Regardless of the rise of digital photography, there is something special-and especially useful–about the printed image. It requires no tablet, computer or phone to view, and travels easily. And with good preservation techniques, you can keep your prints looking sharp and preserve memories for future generations.
When it comes to the necessity for prints–and how to protect them–most photographers I have met enjoy seeing their work in print and believe that their clients usually see the value as well. But for those wondering why such a quaint, antiquated notion as the care and protection of photographic prints even matters, I'd like you to first consider how relying on digital images makes your work dependent on your client.
The Costs of Digital Sharing
As much as digital photography is capable of protecting image files through redundant backups, off-site and cloud-based storage, all of this requires a great deal of technology. Digital photography has a special component (read: cost) to viewers, that is not imposed on the viewer of a printed photograph. And like many technologies, the benefits of digital photo viewing increase as its use has grown in popularity. Economists call these network effect (or network externalities). Before you doze off at the mention of economics, I promise I'll be brief on this point.
The fax machine is the classic example of a network effect. Before the fax machine had value to the first fax machine owner, there had to be a second fax machine owner to come along and plug his fax machine in, too. Without this, the world's only fax machine–as rare as it is–isn'g going to be worth much. Simple, right? This concept runs against (or at least complicates) traditional, stodgy old economic theory explaining the Law of Supply.
Traditionally, the less you have of something, the more it's worth. This is called scarcity. Think about a Ryne Sandberg rookie baseball card, the Spider-Man comics your mom threw away when you went to college, or an ounce of gold. But when the value of an item increases when others also have it, you have a network effect. These two forces (scarcity and the network effect) operate at the same time. Aside from the world's only fax machine as pure novelty or museum piece, it's value as a networked item surpasses its value a scarce item.
Why the Network Effect Matters for Photographers
Why is all of this important? First, it's important because in the sharing economy spurred on by the internet and social media, network effects have become far more important, and far more common. Second, network effects spread the costs around. My fax machine has more value if everyone else I send faxes to keeps their faxes in good working order. If none of my friends or business contacts replace the ink or the paper, the value of my fax machine actually goes down. (Value here is not necessarily price–it's the value of the machine to me.) This dependency upon others' actions–typically as they relate to technology–is the hallmark of network effects.
It's also the Achilles' heel of digital photography. Digital photographs depend upon the technology of the photographer for production, to be sure, but also depend upon the technology of the client or customer. What size of the device will the customer use to view the image? How will the color and contrast settings influence what her perception of your work? Will she have enough battery power to get through all of the proofs of the wedding shoot? And don't think for a minute that your client's monitor is correctly–even moderately–calibrated.
The upside in this digital photographer-client relationship is that you don't have to buy your customers a monitor or tablet and ship it to them so they can view your photos. The drawback, of course, is that some important factors that influence how they perceive the value of your services is now out of your control. You're adrift at the whims of others–as lost as Carl from Accounts Payable is accompanying his tween daughter and her friends to a Taylor Swift concert.
Photographers who provide printed images to clients and friends are removing nearly all of the dependency upon a client's technological knowledge, prowess or budget. Nearly all. There might not be digital technology at work, but chemistry and physics will impact how the photo looks–at least in the long run. These benefits of providing printed photographs is something that I suspect most photographers know this innately. They probably don't spend much time thinking about how micro-economic theory enters into it. In fact, I rather hope they don't.
With this backdrop in mind, here are eight things you can do to further control your images (or protect the images of others) for many years to come.
1. Keep prints out of direct sunlight.
This one should be easy to avoid and is pretty intuitive. The reason that photo prints fade is that photons in sunlight break down the molecules in dyes and pigments used in the print. As a result, this changes how the photo reflects light. This, in turn, causes the colors to fade.
It's harder in practice. Maybe the image looks best in a frame that sits by the window. Good luck convincing Grandma that that picture of her as a child in the Old Country–or anything else for that matter–should't bathe in the bright sunlight by the living room window for all to see. Tread carefully here. The same heartfelt nostalgia invoked by this image makes Nana want to display it prominently.
2. Avoid humidity and (3.) extreme temperatures.
Humidity and temperatures are your worst enemies in your quest to protect photo prints. High humidity impacts every type of deterioration of a printed image.
Image oxidation and sulfiding — discoloration and fading caused by residual processing chemicals, contact with unsuitable enclosure and mounting materials, airborne pollutants, migration of chemicals from adjacent improperly processed photographs, fingerprints, etc. — all proceed much more quickly in conditions of high relative humidity.
But how important is it? Very. Studies indicated that consistent RH (relative humidity) of between 20-45% provide the best long-term protection. As to temperature, most of us don't have the luxury of the John F. Kennedy Library or the Art Institute of Chicago, to lock in place both a constant 60°F and 35% to 40% RH with controlled environments. But these are good goals to consider. These factors alone can increase the expected longevity of materials between three and ten-fold. It also significantly decreases curling of paper and other fiber-based prints.
This means you shouldn't keep your images in the attic that's 90° by June and wetter than a Louisiana swamp. If you have a basement where the humidity is strictly controlled, it might help keep a constant temperature. But for many, the risk of the added humidity is not worth the slightly cooler temperatures.
The effects of controlling for humidity and temperature are cumulative. Controlling for both is more effective than controlling for just one.
4. Consider cold (or cool) storage.
If you have photo prints that you are particularly keen on keeping for a very long time, consider dropping the temperature where you store them even further. Like most chemical processes, the deterioration of a photograph can be slowed by cold temperatures. The Image Permanent Institute provides a general “life expectancy rating” that impacts how archivists, including those who preserve federal records, including those charged with photographic preservation.
But before you make room in the back of the old garage freezer behind the leftover Super Bowl chili and the frozen fish sticks, there are a few things you should know.
First, there is a difference between cool storage, cold storage, and frozen storage. For an archivist, “Cool storage” usually refers to keeping a room at a temperature of 55-65°F with an RH of 30 to 40%. “Cold storage” involves conditions below 55°F, and can be as cold as 0°F. For government agencies, the goal is for a photo's conditions to be in its current state long enough to duplicate them. Where serious deterioration to an image has already begun, the move from room temperature to Cool or Cold storage can have a more drastic impact than even reducing the humidity from 50% to 30%.
In 2009 the National Park Service released a bulletin that summarized some previous recommendations about how various photographic materials benefit from cold storage. I've recapped part of this information below:
If you choose this option, make sure to use a vapor-proof packaging–this will be essential when the defrost cycle increases the RH.
5. Keep prints away from air vents.
Even if you're faithful about changing your air filter, vents can still be a superhighway for dust particles. This is particularly true if you have had recent renovation to your home, or if your vents are in need of cleaning or sealing. Keep your photo prints away from the on-ramp by keeping them out of the immediate vicinity of the vents.
6. Choose the right album for storage.
I admit, I'm guilty of this one. I have photos (priceless to me, at least) that have spent years stored in an album purchased for pretty much one single reason–it was probably the cheapest album I could find at the time. Saving a buck or two on a photo album might turn out to be short-sighted if it prevents with images standing the test of time.
The American Museum of Photography warns that magnetic photo albums often have adhesive residues on images, and vinyl albums might give off harmful fumes. It recommends archival-appropriate polypropylene pages instead of PVC plastics:
When the albums or collections consist of a mixture of sizes and formats, the photographs can be arranged on archival paper pages and mounted with archival photo corners. Then the completed pages slide into clear polyester or polypropylene pockets, prepunched for three-ring binders. Most large office supply stores carry boxes of page protectors. Look for products made of polypropylene that are labeled “archival” or “archival safe.”
7. Don't bind photos with office equipment.
If you can buy it at Staples, you probably shouldn't be using it to bind photo prints. Binder clips, paper clips, and rubber bands might be perfectly fine for all types of printed documents. But if left on photo prints for extended periods these items can leave permanent marks.
8. Trade in shoe boxes for archive or photo-friendly containers.
There are specialized archival boxes available from B & H and Amazon. These are designed with archive-safe materials. Some of them have metal-reinforced corners that will help the integrity of the box last longer.
If you're not willing to pony up for archival boxes for your large collection of prints, at least consider boxes with plastics made of polypropylene instead of PVC plastics. Target and other retailers carry items that qualify. Look for tight-fitting lids and the “recycle” emblem with the number 5 on the bottom with the initials “PP.” This might be a small step down from archival boxes, but it is is better than any corrugated cardboard box that you may be currently using.
To Serve and Protect
As photographers, we produce images that we hope will be remembered. For special occasions, for friends, or for clients. Digital photography makes creation easier for the photographer, but promises less in terms of protecting those memories for future years, since it shifts much of the cost of that protection to the person who possesses the technology to view it.
Choosing prints shifts much of this cost back–allowing the photographer to control more of this cost by producing it in a format that requires no technology to experience, and little to maintain. But even with print photos, there is some simple precautions can go a long way in minimizing the ravages of time.