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How Long do Photo Negatives Last?

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By Christian Roemer

Unless you’re a zoomer who’s never known anything other than digital photography, you’ll recognize negatives almost instantly.

These strange, brown strips of weirdly colored pictures were both mysterious and comforting.
You were glad they were included in your envelope of pictures, but you weren’t exactly sure what they were used for. You’d rather have them, but you didn’t know what to do with them.

 

It turns out that negatives are pretty important little buggers.


When you get photographs developed, the film is turned into negatives, which are then used to create pictures. That’s right, those seemingly indefatigable strips of celluloid are actually the reason you were able to get pictures printed at all. You might not know it, but you can actually use negatives to print extra copies of pictures, blow them up and make them bigger, or get them digitized. Negatives are actually awesome.


The more you know, huh?


If you have a bunch of negatives lying around your house, you may be asking yourself, “Hm, I wonder how long these little dudes will last?” It’s a great question, but one without an easy answer. Like most of the non-answers I tend to give you, loyal readers, the answer to how long you can expect your negatives to stay with you is an undeniably unsatisfying, “It depends.”


So instead of giving you the easy answer that you likely, desperately crave, I’ll give you a few answers that should be helpful. If they’re not helpful, they should at least be insightful. If they’re not insightful, they should be interesting. If they’re not interesting, well, I’m not sure there’s much else I can do.


To preface this complicated, rambly answer, I’ll go ahead and set up some ground rules. Each answer that I give will depend on the storage conditions. That’s how I’ll lay out each answer.


In perfect storage conditions

Kodak did some research to answer this exact question. They put strips of film in ideal conditions and measured what happened. It turns out that ideal storage conditions are 30-32 degrees (just at freezing), about 40% humidity, and no real light exposure. What they found out is pretty awesome, actually.


The Final Verdict

1,000 years.


That’s right! In ideal storage conditions--basically the back of your freezer--negatives will last longer than most civilizations in the history of humankind. Unfortunately, I’ve never met a single weirdo who stored their negatives in their freezer. So...


In a closet

Let’s be real, most people who have film negatives probably have them sitting in a closet somewhere in their home. Maybe in the guest room, maybe in the hallway, probably not in their actual closet, because that’s valuable real estate. Most closets are not ideal conditions for negative storage, so let’s talk about some of the common negative enemies that are plotting to undermine those little brown celluloid strips.


Mold

Mold grows on basically everything. It loves moisture, and it also loves darkness. That means if you’re storing your negatives in a closet and you live in the south, you’re not really setting your negatives up for success. So how long before mold makes your negatives entirely useless because they’re covered in toxic sludge? How long does it take mold to grow?


The Final Verdict

20 years.


Sun exposure

Another major danger with negatives is the giant flaming ball in the sky that makes all life on the planet possible: the sun. Light gives life, but it also takes it away. If your negatives are exposed to light all of the time, the picture will fade, Transforming them into frames of pure white.


The Final Verdict

50 years.


You: That’s right, one of the biggest perils to negatives is you, dear reader. If you touch your negatives all of the time, getting the oils from your skin and fingerprints all over them, they become worthless pretty much instantly. Since the process to print photos involves shining light through the negatives, if you touch them and grim them up, you’ve already messed them up.


The Final Verdict

When did you touch your negatives? 10 years?


The final, final verdict

Negatives are fragile things. If you can store the negatives in ideal conditions, you can pass them on to your great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great grandchildren. If you’re a regular human being, you can expect your negatives to last around 25-50 years.


That’s why we recommend getting them digitized ASAP. We can make sure the valuable memories held in those frames of plastic last longer than whatever amount of time it takes for mold (or you) to find a new home.

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