You have found some black and white photos and want to save them because there’s something timeless about old black and white pictures. But if they fade, then that unique quality is ruined.  Is there a way to preserve them and the memories they hold?

Do black and white photos fade? Black and white photos do fade over time. However, they do not fade as quickly as colored photos. Black and white pictures stay clearer longer than color photos because they only have one color that fades. Depending on how they are stored, the black and whites last a long time before you will see aging.

The first step to preserving the photos is knowing that they will fade over time. Remember, black and white prints will fade, albeit slowly. The second is knowing how to preserve them. I'll lay out some steps so your pictures will be around for years to come.

What Causes Photos to Fade?

Fading can be caused by many different factors. Here are the six major reasons:

Light ExposureExposure to light causes an effect called photodegradation. This occurs because oxygen and UV rays in sunlight combine to loosen the dyes from the picture itself.
Air PollutionChemicals in the air, including plywood and cleaning supplies, contribute to the damage to photos. Dust and other particulates floating through the air cause abrasions on the pictures.
HumidityHigh humidity causes the elements in dyes that bind them to the photo paper to loosen. It can also cause pictures to stick to plastic sleeves and frames. Low humidity causes the pictures to become brittle and dry out.
Acid BurnWe create acid burn through the use of acidic materials that come in contact with the pictures. These include pressure sensitive tape, paper clips, and paper with a high acidic content.
Fungal Growth or MoldHigh temperature, humidity, and dust can combine to create conditions that break apart the chemicals that bind the dyes together
Insects and rodentsCockroaches and silverfish will eat the gelatin used to hold dyes and pigments together as well as the paper itself.

These causes behind fading can affect both black and white and color photos. It’s just that color photos have more dyes, so there’s more to be loosened. Also, darker colors appear to fade more quickly because they are deeper in the color spectrum. Tan has little color to have disappear, so it will not fade as quickly as a dark color such as blue.

Black also fades, however, just at a slower rate (because there’s less that can fade). And, because there are no other colors to compare it to, the fading is much less noticeable.

According to the conservator Henry Wilhelm, the black dye used on black and white pictures begins to lose dye on paper coated with resins. When this happens, the black will begin to turn brown. He recommends that you find out if your pictures are on resin-coated paper, which is used to save money. If so, have the pictures copied onto a paper that doesn’t have resin.

According to Mr. Wilhelm:

”The choice of color paper is the single most critical factor” in increasing the life of any print.

Source: New York Times

Keeping Your Photos From Fading

Now that you know what causes photos to fade, you can take precautions to help slow down their aging process. Here are some simple and effective ways to help prolong the life of your precious memories.

Photo Albums

Placing your photographs in albums can help keep them safe, organized, and away from harmful UV rays, pollutants, and dust. Look for an album that uses acid-free archival paper so that the acids don’t sit on the pictures and cause browning to occur.

Picture Frames

Glass picture frames can help block the direct light from hitting your photos and causing them to fade. Picture frames can also block pollutants and dust from reaching the photos and causing damage. Rely on artificial lighting to help illuminate your photographs if you are trying to showcase them.

Quality Equipment

Using a good printer, ink, and photo paper can help keep the quality of your photos stronger. Also, use the ink and paper that your printer’s manufacturer recommends because your photos are more apt to fight the fading process if you match those recommendations.

Espon and Canon are both highly rated printers and equipment that state that their high quality can help photos last up to 200 years.

Avoid Damp Environments

Avoid storing your pictures in humid environments like the basement, garage, and storage units. Humidity and dampness can cause your photos to stick together and remove the ink or cause the ink to run. Cool, dark environments 70 degrees or cooler are your best bet in lengthening your photo’s lives. Also, keep photos that are in boxes off the ground in case of flooding.

Don’t Stack

When printing your photos, make sure not to stack them right away so that they don’t stick together and remove the ink. Wait until they are completely dry to put them together. Some manufacturers recommend waiting 24 hours before putting your photos together.

It is very common for people to store their pictures in boxes, but if possible, try putting those stored photos in the picture albums to prevent them from sticking together over time. Or put them between layers of acid-free paper to keep them safe in boxes.

Don’t Go For Gloss

Glossier paper tends to cause ink to fade faster while matte paper offers more fade resistance. Glossy photos tend to pick up fingerprints, and oils from hands can cause discoloration on the photos.

If you are one who prefers a beautiful glossy sheen on your photographs, know that they are more apt to fade and discolor in the future. But if you are going for longevity, matte paper is your answer.

Also, if it’s possible, go for paper that is not coated with resins. Resin-coated paper, which is used in almost all color pictures and many black and whites, tends to have a looser grip on the dyes.

Restoring Old Photos

Whether the photo is very old, heavily damaged, faded, or delicate, it actually is possible for it to be restored. Professionals are able to scan the photo onto their device and then edit rips, tears, stains and then brighten the image, making it look like it did when it was first taken, sometimes even livelier. 

If you want more information about storing, displaying, and restoring pictures, the American Library Association has a lot of articles and resources, which you can find here.

Black and White Versus Color

A lot of people will say that black and white photos are actually better than colored photos. That is because of backlit subjects, and dramatic shadows stand out to the viewers more quickly in black and white photos than colored photos. The lack of color in the black and white photograph accentuates the lights and shadows, while the different hues in a colored photograph add several elements and can add a distraction to the viewer.

Black and white photographs have a more dramatic look to them and are often seen as more appealing. The quality of black and white photos also lasts longer due to the lack of colors that can fade.

Final Thoughts

Evaluate how you are storing your pictures, whether they are black and white or color. Even though your black and white photos won’t fade as quickly, you still want them to last so that they can help preserve those precious memories.