Common Photo Damage: Silvering Photos

silvering photos

Common Photo Damage: Silvering Photos

Black and white darkroom photography is a visual stunner. A black and white print can make anything seem mysterious, glamorous, or compelling. The contrast between light and dark is striking. The quality of the chemistry used to create the print is higher than that of a glossy color machine print. It doesn’t matter if you have a print by A. Aubrey Bodine or a wedding portrait of your grandmother – a darkroom black and white photo is a work of art.

That is why it is so upsetting when a black and white photo begins to silver.

“Silvering” is a form of photo damage that happens to silver-based emulsions. You can identify a silvering print by the metallic mirroring effect on the surface. When a photo starts to silver, it will not stop. Common causes of silvering include:

  • Layering images in storage – The acid on the image backing can burn an image and cause the image to slowly silver.
  • Fingerprints – The oils on your hands will cause a new chemical reaction that will actually start the development process again. That fingerprint will become part of the image and will be impossible to remove on an original photo.
  • Exposure to extreme temperatures – The exposure to humidity and fluctuating temperatures will cause oxidation and slowly destroy the emulsion of the image.
  • Sunlight – Direct sunlight can not only cause fading, but it can impact the emulsion to cause silvering.

In some instances, silvering can also happen because it was not processed properly in the darkroom. In the darkroom, a photo goes through a developer and into a stop bath. This effectively stops development. The photo is then treated with a fixer that stabilizes the image. After that, the photo is bathed to remove the fixer, toned (if desired) and washed again. Silver-based black and white prints are prone to silvering if the fixer was expired or if the image wasn’t agitated enough or washed properly.

If your photo has started to silver, don’t give up. There are ways to slow the process down and digitally capture the photo. Here are a few best practices:

  • Properly store your photos. Storing images in a temperature controlled environment will help all of your photos, not just the silvering ones. Photos should be stored in archival albums and/or boxes using acid-free materials.
  • Do not scan a silvering photo. Not only will you end up with a digital file that has a metallic sheen to it, you will cause more damage and speed up the silvering process. A professional can help you digitize the photo without scanning. It is important to work with someone who has the proprietary methods necessary to shoot through the damage and capture the image underneath.
  • Replace the glass in your frames. Conservation glazing will help slow down the silvering process. It cannot stop the photo from turning, but it will give your images a level of protection.

A silvering photo is not a death sentence for an image. Yes, the photo will eventually turn completely, but you can still enjoy your original images. Taking the proper measures to protect and preserve your photos will ensure that you and your family will cherish them for years to come.

To learn more about photo restoration and common photo problems, visit our guide – Getting Started: Photo Restoration.