Damaged Photos: Guidelines to Types of Damage August 26 2022

While photos may not look alive, the environment impacts them significantly. Most photo damage occurs slowly over time and catches many people by surprise.

For collectors, avoiding damage in their photos is crucial. Some photographs have an incalculable value, but they are only worth as much as their quality at the end of the day. This does not mean that a damaged photograph has no value. Even old damaged photos can become a collector's asset. However, there is nothing as good as a preserved piece.

Clifton Webb Autograph Photo

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Signed Photograph of American actor Clifton Webb shown next to a woman. Photograph has adhesive tape residues in all four corners.

Damaged photos may need a specialized preservation process by skilled photo restoration professionals. Also, there is a lot of valuable information that you can use to help preserve your photos or even address possible damages your images have.

If you are looking for reliable information on photo damage, then you've come to the right place. Read on to learn more about different types of photo damages, how to evaluate, restore, and, most importantly, how to prevent them. But first, you need to understand what causes photo damage and how these damages are categorized.



Alice Ducasse Photograph

Photographs can be damaged in different ways, but external and internal causes are the two main types. Internal causes lie in the making of the object or photography. The cause of damage is already in the material, the products, or the tools used in photography.

[IMAGE] Photograph of the French soprano Alicia Ducasse, with damage and tape residues over the left corner

In case of contamination of the products, tools, or material by foreign materials during the initial production stage, the damage can be seen later on. Also, the durability or instability of the material can be the source of damage.

On the other hand, external causes of damage are not within the photo itself. These damages depend on external influences like environmental factors and manipulation factors like incorrect handling and storage of images. Environmental factors include temperature and humidity, lighting, fire, water, and polluted air.



Charles Battaille PHoto in role

Photos can be valuable to us for several reasons. A rare and unique photo has a halo of uniqueness that separates it from ordinary images. For the case of collectors, there is a special interest in preserving them.


[CLICKABLE IMAGE] A somewhat faded cabinet photograph of the French bass Charles Bataille(1822-1872).


Classifying photos according to the level of damage can sometimes be a challenging task. There isn't a single definition as to what 'damage' means. Nonetheless, different classifications exist.

Photo damage is usually classified based on its condition, stability, and usability. Depending on these variables, a photo's overall level of damage can be classified into one of the following:

  • Good: reflects a stable condition that does not require any intervention.
  • Reasonable: although it presents some damage, there is no need to take action.
  • Bad: the photo should avoid use as action is most likely desired to preserve it.
  • Unacceptable: very damaged and may require immediate intervention.
  • Total loss: nothing can be done to repair the photo.



Any photo damage is understood as an alteration of the original image. It is good to assess the degree of damage to know how bad the alteration is. When evaluating the damage of your photos, you should ask yourself these questions:

  • Is the information wholly lost, or it's just altered?
  • What areas are affected?
  • Are the affected regions vital to the image?
  • Is the area much detailed?
  • Is there any similar information you can use to replace the affected area?
  • Do I have other photos that contain almost similar information?


Jackie Coogan signed photo in a film

When going through your damaged photos collection, you should always check the deterioration level. A good photo evaluation determines the kind of photo restoration you will get. Most old photos you find are either faded, have holes, spider cracks, stains, or other damages. These damages range from minor to severe.

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Signed photograph of actor Jackie Coogan (1914-1984) in a film -photo has a big crease over the lower-right corner, minor creases in the other three corners.

Restoring such photos in their initial state involves evaluating the damage to have a restoration plan to fix deteriorations. Assessing the damage helps the photo restoration professional categorize the restoration as minor, standard, substantial, or severe damage.



Different photographic materials have been utilized since the birth of photography. These materials have complex chemical and physical structures that require exceptional preservation. They also become subject to damage with use and over time. Though some photo deterioration can result from natural processes, much can be done to slow the rate of damage.

Jose de San Martin and Bernardo de Monteagudo signed document

In many cases, the causes of photo damage are considered the damage itself. These forms of photo damage are divided into three main categories: chemical, mechanical and biological damage. The divisions are made according to the initial origin of the damage. Under these three main groups, different types of damage exist. They are categorized according to their visual features like color and form changes. However, some types of damages may evolve from one form to another.

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Historic document signed by Jose de San Martin and Bernardo de Monteagudo in 1821. As seen, the document has folds, missing borders, overall rust and minor tape damage at the top, though in overall very good condition.

For instance, stains can initially be classified as mechanical damage but change to chemical damage when there is a chemical bond between the material causing the stain and the material the photo is made of, causing it to change its initial chemical composition.

Without further ado, let's look at each form of photo damage.



Mechanical or structural damage is physical deterioration of a photo leading to changes in its structure. The damage is a result of physical strain on the photographic material. The deterioration can happen over time or by a sudden shift in initial photo condition. Generally, mechanical damage can be further categorized into four forms, subdivided into specific photo damage types. These include:

  • Damage Caused by Pollution

Pollution causes damage through the deposit of particulate matter on the photo surface, which includes stains and dirt from dust. If the deposit forms a chemical bond with the photographic material structure, the deterioration can change to chemical damage. If the photos damage is through pollution, expect to see:

  • Surface dirt
  • Stains
  • Fingerprints
  • Incrusted dirt


  • Damage as a Result of Form Changes

The damage happens when the original form of the photo has changed because of physical force without causing loss of material. Damage through form changes leads to wrinkles, bubbles on the image, dents, or imprints.

Silverfish damage on an old silver gelatin print

[IMAGE] Silverfish damage on an old silver gelatin print

  • Damage by Foreign Materials Unrelated to the Photos

Foreign materials can cause severe deterioration and affect the originality of the photos. These foreign matters can create a physical force onto the images and interfere with their initial state. These materials are intentionally introduced on the photographic material in most cases. For example, a picture is hung on the wall using sticky tape. The tape, which is not an original part of the photo, can interfere with its originality. A photo damaged by unrelated foreign materials may have glue residual, inscriptions, stamps, adhesive, and other attachments.

  • Damage Caused by Material Loss

Physical forces can lead to the loss of material. The photo will have some of the original material missing or exhibit loose particles. However, this does not mean that the entire material was lost. An image may have cracks, scratches, or tears. These damages can cause loss of information that cannot be restored by editing the affected area.



Thurlow Lieurance large signed photo

With time, the photographic material changes due to exposure to certain elements, substances, and factors such as light, gases, and temperatures. The damage occurs when these elements react with the original material. The outcome of the reaction is the breaking of chemical bonds or a change of compounds.

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Signed photograph of the American composer Thurlow Lieurance (1878-1963) with minor loss of paper over margins, minor rust stains over the top, in overall very good condition.

Some of the main elements that trigger chemical damage are light and temperature. This is through oxidation, photochemical, and hydrolysis processes. Also, the materials used for preservation or storage, for example, passe-partouts, cassettes, and secondary carriers, may contain or come into contact with damaging elements such as glue or acids.

In the initial stage, it's not easy to detect chemical damage as it appears as slight discoloration that's hard to detect. In addition, chemical damage can further be categorized into two types. These are damage characterized by color changes and damage inherent in the material.

Damage Characterized by Color Changes

Color changes on photos make this damage apparent. It can be seen on the whole surface or in specific sections exposed to the damaging substance or element. The most common triggers in this category are humidity, temperature, and light.

Humidity and Temperature

The state and conditions in which you store or display your photos determine their exposure to damage. If you want to prevent photodamage through humidity and temperature, ensure the environment is safe from such exposure. These two elements can cause and accelerate the growth of mold spores too.

If your photos contain gelatine-based materials, you should pay keen attention to humidity and temperature. It's recommended to keep such pictures in a cool and dry environment. Avoid places with extreme temperatures. But if you live in a sunny climate, ensure you display or store them away from direct sunlight.

  • Light

Light can damage your photos in different ways. Direct sunlight can highly damage your photos through UV rays radiation. Similarly, natural and some forms of artificial light present the ideal conditions for fading and photochemical decomposition. A combination of visible and UV light accelerates bleaching or discoloration on your photos, making their material weak or brittle.

However, different photo materials have different resistance levels to light, with older photos more susceptible.

But, for longevity and safety, it's recommended to protect your pictures from direct light.

Also, place your photos away from light sources and paths such as windows, open doors, skylights, among others. Alternatively, you can cover your windows with UV filters.



Tchaikovsky Cabinet Photograph

Under this category, the damage occurs on a specific material used on the photo, such as metal or glass. The causes or triggers include acids, adhesives, inks, and other preservatives. In most cases, the damage occurs through corrosion on metal, wood, glass, or acetate and nitrate decay. Acetate decay is also called vinegar syndrome.

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] A beautiful cabinet photograph of the star Russian composer P.I. Tchaikovsky with signs of wear "dog ears" over the upper borders

  • Adhesive Damage

Adhesives are often made from very aggressive chemicals that can easily damage your photographs. When preserving your photos using adhesive material, ensure it doesn't damage them. You can also destroy a picture when removing an adhesive preservative, sometimes leaving residues that are difficult to eliminate. Therefore it's vital to exercise utmost care or seek professional help.

Pressure-sensitive adhesive tapes can be removed using solvents, but still, there's always the risk of damaging the photo in the process. On the other hand, water-activated adhesive tape is easy to remove, but it can also leave damaging impressions on your photos.



As the name indicates, this damage is primarily caused by living organisms, excluding humans. Biological damage can cause severe consequences and, therefore, you should prevent it by all means possible. It also causes changes on a molecular and atomic level. However, the substructure and micro-structure remain the same in the initial phase.

When living organisms lodge themselves in or on the photo material, this damage becomes inherent. Insects, mold, rodents, and other organisms eat and destroy the original material, sometimes leaving it irreparable. Additionally, there are four categories of biological damage. These include damage by micro-organisms, insects, rodents, and other organisms.

  • Damage by Insects

Insects lodge and eat your photo material leaving severe damage. They also deposit dirt and feces on the original material, triggering even chemical damage due to the acidic state of the deposited waste matter. Some of the most common types of insect damage include mouth chews, wormholes, and flyspecks.

Photograph of an Empire State building worker, 1931, by Lewis Hine

But, if you are keen on keeping your photos clean from dust particles, you will most likely stop insects too. This is because most insects thrive in dusty places, so make sure you clean or dust your photos regularly. Alternatively, store or display them in areas or materials free from dust.

[IMAGE] Mold damage on a photograph of an Empire State building worker, 1931, by Lewis Hine

  • Damage by Rodents

Rodents are commonly known to cause damage to objects. The destruction becomes apparent when they lodge themselves in photo materials. Rodents such as rats can nibble frame edges or chew through the original material, causing devasting destruction.

  • Damage by Micro-organisms

Like insects and rodents, micro-organisms and mold nestle between the photo material. However, micro-organisms primarily inflict damage by feeding on the remnants of the original material or dead insects found in your picture frames.

  • Damage by Other Organisms

In this case, other creatures, dead or alive, cause this biological damage. These could be your pets, such as dogs, cats, birds, and others. Deposits of dirt and feces from these animals can destroy your photos. In addition, plants are also included in this category. For instance, pollen from flowers or sap that finds its way into your pictures can cause damage.



One thing that is of utmost importance to photo collectors is to preserve memories. While the advancement in technology is making it easier to preserve photos than their analog counterparts, there is still what you can do captured memories before the invention of the pixel.

Elsie Mendl large signed photo

With the miracle of modern photoshop tools, it's possible to restore faded, creased, torn, or stained photos back. The first step is to assess the damage by scanning the photos. However, before scanning, make sure they are free from dust and dirt.

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Color engraving of the American actress Elsie Mendl mounted on a mat with some damage and dust over the mat.

Keep all pieces together. Don't get rid of those shreds. A photo-editing tool can help restore photo damage. You can use photo-safe adhesive to glue the pieces together. Once the pieces are joined together, develop a plan of action. Start by correcting the overall image before tackling the details.

Before starting the repair process, make sure you crop the image to avoid wasting time on unnecessary elements. Cropping also helps in creating clean and new edges for an original look. Most of the old prints have worn out and faded colors. You can use auto-tone or auto-color features to bring the photo almost to its initial state.

A noise reduction tool can help correct slight scratches on the image. And after making all the necessary repairs and corrections, print and admire your final results.



With these damages in mind, it's vital to take preventive measures. Preserving your photos should be your top responsibility. You must understand these damage types well and quickly detect the triggers or facilitators.

These three but closely related photodamage types, structural, chemical, and biological, suggest distinct ways of preventing and avoiding each.

Preventing Mechanical/Structural Damage

Maddalena Mariani-Masi CDV

Since this is primarily a deterioration of the photo's physical condition, take note of the original material used. For example, consider storing or displaying them in places with good airflow to prevent damage through pollution. But make sure they are not exposed to highly humid air.

Also, avoid areas such as the attic, kitchen, bathroom, or garage. The high level of activities in these areas can expose them to destruction.

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Carte-de-Visite (CDV) of the Italian soprano Maddalena Mariani-Masi with some loss of paper on the top right.

Preventing Chemical Damage

As observed, the damage is provoked mainly through photochemical reactions such as oxidation and hydrolysis. Also, since light, heat, and humidity are high triggers of chemical damage, strategically placing these photos is an excellent way of protecting them. Try using broad-spectrum sunscreen covers to protect them from harmful UV rays.

But mostly, avoid placing or storing them in direct sunlight. Moreover, consider displaying or preserving your photos in areas and materials that don't trap heat easily since it's also harmful.

On the other hand, avoid adhesives and other acidic materials or preservatives. Where possible, use acid-free adhesives.

You can also use acid-free folders, envelopes, boxes, and other non-reactive materials for storage or preservation. While handling your photos, make sure your hands are free from glue, oil, and other sticky or transferrable elements. Also, don't eat, drink, or smoke near photos. Deposits or spills from such substances can provoke chemical damage.

Preventing Biological Damages

Insects and other animals are part of the ecosystem. Therefore, you can't eliminate them. However, you can control and prevent their destructive nature on your photos. In particular, always check for insects and pests such s termites, silverfish, woodworms, cockroaches, booklice, and other ants. Don't apply insecticides directly on the paper or material if you find pests in the photos.

Freezing them is another good way of getting rid of plagues on your photo albums or other old paper items. Place your items in the freezer for some time. But, before doing this, make sure that your items are completely dry since humidity is damaging.

I Due Foscari large playbill 1847 La Fenice

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Large playbill of Verdi's opera "I Due Foscari" at La Fenice in 1847 with minor wrinkles and folds, though in overall very good condition.

Wipe or dust your photos regularly because most pests and insects thrive in such conditions. On the other hand, hang or display your images where your pets, such as birds, cats, and dogs, can't reach them.

Alternatively, If you decide to hire an expert to help you preserve, repair, or display your pictures, first validate or verify their expertise and experience. Otherwise, they may cause further damage to your photos. You don't want your precious photos in the wrong hands of an inexperienced person.



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