as it does today.

What Is Archival?

The term "archival" is thrown around a lot in the world of storage and display methods for film and prints, but what does it really mean? It can generally be understood as the use of tools and methods to maintain a stable state and purity of your media, without introducing contaminants or otherwise physically degrading elements into your media. Without getting too scientific and chemically specific, a key term to look for in storage means is "acid-free," which generally indicates the material has a pH value of at least 7 and is more alkaline than acidic. When materials are more acidic, with pH values below 7, media can discolor, fade, and generally deteriorate in quality over time.

Shooting film is great, but developing your film is even better.

When something is considered "archival," this typically means it comprises materials with a high level of alkalinity. Some manufacturers may claim their storage boxes, folders, sleeves, or paper types are "archival for up to so many years" or "color-fast for X-number of years." These claims are reassuring but shouldn't necessarily be taken literally. Tests, such as the Photographic Activity Test (P.A.T.), use accelerated aging methods to estimate archival lifespans of materials; however, time proves to be ultimate test, in the long run. These tests also do not fully account for all variables of various storage conditions, but they do serve as a consistent representation and a guide as to whether or not the storage material will negatively affect your media.

Prints

Regardless if you shoot film or digital, and output inkjet prints or traditional silver, chromogenic, or alternative process prints, all photographers need to be concerned with proper storage and handling of prints to ensure the longest lifespan of your printed images. Different media types all have various estimated lifespans due to their composition and the process in which they were created, such as the type of paper you are printing on and the type of ink in use. For traditional black-and-white prints, the same can be said for material types, as well as the decision to tone your prints, such as with selenium, for greater archival stability.

After the print has been made, proper handling, display, and storage are essential to maintain its appearance over the years.

  • When handling, the best recommendation is to avoid touching the surface of the print with your bare hands to prevent transferring the oils from your skin to the print. Cotton gloves are an easy way to limit oils from contacting your prints and will also prevent fingerprints from smudging the surface of the print.
Archival Methods Lightweight Bleached Cotton Inspection Gloves
  • For displaying your prints in a book format, a presentation portfolio is a straightforward way to protect and showcase your work. Available in a wide variety of sizes and configurations, portfolios are commonly used as an alternative to simply sharing loose prints and (perhaps awkwardly) asking your viewer to wear a pair of white gloves to flip through your photos.
Presentation books and binders
  • For more fine art applications where a portfolio book can compromise the context and aesthetics of your prints, a portfolio box is the standard for housing loose prints. Dedicated portfolio boxes are acid- and lignin-free and can also lend a professional appearance to your print storage. Boxes are also perfect for storing matted prints and uniquely shaped or delicate prints.
Presentation Boxes & Folios
  • Photo albums are also a classic means for sharing and housing photos, although they tend to provide the least protection for your prints if they are mounted with photo corners or some other less-than-permanent method of holding the prints in place.
Photo Albums
  • When framing your prints for display on a wall, it's crucial to remember not to have the print directly touching the glazing. While the glass, acrylic, or Plexiglas may be archival, over time the print may bind or adhere to the surface and result in the emulsion separating from the paper. Window mats are a simple and appealing method to keep the print away from the glazing. For more considerations on framing, check out our article, How to Display Your Photos Like a Pro.
Pre-Cut Mat Boards
  • Finally, the essential tool that all photographers who print should own: a storage box. Similar to portfolio boxes, these generally oversized boxes far surpass the proverbial shoebox of prints, due to their archival construction, durable metal corners to retain rigidity under load, and hinged front lids for easy removal of prints.
Archival Museum & Preservation Boxes

Film

While similar in many regards to prints, film is even more delicate and requires a range of special storage requirements to ensure top condition over time. Fading and transferring of oils are certainly concerns when handling and storing film; however, dust and scratches can also be added to the list of elements to minimize. Since film is not displayed in the same manner as prints, more permanent storage means are typically used.

  • Worth a second mention, cotton gloves are again a necessity when handling your film. Whether you are inserting your film into a film holder for scanning, a negative carrier for enlarging in a darkroom, or sleeves for storing, gloves make it substantially easier to prevent adding unwanted fingerprints to the film surface.
  • Speaking of sleeves, negative sleeves (or storage pages) are compulsory for safekeeping film. Available in myriad sizes and able to accommodate nearly any film format and frame count you can imagine, these clear plastic holders safeguard film from dust and scratches when they're being stored in a binder. Just make sure your sleeves are PVC-free prior to using them for long-term storage.
Archival Pages, Sleeves & Rolls
  • And speaking of binders, special storage binders are another necessity for housing film within negative sleeves. These three-ring binders are a bit more involved than the binders you used during high school, because they are fully enclosed, constructed from archival materials, and feature security tabs to prevent unwanted elements from entering during storage.
Storage Binders
  • It's also worth considering the environment in which you're keeping your film binders (and print storage boxes, for that matter). Low humidity and cool temps are preferred over high heat and high humidity, and darkness or subdued light will, of course, be ideal, too. If you live in a climate with high humidity, consider a dry cabinet or dehumidifier if there are no other alternatives, or even dehumidifier packs and desiccant silica gel can work for smaller enclosures. Also, avoid storing film and prints near sources of extreme heat or cold, like radiators, heaters, or air conditioning units.
Ruggard Electronic Dry Cabinet
  • Finally, the last tool that is crucial for protecting and preserving your film is a means for keeping it clean in the event dust or other particles find their way onto your negatives (and they will). The author's preferred tool is the distinctly smelling Antistaticum Cloth from Ilford; however, a range of other tools, as well as blowers and canned air, can be used with equal success.

For more information on everything photography, check out B&H's Learn Photography portal. You'll find video tutorials, tips, inspirational articles, and gear reviews. B&H is "The Professional's Source" for learning about photography.

8 Comments

Perfect Article, indeed!!! I still save some films instead of getting rid of them!!!

Thanks for the comment, James!

Good article.  It would be helpful to add information on the environment in which to store these boxes and binders and what not.  In particular, what temperature and humidity range is considered optimal.

Based on some research, and according to the National Archives, "the ideal temperature for storing modern, polyester black and white films is 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Black and white acetate-base film (generally pre-1970) should be kept at 35 degrees Fahrenheit. To slow fading, all color films can be stored at 35 degrees Fahrenheit. All films are best stored in a 35% +/- 5% relative humidity environment."

Personally, I'm a bit more lenient with how I store film (since I'm not a national archive) and just try to keep my films in a cool, dark, and dry location around room temperature. If I had more control over my environment, I'd try to keep it around 60F/15.5C and 40% humidity.

This article should be commended for it's effort to explain and advise on topics related to the archival preservation of photographs and negatives, however there is a something within it that needs clarification. Glassine envelopes are NOT recommended for the storage of photographic materials, as per ISO (International Organization for Standardization) Guideline #18911 for Processed Photographic Films / Storage Practices:

Glassine envelopes and chlorinated, nitrated, or highly plasticized sheeting shall be avoided. Specifically, cellulose nitrate and polyvinyl chloride are not acceptable.”

The underlying reasoning for ISO standards to exclude the use of glassine is as follows:

“Glassine should not be used with photographic negatives and prints as these photographic media have a protective gelatin layer. With high humidity and warm temperatures the gelatin layer can become soft and the smooth surface of the glassine can stick to the negative or print causing unwanted damage.”

Neutral polypropylene or polyethylene sleeves, envelopes and bags are a much better alternative to glassine. In addition, while the article goes on to discuss issues of dust and its effect on stored negatives, standard high-density polyethylene sleeves and envelopes are naturally “non-static” and are thus the perfect solution for long-term archival negative storage / easy retrieval.

Good point, and the glassine envelopes that were previously linked have now been removed. I should have been more specific, though, that only acid-free glassine should be used and preferably in situations where the temperature can be controlled. Like you, I tend to prefer plastic sleeves either way, but, in my opinion, there is some merit to glassine in certain circumstances for larger film formats.

For negatives, both B&W and color, and unmounted positive film a few things should be pointed out:

If you use plastic holders they should be PVC free. This is also true for mounted slides. But more importantly, in my experience, it is far preferable to use glassine envelopes or accordion type glassine negative film holders. (Which are hard to find today.) The reason is simple. The plastic sleeves attract dust and airborne dirt over time. Glassine does not. I have my 20,000+ archive of B&W negatives from almost 50 years ago which I still print from stored in the original glassine accordion negative files (one 36 exposure roll of film per file in strips of 6 frames) I put them in after processing at the time and my film is still perfect and clean, unscratched and dust free. I went through a short period of transferring some material to the archival PVC-free plastic sheets, and within 6 months they had attracted dust to the surface which put the film at risk of being contaminated when removing the strips for printing and putting them back after use.

Good point about the sleeves needing to be PVC-free. I've used both plastic and glassine in the past and tend to prefer one or the other depending on film format. Large format sheets go into glassine while small format strips go into plastic. I tend to store my sleeves in fully sealed boxes, so I haven't noticed more dust, but I do agree that you should go with whichever method is better all around.

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