Why Do Photographs Fade?As time passes, we accept that some memories fade, but most of us take for granted that our photos will last, preserving how things were and the faces and moments we don’t want to forget. Sadly, looking over a lifetime’s collection of photographs, it’s apparent that prints, like our memories, are not impervious to time.

There are several reasons why photos deteriorate, but there are steps you can take to protect your pictures from the worst effects of age.

If a treasured photograph has already faded, The Photo Restoration Center can work to rescue a timeworn print. The good news is that at least in some cases, a faded photograph may not be as lost to time as meets the eye. Expert scanning techniques can reveal compelling details and vibrant colors.

Fading in Photographs

If your family photo album has been affected by fading, there are four prime suspects:

    • Sun Exposure
    • Acid
    • Environmental Factors
    • Fungus

Layers in a Print

To understand how photographs fade, it is helpful to look at a cross-section of a print. This diagram shows the different layers that make up a photograph. A wide range of materials has been used throughout the history of photography, but most prints have three or four layers, as shown in the diagram below.

Structure of Photographs

The base layer or ‘support’ will be made of paper in most family albums, but if you have pre-1920s prints, these will be printed on cotton. Heirloom photographs, those dating back to pre-1850, have a base of glass or metal. Modern pictures use plastics.

The second layer in a photograph is called a ‘binder’ layer. The binder is usually gelatin and barium sulphate, but it could be albumen or collodion. In modern photos, synthetic materials are used. The binder acts as an adhesive surface for the next layer.

The third layer contains gelatin and silver grains (halides), or pigment particles. This layer is the light-reactive film where your image appears.

Finally, a top ‘binder’ layer seals and protects the image layer below.

Molecular Changes Cause Fading


The layers in a photograph contain molecules that are vulnerable to changes. The four principal causes of fading (sunlight, acid, environmental factors and fungus), act on these layers in different ways.

Sunlight contains UV rays that penetrate the top layer of a print (or the reverse if you leave your print face down). The UV rays change the behavior of molecules in the photosensitive layer, the layer where your photograph is actually formed, and they begin to break down. This is the most common cause of fading and discoloration.

The photograph above dates from the 1960s. The owner had displayed the original rectangular print in a frame with an oval cutout, and over time it had been ravaged by sun exposure. The Photo Restoration Center has skillfully reinstated the vibrancy of the original.

Acid also causes fading. A common component in glue, sticky tape, certain papers, and paper dyes, acid-containing materials must be avoided if you frame or mount a print. The acid disturbs the molecules in your photograph through contact and absorption.

Other less obvious acid-containing products include varnish, wood stain, or various furniture coatings. These could be lurking inside a drawer or a box where you keep your photograph collection. Contact with an acidic surface, or the presence of gasses emitted by these products, will cause fading over time.

Environmental Factors are another cause of fading. Photographs can be affected by pollution in the atmosphere that may not be visible to the naked eye. These particles could come from traffic fumes, dust, smoke, or chemicals such as air fresheners and cleaning spray. They collect on the surface layer of your print and damage the lower layers of a photograph as they are absorbed.

The weather where you live will also affect how quickly your photographs fade. In warm climates, your pictures will age faster. High humidity levels can cause a print’s gelatin layers to soften, which rapidly increases the speed at which it will deteriorate. Low humidity is also problematic, causing shrinkage, cracking, and curling.

Modern inkjet photos, particularly those printed during the 1990s, have been very susceptible to damage caused by moisture and humidity.

Fungus or mold won’t fade a photograph, but it will grow over time on the surface layer of your print, covering the upper gelatin layer with brown speckles. Fungus is often present when pictures have been kept in damp or humid conditions.

Chemical Processing and Image Stability

There are some cases where a photograph has faded because the developing process was not perfectly carried out when an original print was made. The photo may not have been washed thoroughly enough, or the chemical that fixes the image may have been out of date or underused. Any residue left on a print will gradually cause fading and yellowing. Although it may go unnoticed for years, parts of an image may gradually darken if their light-sensitive layer is not entirely stable.

How to Protect Prints from Fading

To keep your family photos as sharp and bright as possible, we recommend taking the following steps:

    • Keep your prints away from sunlight.
    • Mount or frame your photographs professionally with non-acidic materials and Museum Glass® glass.
    • If you want to keep a photo out permanently, make a high-quality copy to display. Store the original safely.
    • Handle photographs carefully, and never keep your photographs loose in drawers, bags, or boxes.
    • Never fix or mount a photograph with glue or tape.
    • Keep your photograph albums in dry, cool, pest-free, and well-ventilated areas.

Restoring and Reprinting Faded Photographs

It’s the intricacies in our old photographs that really speak through the centuries: the insignia on a soldier’s cap, the shape of a pendant on a child’s necklace, or the shop sign on a family business in the background. Details like these can tell us so much about our families’ histories.

Sadly, fine details are often the first parts of a photograph that are lost to aging and fading, becoming too blurry to discern. If this has happened to a unique picture in your collection, there is hope for it to be salvaged. Some faded photographs can retain intricacies that are no longer visible to the human eye, and these are now accessible through modern scanning techniques. If your print was made between 1850 and 1920, there’s a good chance that faded details could re-emerge.

The Photo Restoration Center uses an infrared process, like a CT scan, to uncover secrets that have receded into the deeper layers of your print. Carefully searching through the layers of an original print and precisely putting them back together can achieve astonishing results. In some cases, a relative that had entirely faded from view in the original print, has reappeared.

The Photo Restoration Center can also restore modern photographs, such as the baby photograph above, but different techniques are necessary when the original print contains plastics.

If you have a faded photograph that you would love to see returned to its original beauty, or if you are curious to see what ghostly details your faded photographs might contain, contact The Photo Restoration Center.