5 Common Causes of Photo Damage

Written by Mark Rogers

Most people know that direct sunlight can seriously damage precious framed art and documents. Over time, light exposure can cause colors to change or documents to become brittle, yellow, or oxidized. But light exposure is not the only threat to your cherished art pieces and photographs. To improve the lifespan of your framed treasures, keep in mind the many other ways damage can occur.

1. Acid and Lignin

This type of damage is usually caused by improper mat board, backing board, adhesives, and other materials in the frame package as well as any chemical or airborne pollutants that the piece is exposed to over long periods of time. Lignin, which is found in wood products (including wood frames), can fade or yellow photographs.

How to Prevent It: Choose mat board made from cotton rag or alpha cellulose, use acid-free mount board, photo-safe adhesives, and other materials marked “museum quality.”

2. Air Pollution

Airborne pollutants inside the home will cause fading of photos and art. Even the type of paper a photo is printed on can be the culprit and give off harmful gases inside the frame, causing discoloration.

How to Prevent It: Besides using the correct materials, it is important to ensure the environment in which the frame piece is displayed is not harming the photograph. For example, be cautious using household cleaners around the frame. Additionally, if you paint a room, let it cure for two weeks before rehanging the frame.

3. Insects

Infestation by insects can leave holes and stains and must be treated by a professional conservator or exterminator. Insects usually enter through openings as a result of a poorly assembled frame.

How to Prevent It: Check framed pieces regularly for signs of insect infestation and damage.

4. Heat

Did you know that room temperature is actually too hot for a photo? Framed pieces exposed to heat for extended periods of time can warp, discolor, or deteriorate. Even the light you use to display and highlight your art can produce enough heat to damage your framed piece.

How to Prevent It: Use non-heat producing lighting to illuminate your framed piece and avoid displaying it where the frame will be in direct morning or afternoon light.

5. Moisture

When exposed to moisture, framed photographs can succumb to blocking. Blocking occurs when the surface of the photo becomes adhesive-like and sticks to the glass frame; the photo is often destroyed if it is attempted to remove it. Moisture will also cause warping, mold growth on the surface of the piece (which poses a health hazard), and color bleeding on digital photographs.

How to Prevent It: Display your framed piece in a climate controlled area—low humidity and air conditioned is best. It is also advisable to use picture frame spacers to ensure the artwork does not touch the surface of the glazing.

Prevention and Protection

Defend against damage to your artwork by first selecting the correct materials to use in the entire frame package.

  • A structurally sound, high-quality frame
  • Glazing, choose either glass or acrylic, preferably with UV protection
  • Picture frames spacers
  • Acid-free mat board
  • Acid-free mount board
  • Backing paper, which seals the package to protect against humidity, insects and other pollutants

A professional frame store can supply all of these high-quality framing materials. You may opt to use your own selected materials in place of ready-made frames, some of which already include archival materials, but it is important to ensure that every piece of the frame package can stand up to potential damage. In the long run, an investment in a good framing package is the best way to ensure you can enjoy your framed pieces for years to come.