So we have some old family photos. These photos date 40-10 years old... some maybe newer. A family member of mine stored these photos in the garage for a year. This is in Toronto, Canada, so obviously the temperature went from 30C to -30C within the last 12 months. These photos were stored in a covered plastic Rubbermaid bin.

I have not checked on the photos since. Next time I am there I will be sure to take them somewhere safer in terms of environment.

Could the photos be ruined? Anyone have an experience with this situation?

  • It's not the freezing I would be worried about. It's the humidity unless the container was air-tight.
    – Itai
    Apr 6 '14 at 15:02

I have tried this myself. Difference to long-term storage of unexposed film is obvious. Controlled purposeful freezing is far from what happens in a garage or open attic during a year of ever-changing weather.

Weather is a problem, not the cold temperature alone. In a normal Canadian winter and spring the temperatures go repeatedly below freezing point and back above it, allowing humidity in the air to condensate on objects colder than the surrounding air. Condensated humidity is just plain water and that may enter the container in which the photos are stored.

Air entering the container is possible because the container breathes; in warm weather the air expands and higher than environmental pressure leaks out thru tiny gaps in the container lid seal. When air turns cold, air inside the container shrinks in volume and the resulting low pressure inside the container invites cold air to leak in. A cardboard shoebox does not behave like this, but an "almost sealed" plastic container does.

If the photo collection is just a stack of photos, then moisture has a chance to glue a stack of photos together, eventually forming one solid brick of photographic paper.

No, there is no real danger.

All the above is full of ifs and low probability even so. Moisture glueing is highly unlikely to happen in one year, it takes longer, and only happens if there is sufficient amount of moisture to begin with. It also depends on the quality of the photographic paper, where lower quality paper is more suspect of becoming glued together than high quality paper. In a sealed container the photos are going to be just fine for one winter and reasonably safe for a decade of storage like that.

I live in southern Finland, which roughly corresponds to center Canada. My home is near the sea (that freezes over during winter), with temperatures ranging thru the year between +30 and -25 Celsius degrees (+90F to -15F). Whatever moisture there is in the air has near-free access into the attic-storage of this block of flats in which we have our apartment. In the attic I have stored a two-inch thick stack of photos for the past 12 years. No container, just a stack of photos in an open box with an old newspaper on top to keep dust off the photos. I've leafed through the photos maybe three times during the 12 years period, the stack has rested untouched for as long as five consecutive years. There is no harm done to my photos, nothing at all.

  • I should maybe add "in this environment glueing of photos does not happen in one year"... Given enough water the photos can stick in each others as soon as the water has completely dried off, like in less than a week. Apr 7 '14 at 13:40

While I have not tried this personally, I can't think of any reason why storing them at cold temperatures would be a problem. Unexposed film is actually frequently frozen in order to preserve it. If anything, I would expect that the cold temperature would be more likely to prevent problems than cause them as long as there wasn't any frost to cause damage.

The reason I see a connection here is that both film and the paper that photos are developed on are similarly light sensitive. The basic chemical processes are similar. If the film itself is unharmed in it's unexposed state (when it is most vulnerable to being harmed), I don't see why exposed photo paper would be particular at risk from cold temperatures when already fixed.

The best bet though would be just to check, but I expect they should be fine.

  • Could you explain the relevance of unexposed film storage to a question about printed photographs?
    – dav1dsm1th
    Apr 6 '14 at 19:46
  • See my update to the answer, basically, because photos are developed using the same kind of process as film works via.
    – AJ Henderson
    Apr 7 '14 at 2:49

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