Sorting through years of inherited family photos can be daunting, but here are practical tips for keeping printed memories safe for the next generation and beyond.

By Marisa Cohen, writing for HP’s History of Memory project

“When you discover old photos and albums, it feels like unearthing buried treasure,” says Rachel LaCour Niesen, a photographer and founder of Save Family Photos, an online archive of family photos from around the world.

I know exactly what she means: when my parents decided to sell their house last year, my brother and I started excavating our own personal version of King Tut’s tomb. We found 50 years’ worth of memories gathering dust in the basement — our old comic books, report cards, letters home from summer camp.

We also found hundreds upon hundreds of family photos. There were delicate frames with stiffly-posed black-and-white portraits of our great-grandparents, snapshots from my parents’ honeymoon, thick albums filled with fading baby pictures.

We also found thousands of slides, some stuck for half a century in their cardboard sleeves, and in a small wooden box, a stack of 8mm home movies.

It was emotionally overwhelming to see these forgotten memories from my childhood and from my parents’ younger days. There were photos of long-gone grandparents, aunts, and uncles, some in great condition, some curling up or faded.

With the advent of family photography going back to the 1860s (a century and a half before anyone ever heard the phrase “Instagram filter”), most families have at least a few of their own treasures buried in the closet — and, depending on how they were stored, that 19th-century sepia-toned portrait may be in even better shape than the Instamatic snaps from your third birthday party.

To figure out the best way to preserve all these memories, I asked Niesen and Sandra Christie, a photo restoration expert and owner of The Photo Restoration Center, for their advice.


Remove what you can from albums and frames

Old frames can get cracked and layered with dust and grime, and the sticky magnetic photo albums we all used in the 1970s and 1980s were not meant to last forever.

In fact, the deteriorating chemicals from the plastic and adhesive in those albums are probably releasing fumes that can harm your photos, says Niesen. (When I opened up my old photo albums, most of the pictures slid out, with the plastic “protective” sheets curling or completely ripped.)

So your first step is to remove what you can from its housing, wearing white cotton gloves so you don’t cause more damage from the oils on your hands.

If the photos are stuck to the album page, you can run dental floss under them, starting at one corner, to gently work the pictures off the page.

“But if a photo has been in a frame in the basement or somewhere else that’s damp, and it’s really stuck to the glass, don’t try to pull it off,” says Christie. “It’s better to scan the whole thing and then retouch out the glass rather than trying to add in what might get ripped out.”

Remember to write down any info — names, dates, locations — that Grandma penciled in the album or on the back of the photo. “As much as the photos themselves are valuable, it’s the stories behind them that are truly priceless,” says Niesen.


Sort through and choose the best

As I found out while going through an entire roll of snapshots of birds at the Bronx Zoo, not every old photo is worth saving. There will be blurry shots, doubles, piles and piles of boring scenery photos.

“Start by setting up a workstation at a large desk or even your dining table,” says Niesen. “Lay all of the loose photos out on your clean, liquid-free work station, and glance at the variety.”

She suggests you see which photos jump out at you as telling a story, or of bringing back to life people from the past. “Avoid a walk down memory lane at this point,” she says. “Focus on hunting and gathering the photos that stand out.”


Decide whether to digitise yourself or send to a pro

The most important step in saving and restoring an old photo is to create a digital image that is as close to the original as possible. You can do this yourself by investing in a good-quality photo scanner or taking a photograph with a digital or 35mm SLR camera of the photo (using your smartphone or a document scanner will not achieve the clarity and detail you need).

Look for a flatbed scanner that can scan photos at a resolution of at least 600 DPI, but preferably 1200 DPI, says Christie. “The resolution is really important, and remember that what’s high now will seem very low five years from now.”

She points out that the higher-resolution scans will take longer and use up more disk space, but it will be well worth it. If you choose to take a picture, it’s important to lay the photograph flat near a source of natural light and turn off any artificial lights, avoiding all glares and shadows, and shoot from straight down.

If you don’t have the time or inclination to scan and shoot your photos yourself, you can send them to a pro who will do it for you.


Create an exact digital duplicate

If you choose to scan at home, get those cotton gloves back on, and use a lint-free wipe or compressed air to clean the surface of the photo or slide (also be sure to clean off the scanner with a lint-free wipe or glass cleaner, making sure to let the surface dry before placing the photo on it).

Make sure your scanner is set to photograph, not document, and colour rather than black-and-white (this will help capture all the nuances of your black-and-white photos).

And, most importantly, turn off all the filters, says Christie. “The filters may make the photo look good on your computer screen, but they remove or distort the pixels, and once that’s done on the digital file, you can’t undo it.”

She suggests you scan and save the truest possible version as your primary copy; you can then scan it again, using filters and tools such as color correction and scratch-remover.


Make it look (almost) like new

If you choose to send your photo or the digital scan to a professional photo restorer, there are many magical fixes they can make: Restoring color, bringing faded faces back to life, removing creases, scratches, and yellowing.

Christie has even completely restored a wedding photo that was put through a paper shredder.

If you’re handy with Photoshop, there are plenty of fixes you can make at home, Christie adds: “If the image is torn or creased on the edges, you can crop it. For faded photos, you can adjust the color balance or brightness.”

Neisen points out that not every photo needs to be buffed and polished to perfection. “Personally, I love the signs of wear on old photos,” she says. “They’re signs of life. I jokingly refer to them as ‘loved like the Velveteen rabbit.’”

But she adds that some cases absolutely require the skilled hands of a pro. “When an old family photo is torn, especially if the tears are through loved ones’ faces, then it’s time to seek professional help. Photoshop and similar programs are complex tools that can be misused, wasting lots of time.”


Print, share, and store

Once you have the restored image, you’ll want to display it and share it with the rest of your family, either using an online picture service or using a photo printer.

Meanwhile, take care of those original photos by getting rid of the musty old albums and shoeboxes and placing each photo in a glassine envelope inside an acid-free, archival storage box.

Then you can store them in your closet, where your children and grandchildren can have the pleasure of discovering them decades from now.