How to Safely Write on Archival Photographs

archival materials

Did you know that China, Japan, and the United States are responsible for over 50 percent of the paper being used globally?

When sorting or putting away photographs in archival materials, it can be tempting to scribble down notes directly onto the back of photos as you go through them.

And while you can do this, it’s only wise if you’re using the right kind of writing tool. (And, ideally, you shouldn’t write on photographs, period.)

To learn how to write on photographs without damaging them, read on for four tips on writing on photographs for archival purposes.

1. Do NOT Use a Standard Ball-Point Pen

Photographic evidence or documentation can have enough trouble staying intact during its lifetime in archival materials—especially if the photos are old. Honestly, photographs usually aren’t that sturdy. So it’s best not to add to its instability by writing on it with a standard ball-point pen.

While it’s perfectly appropriate to label photos with relevant information, never do so with a ball-point pen. This is because the ink used in ball-point pens tends to smear on photographic surfaces, defeating the purpose of writing with them in the first place. Additionally, the non-archival oils and solvents used in cheap ink can cause the ink to bleed through the photo paper to the front.

Obviously, it’s also unwise to use most kinds of markers when writing on photographs, as they can smear as well.

2. DO Use a Pencil

Instead of traditional ball-point pens, professional archivists often use soft #2 pencils to write on the back of fiber-based photographic prints.

Note that this applies to fiber-based prints specifically—results of a method no longer in use everywhere. More modern plastic- or resin-based prints have a shiny, slippery back to them, which can’t be written on effectively with a pencil. But for older photographs, using a pencil works well, and is commonly recommended.

One reason to use a pencil for fiber-based photos is that writing in pencil is easily erasable. Besides that, pencil leads are relatively inert—they contain none of the oils in ink pens that can ruin photographs.

However, even when using pencils, use a very light touch when writing on the back of an important photo for archival materials. Pressing too hard can cause considerable damage to the photograph.

3. Use a Stabilo-All Pencil

All of their pencils are specially designed for archival materials. They are water-soluble, and they can be wiped off of practically any smooth surface with a wet cloth. They are also highly erasable on paper.

Best of all, they allow you to write clearly on many surfaces typically resistant to writing, including modern photographs, film negatives, and even glass and metal.

All Stabilo pencils come in three colors—black, red, and white—so you’ll always have one for any colored surface.

4. If Possible, DON’T Write on Photographs

Sometimes, you’ve just gotta do what you’ve gotta do. For some purpose or another, whether you’re a student or a laboratory researcher, there may be times when you need to write legibly on a photograph.

But in a best-case scenario, you should use other archival materials to avoid writing on photos altogether.

Some materials you can use instead of writing on photographs are photo sleeves, bound lab notebooks, index cards and boxes, and acid-free envelopes. It’s best to write with archival pens that will not only fade less but also not sink through and damage whatever you choose to write on.

As another quick tip, you should always write on the envelope, sleeve, or card before inserting the photo—just to be sure you avoid damaging the print.