How Long Do Photographs Last?

How long do the photographs last? The answer to this question is not as simple as one might think. There are many variables such as the process used, environmental issues, as well as when is the photograph considered unusable?

Over the 183 year history of photography, dozens if not hundreds of different processes and materials have been used to create photographs. Some of them are inherently stable while others are unstable by their very nature.

We have to decide what degree of image degradation is acceptable. If we can see some discoloration after 50 years, is that okay? Can we assume that an almost unrecognizable print with lots of detail lost after 25 years is not acceptable?

Some color processes claim images are “durable” and then suggest they will last up to 20-25 years. A married couple pulling out their wedding album on their 25th or 50th anniversary to relive the memories of that special day would not find a lifetime of 25 years of cherished photographs acceptable.

B&W photos can live for hundreds of years

Almost all black and white processes are stable and relatively permanent over the long term. Variables such as paper quality, whether prints have been properly fixed and washed, and storage or display conditions can greatly affect the life of photographs. Properly treated black and white prints on high quality acid free paper have been proven to last for hundreds of years.

The real danger then becomes external damage due to handling or environmental problems such as damage caused by glues, bad storage containers or even insects or rodents.

A black and white photo faded due to poor quality paper and processing.

Color photos generally have a shorter lifespan

Most color processes, on the other hand, are unstable due to the use of dyes that fade, usually at different speeds. For example, if the blue channel fades faster than the green or red, the photos will turn greenish or reddish after only a few years. This is the most common problem with chromogenic films and papers commonly used from the 1950s through the 1990s.

A big exception is Kodachrome slide film. Kodachrome film was introduced in 1936 and many slides from the period immediately before World War II still exist in the same condition as when they were first made. Usually dust, scratches, fingerprints or other physical damage is the only problem with Kodachrome slides.

A Kodachrome slide. Photo by Patricio González.

“The durability of Kodachrome photos can last over a century if stored in a dark, cool, and safe environment,” writes Kodak Digitizing. “The yellow dye in Kodachrome film is considered the least stable, and even this dye only experiences a 20% dye loss after 185 years.

“But the lasting effects of Kodachrome slides come with a caveat. If exposed to bright light (like a projector), Kodachrome slides and photographs are inferior to other brands of film and will see color fade within an hour.

Other transparency processes are not as stable. Ektachrome, Agfachrome and others can be faded to the point of requiring considerable color correction after only 25 years.

A color photo damaged by heat and humidity.

Research on the lifespan of photos

Wilhelm Imaging Research conducts extensive research and testing of various photographic processes and materials and publishes data on permeance and preservation issues. They first reported the relatively short life expectancy of chromogenic processes in the 1990s. In further studies, they found that inkjet prints using printers such as Epson papers SureColor and Epson Signature Series typically last from about 100 years to over 300 years, depending on storage conditions.

For example, according to Wilhelm, Epson Ultra-Smooth Fine Art Paper, when printed with an Epson SureColor P7570, resists fading for over 400 years when stored in the dark at 73 degrees and 50 % humidity. Wilhelm publishes charts of different types of printers and papers, as well as a downloadable book on print preservation.

Digital photos pose different risks

Digital files do not degrade or fade over time and, if properly saved, will last indefinitely. The most likely problem with digital images is that they will be lost due to technical issues such as hard drive failure, smartphone loss or damage, or online storage service shutting down.

Another problem with digital files is the format or storage medium becoming obsolete. Some of the earliest image file formats have fallen out of favor and can no longer be opened with current software. For example, Kodak Picture CD PCD files, which were used from 1990 to 2000, require special software or plug-ins that may or may not be available or compatible with current Windows or macOS systems.

If our most precious photos from 1998 are on a floppy disk, we could be in trouble. Ensuring that our photographs are in a format and on readable media is an ongoing concern. Only time will tell which data storage devices will be usable in 25 years. Best practice is to keep copying all of our files to the latest and greatest media and saving the most important ones in multiple places.

An assortment of old storage products for photo, audio and video. It’s important to store photos on a medium that will still be usable decades from now. Photo by Depositphotos.

How to store photographs

This brings us to the question of how best to store our physical photographs. There are a number of general tips and best practices for storing photos in a way that will ensure maximum lifespan.

Store your photos in comfortable places

Whether it’s antiques, musical instruments, works of art or photographs, the general rule is that if we are comfortable, they will be too. Don’t leave valuable footprints where you wouldn’t want to be. This includes warm attics, damp basements, or any hot or cold place. Normal room temperature and normal humidity are ideal.

Avoid places exposed to the sun

Photographic prints also don’t like being exposed to direct sunlight for very long. Even the best photos can quickly fade if exposed to sunlight for an extended period of time. It’s easy to see if you walk past a shop window on a sunny street. Pretty much anything that has been in the window for more than a few days will already start to fade. Avoid hanging photographs or other artwork where they will be exposed to direct sunlight. This is the reason why the halls of most museums are quite dark and do not allow flash photography.

Pay attention to the immediate surroundings

Another factor affecting the life of photographs is their immediate surroundings. For example, the glue from envelopes can cause stains. Acid in newspaper or tape can cause serious damage. A big problem is photo albums that have vinyl pages or adhesives that can damage photographs in a relatively short amount of time. Even the poor quality mat used in framing can damage photographs within a few years.

Best practices for long-term storage

The solution is to use acid-free or archival materials in framing or making photo albums. The cost will be more, but the savings from not having to restore prints years later are worth it.

UV protection glass as well as UV sprays are often sold as protection against harmful sun damage. Think of these things as a type of sunscreen that you might rub on your skin when you go to the beach. Protective glass can’t hurt and can help, but it won’t be a perfect solution. Broken glass in a frame almost always damages the image it is meant to protect. Sprays can help, but in some situations they can be worse than nothing if not applied correctly.

The most durable method for preserving photographs or just about any type of document is ink on paper. If the highest quality paper such as 100% cotton or acid free paper is used and printed with a high quality inkjet printer that uses permanent pigment inks, the photographs should last for several hundred years , especially if kept out of direct sunlight and stored in conditions of moderate temperature and humidity.

The importance of good storage

With such a focus on creating photos and videos in the digital age, many people may not wonder if their physical or digital photos are properly stored for years, decades or centuries to come.

Taking the time to ensure your photos are properly stored, however, will give you peace of mind knowing that your memories are safe from damage or data loss.


Picture credits: Photos from Depositphotos

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