Photo Organization and Preservation

Photo Organization and Preservation - by Cathy Altepeter


In order to organize and preserve photographs, first you have to have some. I had albums and albums of photos and many loose in boxes. If you're not a lucky Norwegian like me, you might have to contact some relatives to get started. Some people have lots of photos tucked away in attics or trunks and they really don't want them or want to take the time to organize them, but also, don't want to toss them out. Check with parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins. Ask questions of your relatives, so you know what you could be looking for. Try to get your hands on the good stuff.

There are many modern technological devices to help you get a copy of a picture. If you really want a picture but the person who has it will not part with it you have a few choices. A few years ago, you had to bring the picture to a photo shop and they made a negative of the photo before they could make a print; this process took 7 - 10 days and could be costly. Today, you can use Kodak Picture Maker at most discount stores and that takes about 10 minutes. Of course, copyright rules must be observed, usually 70 years. That means that if a professional photographer took the picture, they will not let you copy that picture for that length of time. There are several printing options - 2 5x7, one 8x10 or 3 4x6.

Or, you can use a home computer equipped with a scanner and printer. You don't even need a very expensive printer. And you can buy Photo Quality Paper in various size packages. I have always known that I had a great uncle John Buness, but had no photographs of him. Once I was visiting the Museum in Fosston MN and I mentioned the Buness last name and they had a picture of him. Of course, they would not let me take the picture, but I went back later with my laptop and scanner. A bonus to scanning and printing is that you can crop the photo to the size you want, and adjust the brightness and contrast, which sometimes greatly improves the look of the photo. You can also reduce the background to make the people look bigger, or if you are doing a scrapbook, crop just the part you want to use in your scrapbook. Once you have the photo in digital format, not only is it preserved, but you can do many things with it. I have even scanned color photos and converted them to black and white.

Hopefully someone will know who is in the pictures you gather. I know who is in most of my pictures, but even if I don't know the person, the pictures are still great. Just looking at the ladies dresses and shoes, or women camping wearing dresses and good shoes and men camping with white dress shirts and pants. And in that time period, even having pictures was a luxury; they were not passed around as freely as they are today. If they are not family members, I would bet they were really close friends.

Safe Handling

Always have clean hands when working with your photographs - old or new. Dirt and oils from your fingers can rub off onto the photos and eventually cause damage. It is likely that the photos have been handled and touched for years, so how much care you take with them is up to you. Once they are secured in nice archival quality albums, they will seldom have to be disturbed. Some of my photos are from 1915 and look like they were taken yesterday.

There are many products you can purchase to aid in the safe handling of photos. Some are extremely unnecessary. You can get a hand soap to reduce the acids on your skin that costs $9.99. You can also get a hand lotion to reduce acid, which seems a bit redundant. Why would anyone put any lotion on before handling photos?? Or, a bit more useful, there is a spray to remove the acid from paper also 9.99. You can buy a pH marker so you can test any paper for its pH level, these cost about 5.00. Also, there is a photo adhesive spray and assorted pens and markers for writing on photos. All acid free.

The life expectancy of older color photos is 20 to 60 years, but newer color can be expected to last 100 years due to the use of better printing techniques. Black and white is 100 years plus. Also, sunlight is a great enemy of photos.

Remove from unsafe albums

Many of my photos were in those albums with the black paper attached with the little photo corners. I have emptied 4or 5 of them, but I still have a few more to go. I found a little trick if parts of the photo corners are stuck to the photographs. With a damp paper towel, gently rub the corner and as the moisture is absorbed, the photo corner will rub off. I did this on many, many photos and saw no signs of damage. Just be careful not to get the photo wet. Another way you can clean up the look of your old photos is to trim the white area around the photo. This area can be bent from previous photo corners and there is usually plenty of room to trim a bit off. Never, never trim Polaroids

Years ago when I got boxes of loose photos, I thought I was doing such a good thing by putting them in magnetic photo albums. That is a big no no. I suppose it is better than being loose in a box where they get bent, but it is not the ideal place. Sometimes the photos really stick in the magnetic albums and you need to be very careful removing them. Gently pry up the edge and lift with a smooth motion, don't jerk the photo. Sometimes a kitchen spatula will slide behind the photo. Or for 2.99 you can buy a device made just for removing photos from magnetic albums, but it looks almost like a plastic kitchen spatula.


There are several ways to sort your photos. You can sort by the age of the subjects, that way many pages in a row of your album could be of one person at different times of their lives. You could sort by topic, whether the photos were taken indoors or on a trip or on the family farm. I like to sort chronologically, or as close to that as possible. My Grandma very often wrote the date on the photos, but seldom wrote the peoples names. I guess it depends how much information you have. Actually, chronologically sorted is very difficult. No matter how careful, after you have a few pages done, you will likely come across some photos that should have fit in the scheme, but then it is too late. Oh well, such is the life of the genealogist, never totally organized. I am the most organized person I know and still things are amiss.

Basically, you should not write on photos, but I do sometimes. You can get acid free markers for this, but should not use an ordinary ink pen.


When I was recently making my albums, I had little piles of pictures all over the dining room. I had them stacked in containers as I sorted them. So, to have a place to organize them, you need albums of some sort. This is not as easy as it sounds as most modern photo albums are for 4x6 size photos. I bought an actual scrapbook and packages of photo corners. This worked out very well as 10 - 12 photos can fit on each side of the page

For 8x10 or 5x7 inch photos a scrapbook that is 8 1/2 x 11 inches works well. One 8x10 or two 5x7 will fit on each page.

Another option for storage is photo boxes. Some of the brands state they are photo safe, and some state that they are archival; archival is better. These are nice sturdy boxes, I have various things stored in 3 of them.

So, after 100 trips to the craft stores, usually with a 40 or 50% off coupon, I have achieved organization!! At least the illusion of organization.