Paper prints, particularly colour prints, can have a life that ranges from a few years to hundreds of years. Most important to longevity is the type of printing process and how the photos are stored. While it's certainly not necessary that every print you make is of archival quality, for those prints that you wish to last a hundred years or more, you'll have to consider both the printing process and how the prints are stored.
The Print Process
If you are printing at home, be aware that not all printers are created equal, in fact, quite the contrary. Many inexpensive ink-jet printers use inks that aren't particularly lightfast. Those prints will fade over time. At the other end of the spectrum are printers that use pigment inks that, when combined with the right paper, and properly stored, can last centuries. See the section below regarding Ink Jet Print Longevity for more details.
If you are getting prints commercially done and are concerned about their longevity, enquire about the process the lab you have chosen uses. Ask them specifically for details on the lightfastness (resistance to fading) of their prints. Some photo labs do offer an archival print service and this may be the way to go for those special family photos.
Storing/Displaying Printed Photos
However you created hard copy photos (i.e. inkjet print, commercial photo lab), there are four factors that you should consider when looking at displaying or storing these photos; heat, light, humidity and ozone. These will work to degrade your photos, the two worst being UV light and ozone. For long term storage or display your images should be protected from both.
Display - the photo should be framed under glass with an archival paper mat that provides separation of the photo from the glass (so the photo doesn't touch the glass). It should be kept out of direct sunlight (ideally also out of incident sunlight).
Storage - photos should be stored in a photo album that uses archival quality plastic sleeves. Avoid self-adhesive type albums and those with PVC overlays. Ideally the album should be stored in a cool dry environment.
Ink Jet Print Longevity
Note: printer technology changes quickly, so just use this section as a jumping off point for your own Internet research regarding the lightfastness of the current crop of ink-jet printers.
As briefly noted at the beginning of this series, many ink jet printers today do not create printouts with any kind of long term archival life. It is fine to put colour ink jet printouts into your genealogy reports, just don't expect the colours to last more than 10 years or so unless the printer specifically states an estimated longevity for its colour prints. As of this writing, many photo printers are offering longer ink life, look for photo longevity information in any writeups about a printer you're considering buying.
Epson was the first to release a consumer archival ink jet printer (the 2000P) with a reported 200 year life to the colour photo printouts (using Epson archival inks and paper). More printers are coming onto the market offering long photo archival life. Epson is still in the lead offering a wide range of archival life printers. Look for the terms archival inks or lightfast inks. Note that "archival" or "acid free" paper has very little to do with the longevity of prints (all good photo papers are acid free) - it is the archival quality of the ink that is used.
More photo printers are now offering longer life for their prints (several now claiming up to 30 years with their regular photo printers). Note that the best colour/longevity results are almost always achieved when using the manufacturer's own inks on the manufacturer's own paper (i.e. Epson inks on Epson paper, Canon inks on Canon paper, etc.). Longevity is also requires that the prints are not subject to UV degradation or oxidation - this means that they should always be stored under glass or in archival plastic sleeves(usually archival quality polypropylene) and preferably kept in the dark.
For maximum lightfastness, the statement that Epson puts out regarding the use of their "Ultrachrome" inks reads: "Lightfastness rating up to 80 years based on accelerated testing of prints on select Epson Papers displayed indoors, under glass. Actual print stability will vary according to image, display conditions, light intensity, humidity, and atmospheric conditions. Epson does not guarantee longevity of prints. For maximum print life, display prints under glass or laminations or properly store them."
A final thought to keep in mind is that these days, the main thing to properly preserve and archive are your digital originals (which is why I spent a lot of time on the Storing Digital Photos section). As new technologies make their way to the market (electronic ink, new types of colour displays, etc), it is the digital photo that will more and more be the main medium for viewing and display. So look after your digital photos.
|A nice colour ink jet print today
||That same ink jet print 10 years from now if not printed with lighfast inks and stored/displayed properly
For the techno-savvy, information about the archival life of various printers, papers and inks can be found at: www.wilhelm-research.com