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Saving Flood Damaged Photos
Guidelines From Elegant Images Photography (415) 457-2202

At Elegant Images we have successfully cleaned and restored photos, negatives and color slides that have been water-damaged in a flood.

The first step is to call Jeanette at Elegant Images (415) 457-2202 so that we can plan the cleaning and restoration process.

The process should begin immediately in order to save as many as possible. Avoid delaying past 2 days, otherwise the photos may begin to mold, debris may become stuck to the emulsion, and photos may dry together.

The good news is that the digital revolution has greatly elevated the art of restoration. Even highly damaged images may often be restored with surprising results.

Begin with photographs for which there are no negatives, or for which the negatives are also water damaged. You will want to prioritize the least replaceable images first. If you can save negatives, replacement images will be far less costly. Important color prints should be done before black and white as they are usually more fragile.

Gently lift the photos from the mud and dirty water and place them one at a time into a container of clean cold water (distilled is best, tap will do). Remove photos from waterlogged albums, remove negatives from sleeves, and framed still-wet images from their frames immediately. Avoid touching or rubbing the wet emulsion of the photo surface as it is very fragile and can be easily damaged further. Agitate the photo gently in the water to lift off debris. Donít run water directly over the photos as it may cause additional permanent damage. Agitate in the water until water that runs off the print is clear.

If you can get to a photo supply store or lab, purchase some Kodak Photo-Flo ( a wetting agent) to add to your water to minimize spotting and stuck on debris. It would also be useful to purchase blotting paper, Pec photo cleaner, a lens cleaning or antistatic brush, and photo safe storage products.

You may store prints in water up to a couple of days, except for the most fragile old photos, which may degrade quickly even in water. Be sure to change water daily. Donít add chlorine to the water. The chlorine that is already in tap water is enough to prevent the growth of fungi or mold.

Donít let the photos dry out ahead of time! As your photographs dry, they will stick to each other and any other materials they may be in contact with. It may become impossible to pull them apart without causing irreparable damage

Negatives should be hung by non rusting clips from clotheslines. Attach clips to the edges/tips of the negatives and hang where there will be little or no contact with people, dust, or drafts. Space the negatives so as not to stick to one another if jostled.

The photos should be dried in as clean and dust-free an environment as possible indoors. Sun or wind may cause photos to curl up more. Setting up no rust-screens supported by chairs or blocks will hasten drying time. You can remove the screen door and window screens to function in this role but only if they are clean! Avoid laying the prints on the carpet or floor where they will be more likely to pick up dirt and mold.

Lay each wet photo face up on clean blotting paper or paper towels (white is best). Allow space between prints to avoid sticking and allow air to circulate. Avoid allowing water to pool in the center of the images, as it may cause a stain when the water evaporates. Don't use newspapers or printed paper towels, as the ink may transfer to your wet photos.

Change paper every hour or two until the photos dry. Prints must be completely and thoroughly dry before storing or they will stick together! If necessary, you may speed the drying by carefully using a hair dryer. However, use low heat and do not aim it in one spot for long. Air drying is safer.

After the photos are cleaned and dried those that require restoration should be brought into Elegant Images for evaluation. Especially fragile prints should be transported and stored with an acid free backing board to assist in supporting the print.

Notes on special problems


Photos in frames need to be saved when they are still soaking wet, otherwise the photo surface will stick to the glass as it dries and you will not be able to separate them without damaging the photo emulsion. To remove a wet photo from a picture frame, keep the glass and photo together. Holding both, rinse with clear flowing water, using the water stream to gently separate the photo from the glass.

Donít attempt to remove a partially adhered image. Instead bring the image still adhered to the glass to Elegant Images and we can scan or rephotograph the image through the glass.


Separate as many as possible before returning them to the cold water and starting on another batch. Repeat the separate-soak cycle as many times as often as needed. However, you may not be able to separate some materials In those cases you will probably have to just accept the corresponding damage.


Try gently removing foreign objects with (in order of preference) a soft lens cleaning brush, canned air, non abrasive photo-wipes, 100% cotton balls, or a soft very clean cotton cloth. Rinse your photographs or negatives one more time after cleaning is complete.

If materials are dry, cleaning is more difficult. It may be necessary to use distilled water to remove mud and other debris, but this can be risky depending on the type of photograph and the degree of damage. If dirt is minimal, isopropanol (pure isopropyl alcohol) is available at pharmacies or Pec-12 can usually be safely employed. Be careful not to scratch the photograph's surface. And always start by testing on unimportant images first.


If your prints start to curl while drying, wet the paper side (NOT the emulsion!) with a moist sponge and place each one between two pieces of acid-free paper or photo blotters, and leave them under a flat, heavy object for a day or two.


If you don't have time right away to dry your damaged photos, rinse them to remove any mud and debris. Carefully stack the wet photos between sheets of wax paper and seal them in a Ziploc type plastic bag. Then freeze the photos to inhibit damage. This way photos can be defrosted, separated and air-dried later when you have the time to do it properly.


It is important to note that some historical photographs are very sensitive to water damage and may not be recoverable. Older photographs should not be frozen and should be brought in the studio immediately.


Most inkjet prints made at home are made with dye-based inks. These will bleed easily if they get wet. Once bleeding has occurred, they can be dried (carefully), but bleeding canít be reversed. Pigment-based inks will scratch easily if not handled carefully, but wonít bleed. Dye-sub prints can usually be washed and dried as per traditional photographs.