“How long will these prints last”?

It’s a question I get asked regularly, and rightly so. Unfortunately, it’s a question much more easily asked than answered. It’s important to understand that the longevity of a print relies not only on the printer, but also on you.

Let’s first get this out there: all of your prints will fade away. Even now I regularly restore photos from the 90s (that’s not that long ago is it?) that have been sitting on a table in a frame and the colors have faded. These are photos shot on film and printed on light sensitive paper using chemicals. If you want the most longevity possible then your best bet is to shoot traditional black and white film and print them in a darkroom using black and white papers and chemicals. Even still, those will fade, just not as quickly.

I’ve noticed a dramatic change in people asking about the archival nature of prints since the digital transition has occurred. When I was 18 or 19 I worked in a professional camera shop and photo lab. At that time the only digital cameras readily available were way overpriced and produced terrible images. Thus, everyone still purchased film cameras. We regularly printed standard 4×6 prints and enlargements for people from their negatives (those same kind of prints I’ve already been restoring). I cannot recall a single time that anyone came to us for printing and asked me how long those prints would last. Since digital technology has taken the forefront the concern about longevity seems to have come along with it.

Now let’s talk about me. I print on inkjet printers with inks that have been tested to last a really long time, longer than anybody reading this will live. Don’t take that at face value though because you need to understand what that means. When these inks are tested they are done so by essentially “faking time” under quite restrictive circumstances. For example, these tests often assume low temperatures, low humidity, low levels of light hitting the print (more on that later), a stable environment without major temperature and humidity shifts, UV protective glass or coatings on the print, etc. In short, this is likely not the situation under which your print will realistically be hanging. So while my inks have been tested to last a really long time, chances are they way the print will truly be used will decrease the lifespan of the inks. Do I really believe that the black ink will last 200 years? Under the circumstances your print will be hanging, no I don’t. Maybe I’m right, maybe I’m wrong.

The next consideration is paper. You can get all types of papers to print on with various degrees of archivability. Many papers contain chemicals called optical brighteners. These serve to make the paper appear to have a brighter white. While this can add to the quality of the print by giving better contrast and more vibrant colors, it is also these optical brighteners which often yellow over time. Generally speaking, the more optical brighteners the shorter lifespan of the print, or at least the shorter amount of time before fading and yellowing occurs. You must also consider the acidity of the paper. The higher the acidity, the lower the lifespan. Acid free papers will extend the life of your print.

I have 3 paper choices currently, my basic photo luster paper, German Etching, and Fibre Rag Satin. The luster paper is the least archival of all. It has plenty of optical brighteners and is not acid free. It makes nice prints though. The German Etching paper is considered archival and is acid free, though it does contain a very low amount optical brighteners. The Fibre Rag Satin paper is a 100% cotton base, contains no optical brighteners, and is acid free. Where the archival nature of your prints if of the utmost concern then the Fibre Rag Satin paper is your best bet. My canvas does contain some optical brighteners though has an acid free, pH neutral coating. Does this mean it won’t last a long time? No, though that all depends upon the next topic.

Perhaps most importantly we now get to talk about you. You are just as important a piece of the archival puzzle as the print is. Ultimately you will decide how and where the print will be displayed, and this greatly affects the print’s longevity.

If you want to make sure your print lasts as long as possible then you have a few things to consider. First, make sure you use an acid free mat and backing board when framing. If we use acid free paper to print and then you put acidic mat board on it then you’ve defeated the purpose of the archival paper.

Also, make sure you use glass that blocks UV light. UV light is the main killer of prints, so if you use regular glass then you will greatly reduce the lifespan of the print, even if we’ve printed on acid free paper with archival inks and matted with archival mat board (on that note, our canvas prints are sprayed with a protective coating which contains UV inhibitors since they will not be going behind glass).

Finally, consider where you’re hanging your print. These prints are not designed to be outdoors and if you hang them outside then they will fade much more quickly. Also avoid places in your home that get lots of direct sunlight. Even with UV protective glass you will still get increased heat and the light can cause fading. I’ve had people bring me faded photos that they claim never received too much light. When we take them out of their frames we immediately see that the area that was blocked by the lip of the frame looks as good as new and only the part exposed to light has faded. Choose a place that’s not going to get direct sunlight.

So how long will these prints last? I don’t know, but I do know that if taken care of they should last your lifetime, and quite possibly much longer. I also know that your prints will fade over time, no matter how they are printed, no matter when they were printed.

I hope this has given you some good information about the archival nature of prints and what you can do to to extend the life of your prints.

As usual, we’re here to help with any printing questions you may have!