Analysis & Commentary


Years ago, a photo was taken of a friend and me using a digital camera with a flash. At the time, I was holding another person's antique photograph. This unintentional, but none the less absent of mind mistake by me, which was regrettable, compelled me to do some research. Before scanners and copy machines, the only way to reproduce a fine antique photograph was to take a picture of it with a camera using a flash. This procedure would have been repeated over and over to the same photograph unless a black & white negative was produced for distribution to book publishers, etc. Today, this is still done but high-intensity scanners, copy machines, and laser copy machines have also entered the arena. As a collector, I have always wondered what the effect was on an old original photo or document after being flash photographed, scanned, or copied.

Of course, the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays and unprotected florescent light bulbs that produce the same, have always been detrimental to the longevity of any photograph or document that is continually exposed to UV rays. The image can and will fade, darken, lose contrast and detail, and unfortunately, because it may be unidentifiable, becomes worthless. Evidence of this is no more apparent than photographs and documents left in antique store windows or housed in a case that gets direct sunlight or daily exposure to unprotected florescent light. When the unfortunate owner of the antique store finally notices a change in the photograph or document, it is too late. These effects, to my knowledge, cannot be reversed. Would a singular camera flash, a high-intensity scanner, or a copy machine produce the same unfortunate effect to antique photographs as if they were exposed to UV rays from the sun or florescent light bulbs?

So my inquiry, presented to experts, in all instances was as follows:

"I am a collector in Tucson, Arizona. The 1880s photographer C.S. Fly and his photographs are part of my collection. Could you tell me what the effect of modern day scanning, laser copying or the photographing of one of these photographs using a digital camera with a flash would be? I know ultra violet rays and fluorescent light are bad for a photograph but wonder about the other things I've listed. Your opinion would be greatly appreciated."


Jae Gutierrez, Assistant Professor
Photograph Conservator, Art Conservator Dept.
University of Delaware

"The amount of light exposure experienced during any of the above mentioned activities will not cause damage to your photographs. Safe handling during scanning and photocopying is important, since you need to put the photograph image side down. If you are looking to create visual documentation of the prints, photographing them on a copy stand works well."

Tim Vitale
Paper, Photographs & Electronic Media Conservator
Preservation Associates
Emeryville, CA

"The duration of a flash is so fast that it is almost like no light at all. A flash duration is from 1/1000th to 1/4000th of a second; thus the lux-hrs are very low. Laser scanning is done to 3-D artifacts and would, I think, not be applicable in this context. Scanners, fax machines, and photocopiers use florescent bulbs; these seem bright but the duration is, again so low, that it is only a small fraction of an artifacts lifetime. All the above technologies are equal to or less light than an average scan of 600ppi. The figure you need to be concerned with is 10,000,000 lux-hrs for the 20% loss of some color component (or yellowing of white) for light sensitive art materials. Well made B & W gelatin photos on fiber-based paper (1910-1980s) could have 35,000,000 to 1,000,000,000 lux-hrs to failure. Taking a digital photograph with a flash of an original 1880s photo could not do any harm unless that was done thousands of times per day for days on end. Digital cameras may be a better tool for digitizing material with high sensitivity to physical damage. Flash units would be the desired form of illumination."

Dan Kushel, Distinguished Teaching Professor
Art Conservation Department
Buffalo State College
Buffalo, NY

"Risks of scanning and flash photography are very small with respect to light or UV exposure. The more critical issue is handling. If photographs are mounted or in sound physical condition, then you should be able to scan or photograph them with little risk. Scanning can give you the highest quality image and will actually present less risk of physical damage than photography on a copy stand where equipment is directly over the artwork. However you will have to assess the surface of the photographs with respect to signs of flaking or delamination to determine if they can be placed face down on the scanner bed. Reduced handling is one of the major reasons that many museums are now involved in large-scale digitization projects and are scanning or photographing entire collections."

Stephan Michalski, Manager
Preventative Conservation Services
Canadian Conservation Institute

"An electronic flash on a camera is typically sized to use f8 for a film of 100ASA at a subject distance of 3m (10ft.). From photo handbook data, this is equivalent to a light dose at the artifact of about 30 lux seconds (lx-s). For convenience, round up to 50 lx-s for each amateur. Assuming the gallery lighting is the lowest most museums can tolerate, 50 lux (5 foot candles) then each flash adds the equivalent of one second of normal gallery exposure. So, 300 amateur flashes a day is equivalent to adding five minutes to the display day. In order to actually increase damage by 10% on a ten hour day, one would need to experience 3600 flashes per day."

Camille Moore
Assistant Conservator
Silverpoint Art Conservation, LLC
Nederland, CO

"In terms of digitally reproducing 1880s photographs, I believe that any of the things you mentioned (scanning, photographing with a digital flash camera) would be fine. High quality digital images can be a great way to reduce handling of original materials and a good way to help preserve the original."

Thom Hindle
Images of the Past
35 Atkinson St.
Dover, NH 03820

"A "one-time" pass on a scanner or flash would not do any harm. It is the constant exposure to UV light what will gradually fade albumen and even present day one hour/digital images."

Scan Cafe
1350 Bayshore Highway
Burlingame, CA 94010

"We have scanned old photographs from the 1880s and have found that the scanning process does not damage the material in any way. However, if the photograph is brittle, manual handling is a huge risk and we recommend that you do not send them in the mail. Brittle photographs are best scanned at home to minimize handling. Also, our scanners do not use UV light."

David Mishkin
Just Black & White, Photographic Restorations
95 Scammon St.
South Portland, Maine 04106

"Scanning a photo has no negative effect on a photograph. Photocopying is not good for photographs because most copiers give off Ozone as a by-product and Ozone is a form of bleach plus heat and light are not good for the photograph. Copying, using a digital camera with flash is safe enough, but if you are trying to preserve a collection, the only safe way to do this is to have an archival copy negative made. Doing anything digital (scanning, photographing, etc.) is NOT permanent and digital files can be corrupted, lost or erased."

Interestingly, the experts appeared to be more concerned with the handling of old photographs than the methods of modern reproduction using scanners or digital cameras with a flash. It also appears the experts believe laser printers do not apply to this discussion and photocopy machines are not recommended for photograph reproduction. There may be a misconception by some in the Old West collecting community that photos taken by a digital camera with a flash or light from a scanner would permanently damage old photographs and documents. Since my correspondence with many academic experts and experienced collectors of old photographs and documents, I have come to the conclusion that this is just not true. Perhaps, in both cases, if the item was photographed or scanned hundreds of times daily for weeks on end, there could be some damage.

All of this has been very interesting and educational to me. It was fun delving into the subject. I hope it will be helpful to the entire community of photograph and document collectors out there, too!

© Kevin Mulkins, 2012

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