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Can Photos with Water Damage be Saved?

By Katy Sommerfield

If you’ve been following our blog for a while, you’re probably aware that analog media is made up of sensitive materials that are very susceptible to decay over time. Tapes, films, and photographs can become distorted, damaged, or completely destroyed by exposure to light, extreme heat and cold, humidity, water, and fire.

This is why digitization is so important - it’s the only way to guarantee the preservation of your most precious analog materials.
One of the worst types of damage that photos can undergo is water damage. Water damage can range from mild, such as excess humidity in the air which grows mildew or mold on your photos, to severe, such as photographs being submerged in water in a basement flood. When water damage occurs, photographs can become warped, discolored, or develop a bubbly appearance on their surfaces. Water damage can compromise the integrity of photographs and leave them looking old, worn, and dirty. 


If you have water-damaged photos, don’t fret just yet! There are ways to clean and restore photographs that have been damaged by water, as long as the damage is not extensive. The Smithsonian Institute has shared its recommendations for salvaging water-damaged photographs, specifically photographs damaged by flooding, but the process remains the same if your photographs have been sitting in any type of dirty water.

Here are the Smithsonian Institute’s tips for restoring water-damaged photographs:

Supplies needed:

  • Disposable aluminum baking pans with lids
  • Distilled water
  • Soft-bristle paintbrush
  • Sections of window/porch screen for drying (can be found at most home improvement stores)

  1. Fill two disposable baking pans with 1-2 inches of distilled water.
  2. Put your water-damaged photographs in the first pan. Let them sit for a few minutes.
  3. Use the soft-bristle paintbrush to brush away any dirt from the surfaces of the photographs.
  4. After brushing the photos, move them to the second pan of distilled water so that they are removed from the dirty water.
  5. You can let the photos sit in the water for up to thirty minutes.
  6. Place the baking pan lids upside down on a flat surface, and place a section of window screen on top of the lids. 
  7. Remove the photos from the water using either your hands or lift them with a butter knife or a similar tool. 
  8. Place the photos on top of the window screen to air dry. 
  9. After letting them air dry for a while on the window screen, you can place the photographs face up on absorbent paper to finish the drying process.  Do not blot the surfaces of the photograph - this can cause the ink in the photographs to bleed.

This method should help you remove dirt from water-damaged photos and restore them to a better condition. If the photos have grown mold or mildew, you can use this process to do the initial cleaning, and then clean the photos with a specialized photograph cleaning solution once they have dried. 

If you have water-damaged photographs, try this process out and see if your photos can be restored. In many cases, submerging the photos in clean, distilled water and brushing the dirt off their surfaces will do the trick. If you have badly damaged photographs, however, it may be in your best interest to take them to a photograph restoration specialist. 

We hope that this information helps you save your photographs so that you can enjoy the memories with your friends and family for many years to come. Once you’ve cleaned and restored your photographs, send them to us at KODAK Digitizing! The only way to ensure complete preservation of your photographs, tapes, and films is to get them digitized. 

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