How long will your photograph last?

Most of my clients probably don't care whether their new photograph will still be around when their great-grandchildren are adults, but I do 

See also my "About the Prints" page

Note: This posting refers mostly to black and white photographic prints, since that's the focus of my art and business. Longevity of color prints may vary slightly.

Most photographs printed today are inkjet prints. In the world of fine art photography, there are a wide range of processes in use, from the earliest antique processes, to traditional darkroom prints, to the latest digital prints on aluminum or wood, but the modern de facto standard is the inkjet print on paper.

Photographers and galleries now widely offer inkjet prints.

My ethical responsibility

Most of my clients probably don't question whether their new photograph will still be around when their great-grandchildren are adults, but I do. I care because this is my art  my life's work  I am ego-driven to create a product that will outlast me. Also, I see it as my ethical responsibility to provide my clients with the very best product I can create.

The types of prints I offer

While I offer several alternative types of prints like handmade cyanotypes and one-of-a-kind Polaroid-style photographs, the vast bulk of my work is offered in three print formats, with option one being my new primary offering:

  1. Pigment-based inkjet prints on museum quality fine art baryta paper, 
  2. Pigment-based inkjet on 100-percent cotton rag paper, and
  3. Museum quality fiber-based silver gelatin photographs.

I'll describe these types of print in-depth below.

Photo of a pigment inkjet print and signature in pencil on Hahnemühle Photo Rag Mat 100-percent cotton paper

Photo of a pigment inkjet print and signature in pencil on Hahnemühle Photo Rag Mat 100-percent cotton paper

All inkjets prints are not created equal

Inkjet prints fall into two categories: dye-based inks and pigment-based inks. Generally speaking, dyes are not considered permanent and will fade more quickly than pigments. Pigments are also used to add color to other types of artists' materials like oil paints, and generally are more stable than the colors used in dye-based inks.

One thing to understand is that even "black and white" inkjet prints contain color inks. They're composed mostly of varying amounts of grays and blacks, but also have underlying amounts of all the available color inks.

However, black and white prints are vastly more stable according to Wilhelm Imaging Research.

Studies by Wilhelm found that color prints using Epson's newest HD pigment inks on Epson brand paper will last between 62 years and 108 years under normal glass, depending on the type of paper used. UV glass nearly doubles print life in most of these.

However, black and white prints on the same papers under normal glass could potentially last between 300 and 400 years or more (source). Under UV glass, all the black and white prints were expected to last more than 400 years.

Aardenburg Imaging and Archives research has compared Epson's newest HD ink sets with its older K3 inks, and with Canon Lucia inks. Their tests exposed unfiltered color swatches to the equivalent of 12 hours of light each day, to determine the rate of fade. Their results found discernible color fade in approximately 50 - 75 years on the newer Epson inks and between 50 and 100+ years for the Canon inks, depending on paper type. Their results seem to align similarly with the Wilhelm Imaging results.

Again, the key to longevity is UV filtering glass and careful control of direct light.

Above: black and white photograph printed with pigment inks on cotton rag photo paper. This print could last 400+ years under proper conditions.

My "standard" prints: pigment ink on cotton rag fine art paper

My prints use the latest state-of-the-art Epson HD inks discussed in the tests above, on 100% cotton rag matte-finish photo paper. This paper is neutral-PH (also called acid-free). Not only is this paper archivally stable, it's beautiful to look at and to touch. However, don't touch too much because oils from your fingers can cause stains or degradation of the paper over time. Never touch the printed surface.

One of the problems with some matte surface papers is that they have limited dynamic range with muted blacks, but my papers have a beautiful tonal range, from rich, deep blacks to bright whites.

An advantage of matte papers is that they don't create a glare of light in the frame as glossy papers will do.

Silver gelatin — the gold standard in print longevity 

Close-up look at the silver gelatin fiber-based photographic paper

Above: a close-up look at the silver gelatin fiber-based photographic paper

My "premium" prints: Silver gelatin fiber-based prints

Silver gelatin prints on fiber-based paper have been called "the gold standard" in print longevity by the researchers at Wilhelm Research. 

One caveat for that to be true: the prints must be developed, fixed, and dried properly to be at their most archival. I call my premium prints "museum quality." I make that claim because the lab I use to create my silver gelatins actually follows best practices to process prints to archival standards, and they actually do make prints for museums. These folks know what they are doing.

Silver gelatin fiber print

A silver gelatin fiber-based print on baryta surface paper

Toning adds longevity

Longevity of darkroom prints can be enhanced with selenium or sepia toning. Toning will, of course, also change the appearance of the print. 

An 8 x 12-inch silver gelatin print on baryta surface paper, which has been chemically toned with selenium. Toning slightly enhances the color and tones of the print, but also makes it more archival.

An 8 x 12-inch silver gelatin print on baryta surface paper, which has been chemically toned with selenium. Toning slightly enhances the color and tones of the print, but also makes it more archival.

The collector's role in print permanence

A collector buys a photograph because they want to display it. Many permanence ratings are based on controlled lab test conditions, but real-world display conditions vary wildly. The longevity of your print will depend on many factors, including the actual types of inks and paper stocks used to make the print; the quality of the framing; use of UV protective glass; type of daily light source and length of daily exposure to it; and other room conditions like humidity.

So, what can the collector do to protect their investment in quality photography?

At the bottom of this article, be sure to check out the helpful resources from other pages.

Quality framing

The number one thing to do is invest in quality framing. Acid-free mats and mounts, and (as shown above) UV glass will really promote longevity in the artwork. Metal frames are preferred, but if you select a wood frame, be sure it has been buffered to prevent contaminants from the wood from leaching into the photograph or matting.

Protection against UV light

Light fades artwork. To protect your photographs, be sure to use UV glass and avoid displaying the artwork in direct window light, or under unfiltered fluorescent light sources.

Temperature, dust, and humidity

Proper framing and climate control will reduce the impact of the other enemies of photographs  temperature, dust, and humidity, as well as insects.

Dark storage

In some cases, with old family photographs for example, you may want to store the prints unframed. In this case, be sure to use a specially designed archival storage box, and whenever possible, put the individual prints inside a photo-safe poly bag.

Here are some various storage boxes on Amazon

And here are some photo safe storage bags.

So, how long will the print actually last?

Studies by Wilhelm Research seems to indicate that the very latest printing technologies will well outlast our lifetimes, if handled with care. If you take care of your prints, they could potentially last hundreds of years with no visible fading. Color photographs slightly less.

  • Pigment inkjet prints on archival quality paper could last with no visible fading for 75 - 400+ years, depending on quality of framing and display conditions.
  • Silver gelatin fiber prints properly processed, framed, and displayed could last several hundred years or more. Toned silver gelatin prints will have even more longevity.
  • Platinum prints on archival paper could last for 1,000+ years.

If you really want to dig into the details of this topic, I've included several resources below for you to read more. The last listing, from Wilhelm, goes to their free ebook about print permanence.

Resources about photography care and permanence

Below are a few exceptional reports about the care and research of print permanence. All links open in a new window.

Aardenburg Imaging

Museum Framing

Why Museum Framing uses 100% cotton rag mats and not “acid free” mats [Read it here.

National Park Service

Buffered And Unbuffered Storage Materials [Read it here.

Northeast Document Conservation Center

Temperature, Relative Humidity, Light, and Air Quality: Basic Guidelines for Preservation [Read it here.]

Protection from Light Damage [Read it here.]

Paul Messier, a highly regarded photo conservator based in Boston, maintains an extensive list of research, publications, and resources on the topic of photographic prints.

Strathmore Artist

What is the Difference Between Acid-Free and Archival? [Read it here.

Wilhelm Research

The Permanence and Care of Color Photographs: Traditional and Digital Color Prints, Color Negatives, Slides, and Motion Pictures [Read it here.]

Disclaimer: This posting includes Amazon affiliate links.

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