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Make sure your photos have a future, Part 3 (04/30/2008)
By Tom Hirsch

All right, you know the possible dangers of improper print storage, but what about the negatives? The same conditions hold: Archival containers, fairly consistent temperatures around 70 degrees, approximately 50 percent relative humidity, and stored away from gaseous fumes.

Too frequently, negatives are tossed in a drawer and forgotten. But the negatives should be protected from loss or damage in case you will ever need additional photos, or replacements because the originals become damaged or lost. Also, keeping the negatives in good condition will make it easier for your heirs and/or biographers to have photos made in the future.

Some photo processors return prints and 35mm negatives in a two-pocket envelope, with the prints in one pocket and the negatives loosely placed in the other. If left in these envelopes, the negatives will rub against each other every time the envelope is moved. This can cause scratches on the negatives. Also, if there is any degree of humidity in the envelope, the negatives will stick to each other. This can cause even bigger problems than scratches.

Instead of envelopes, many processing establishments insert 35mm negatives into sleeves. This is much better, but find out from the dealer if the sleeves are free of polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Most of them are. If so, you can use these for permanent negative storage.

The most convenient method of storing 35mm negatives is in pages of sleeves, available through a photo dealer. These pages usually contain seven sleeves, each of which will hold a strip of five negative frames. The left edge of each page is punched for insertion in a three-ring notebook, making storage easier and more convenient.

35mm negative storage sheets are designed for strips of five negative frames, but many processing labs cut the negatives into strips of four. One storage sheet will hold all the negatives from a 24 exposure roll of film, but it takes one-and-a-half sheets to handle a 36 exposure roll. This problem can be solved if the lab will accommodate you by cutting the film in strips of five. Many will do so if they are asked.

Most 35mm negative storage sheets have a space at the top on which you can write with ball point pen such pertinent information as the sequential number of the sheet, the date the shots were taken, and the subject. This way, you can file your negatives chronologically, and easily identify the subject matter.

Remember, negatives are a part of the photographic record. They should be stored in a way that will ensure archival stability, and also easy access and identification.

Don't tell me you've done everything wrong all these years. Horrors! But take heart. It's never too late to start over. If you're not happy with the way your negatives have been stored, a good rainy-day project would be to get some negative storage sheets, collect all your sets of negatives from around the house, and transfer them to these pages.

For this project, you should have a pair of cotton gloves, available from a photo store. These soft, lint-free gloves are made special for this type of work. The gloves will prevent oil on your fingers from being transferred to the negatives. Finger oil attracts dust like a magnet. Even with gloves on, try to handle the negatives only by the edges, and as little as possible.

Likewise, if your prints have been stored in an unsafe manner, purchase acid-free albums or boxes, whichever you prefer, and put your prints in these for safekeeping.

Remember that unless your negatives and/or prints have already become damaged beyond repair, you can always correct mistakes made in the past, and avoid them in the future.

Okay, now that you're into digital photography, there are no negatives to worry about, so what's the problem? Well, you still have pictures. If you're now transferring your photos to a computer, don't rely on it for permanent storage. Computers do crash. One of the safest and long lasting ways of storing your pictures is on archival CDs, available through most computer stores.

The important thing is to preserve your photographs and the means of reproducing them. Not only for you, but for the enlightenment of those that come after you.



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