How to Clean Old Photographs & Negatives

When you find old family photos and negatives covered with fingerprints, dust or stains, it's easy to clean them yourself with a few simple ingredients. Be sure to store them with archival materials designed to protect fragile photo paper. Acid-free envelopes, framing mats and storage containers are manufactured without the harmful chemicals you'll find in things like vinyl photo album pages. If you have antique photos such as tintypes or daguerreotypes, you’ll need to take those to a conservationist for cleaning.

Wear white cotton gloves to handle all your old photos and negatives to avoid getting fingerprints or oil on them. You can buy these speciality photo gloves from most camera shops.

Place the item to be cleaned on a sterile work surface, such as a large piece of clean cardboard or poster board.

Use a soft brush to clear any dust from the photo or negative. A new paintbrush or unused make-up brush will work. Don’t press on the surface; simply brush it lightly, working from the centre of the image outward.

Remove greasy or stuck-on fingerprints with a cotton cloth or T-shirt. Lightly press the cloth against the photo or negative. Don’t grind or rub; the goal is to lift the print off by using enough pressure to adhere the print to the fabric.

Remove ink, pencil, mildew or other stains with a photograph emulsion cleaner and photo wipes.

Store the clean photos and negatives in a low-moisture and low-humidity environment. Avoid putting photos in basements, attics or garages. Look for photo albums made of polypropylene instead of PVC. If you don't want to use a photo album, visit a craft store and buy an archival-quality photo box, binder, portfolio or set of acid-free paper photo sleeves.


Make a colour copy or digital scan of the photo before you clean it. Use this copy as a backup in case you accidentally damage the photo during the cleaning process.


Never use household cleaners (glass or surface cleaner) on a photo or negative surface.

Things You'll Need

  • White cotton gloves
  • Clean piece of cardboard or poster board
  • Soft brush
  • Cotton cloth or T-shirt
  • Photograph emulsion cleaner
  • Photo wipes
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About the Author

Jenni Wiltz's fiction has been published in "The Portland Review," "Sacramento News & Review" and "The Copperfield Review." She has a bachelor's degree in English and history from the University of California, Davis and is working on a master's degree in English at Sacramento State. She has worked as a grant coordinator, senior editor and advertising copywriter and has been a professional writer since 2003.