Cleaning Old Photographs

by April Reinhardt
(last updated August 15, 2016)

While perusing Grandma's old photographs, did you spill liquid or food on them? Don't panic! The photo isn't ruined. There is a way to clean old photographs. Follow these steps to clean old photographs, and then read the pointers for preserving them for future generations:

  1. For fresh stains, act quickly. Keep in mind that photographs are processed in liquid, so water will not harm them. Place the photo in a stream of running water, or in a pan of clean water.
  2. Gently hold the photo by the very edge, and swish it back and forth in the water.
  3. Using your fingers as a squeegee, remove the excess water from the photo.
  4. Inspect the photo for water droplets, and dab at them with paper toweling.
  5. Place the photo between paper towels to remove all water.
  6. Place the photo on a thick bath towel and then use a hair dryer on the highest heat setting to dry the photo completely, moving the dryer back and forth at least ten inches away from the photo.

The previous steps are not intended for very old photos, such as ferrotypes. And never, ever use water or liquid on photograph negatives, as you will completely destroy the image. It is best to take very old photographs to a professional restoration artist to have them cleaned, but you can enhance and preserve old photographs yourself if you have a computer and a photo editor. I use Picasa2 as my photo editor, and have scanned and then enhanced many old photos for my personal library. Follow these steps to preserve and enhance your old photographs with a photo editor:

  • Scan your photograph.
  • Choose to import it into your photo editor.
  • With your editor, choose to crop, straighten clear red eye problems, adjust contrast, lighting, color, color temperature, and even sharpen the photo.
  • Save the "cleaned" photos to a folder on your hard drive, and then store the original old photographs in dry, clean conditions at a steady room temperature with little humidity. Keep original photographs from direct sunlight.

When cleaning old photographs, try to determine the processing used for the particular print. Water will ruin certain types of prints. Avoid scratching or rubbing photographs while cleaning them, as doing so may etch the print. Avoid writing with ink on the fronts – or backs – of photographs, as the ink can transfer through to the print. If you must write on an old photograph, use pencil and write very lightly.

Author Bio

April Reinhardt

An admin­istrator for a mutual fund man­age­ment firm, April deals with the writ­ten word daily. She loves to write and plans to author a memoir in the near future. April attend­ed More­head State Uni­ver­sity to pursue a BA degree in Ele­men­tary Edu­ca­tion. ...


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