One of the most common photo restoration requests we get is to fix one form
or another of water damage. Whether it's humidity or more severe contact with
water, water damage brings us a lot of photo restoration business. We'd prefer
to keep your family photos intact in the first place.
Whether your house was flooded or caught fire, your prized photos have probably suffered from water damage. The first rule of handling water-damaged photos? “Don’t Panic.” You may be able to salvage many or all of your pictures. You might want to contact a photo conservation professional or consult a book on the subject, but here are a few tips:
- Don’t let the photos dry out! As your photographs dry, they
will stick to each other and any other materials they may be in contact
with. You’ll find it impossible to pull them apart without causing
potentially irreparable damage.
- Get to work as soon as possible. Your photographs shouldn’t
stay wet for more than two or three days. Now is a good time to recommend
having a friend (or photo restoration expert) scan the images before you try
pulling anything apart or before doing anything that will further damage the
- While you’re working on your photos, store them in a container
full of cold, clean tap water. The colder the better. Don’t
add chlorine to the water, but change the water every day. The chlorine
in tap water is enough to prevent the growth of fungi and other biological
- Rinse your photos in a container of cold, clear running water.
Don’t run the water directly onto the photos, because that could
damage the chemical emulsion, causing permanent damage. Keep rinsing
them until the run-off water is clear.
- Carefully remove your photographs or negatives from the water,
taking the smallest quantity possible. Pull them out of their wrappers
and gently separate them. DO NOT FORCE THEM APART. Separate as many
as possible before returning them to the cold water and starting on
another batch. Repeat the separate-soak cycle as many times as necessary.
However, sometimes you may not be able to separate materials without
forcing the issue. In those cases you will probably have to just accept
the corresponding damage.
- Once your materials are separated, store them in water until you
can wash them individually, using cold, clean running water. use cotton
balls, a soft cotton cloth or a soft foam rubber brush to remove foreign
objects if needed. Rinse your photographs or negatives one more time
after cleaning is complete.
- Hang-dry prints and negatives from a clothesline. Make sure they will not
be exposed to dust. As an option, special solutions are available that
facilitate uniform, spot-free drying when applied to negatives and slides.
These solutions can be purchased from your local photo restoration provider
or photo lab
- If your prints curl while drying, wet the paper side (NOT the emulsion!)
with a moist sponge and place each one between two pieces of acid-free
paper or photo blotters, and leave them under a flat, heavy object
for a day or two.
Even if you follow these instructions, some of your prints will probably suffer permanent damage. In that case, take them to your nearest photo restoration expert. to find out which photos can be restored. You’ll be surprised!
You can also learn more about modern photo restoration in our next article, "When Disaster Strikes."