Saving water soaked photos

Water Damaged Photos

What action can you take for saving water soaked photos?

  1. Can you replace then asking for copies from friends or relatives?
  2. Do you have undamaged negatives you can make reprints from?
  3. Can you save anything? Read below for help saving those photos


The following information has been gathered from articles around the web. Please carry out these steps at your own risk.


Don’t panic. Do be prepared for minimizing the damage as soon as you can.

Act fast. If your photos dry out you run the risk of irreparable damage.


Types or prints

NOTE: Modern Cellulose Prints / paper based photographic prints via chemical printing process can be soaked. If in doubt, DONT!

IMPOTANT: Home printed images on paper or “print paper” put through a home inkjet printer should never get wet. They will be ruined in a very short space of time.


If damaged by water or flood follow these instruction as soon as you have access to the photos.

  • Keep them wet. Don’t let them dry out and stick to each other, this can damage them beyond repair.
  • Don’t let them stay wet so long they begin to disintegrate. Two or three days is about as long as they should stay wet. If they cannot be salvaged, washed, and dried in that length of time, then perhaps one should consider freezing them. However, freezing creates many new risks, such as cracking and emulsion damage from ice crystals.
  • Put the wet photos in clean plastic buckets of cold water. Immerse wrappers, envelopes, album pages, and all. Add 1/4 cup of Formaldehyde for every gallon of cold water. Try to keep the water temperature at 65 degrees or lower.
  • As quickly as time will allow begin carefully removing the water-soaked prints, negatives, slides, etc. from the cold water. Pull them out of their wrappers. Wash them in running water (65 degrees) for 15 minutes or longer.
  • Hang the negatives and slides on a clothesline in a dust-free location to dry.
  • Air dry the prints in a dust-free area on fiberglass screens.
  • To remove the curl from the dry prints, carefully slip them (individually) between 2 pieces of acid-free paper (or other appropriate substance). Flatten them out for a day or two under heavy weight.


Freezing photos

It is extremely important to act before the photographs have had a chance to dry or grow mould. If permitted to happen, the chances of salvaging the photographs are greatly reduced.

If you can’t clean and dry straight away then remove any loose dirt and debris by rinsing your materials in a tank of cold clear running water until the water overflow runs clean. Do not run water directly on them as this may cause further damage to the already softened photographic emulsions.

Place the rinsed photos in second tank of clean cold water (to prevent them from drying) and finish rinsing the rest of them. After you have completed the rinse, clean, dry, and refill the original cleaning tank (or have a third tank) with cold water. Now take the individual photos (in small manageable groups) and return them to the initial cleaning tank. Work with them submerged. Gently separate the films or prints from each other or their storage material. Do not force the separation — you may cause further damage. Separate them as much as possible, then return them to the water bath while you start another batch. Repeatedly return to the photos that cannot be separated and try again to separate them. If no progress is noticed on those that have clumped together. Treat them as individual photos and freeze them as you would an individual photo.

Remove the photos from this last soaking, one at a time if possible (or clump if necessary) and be sure to only handle the photo by the edges. Let the excess water drip off. Then place each item in a plastic bag (freezer bag if possible) and place them in a container with like sized photos and stick them in the freezer.

Should you have photo albums, duplicate the procedure used with the photos to be able to remove your photos from it. If they can be removed, treat them the same as you did the individual photos. If you have any difficulty separating, the pages or photos from the pages leave them till later. After rinsing in clear cold water let the excess water drip off and place them in a suitably sized container. Use wax paper or butcher paper as a separator between the sides of the container and other albums, if you have more than one. Stand them vertically on their spines, pack the items just tight enough so that they remain upright and move them to the freezer.

If you have not yet, it would be a good time to talk to a conservator to decide a course of action and your insurance agent to see if drying and restoring the photos would be covered under your homeowners or flood policy.

At this point you can work out which ones you wish to have restored and which ones you can do without. Not all of them may be in state which can be restore.


Drying frozen photos

A couple of resources to have available would be a dehumidifier if you are going to work in the basement or a small room, a clothes line (to hang film or pictures), nylon or plastic window screening, rolls of plain white non-printed paper towel rolls (a generic brand is fine), photo blotting paper, or just plain white blotting paper and tongs, used to develop film may be desirable – less hands on the photos.

If you will be working in a room open the windows and run a humidifier to lower the humidity as the photos are thawing and drying out. Be sure to cover the floor beneath the photos to catch thawing water and residue. Keep the room as cool (temperatures — below 68° F — is recommended) as possible, it will extend the drying time but help reduce the chances of mold. Expect a possible 2 to 3 day drying time.

If you are going to use a clothes line and plastic clothespins string it up now. If you want to use the plastic window screening cloth, as I prefer, use 2 cheap saw horses and staple or nail a stretched piece between them. Lay pieces of blotter or paper towel (cut at least an inch larger than the photos) and put one photo Face Up on each piece.

Run a fan to keep the air circulating above or below the photos but not directly on the photos.

As the blotter or paper towels get wet remove and replace them with dry ones, being sure not to touch the image side – use the tongs (preferred) or fingers and handle from the edges only.

After they’ve dried, the photos may curl. To uncurl them, you can rinse each curled photo carefully in a photo tray or dampen the back, then place them between clean white blotters and apply weight on top them until they are dry. This should help them resume their shape.


Salvaging film and transparencies

When cleaning from floodwater replace the dirty water with clean water, slowly and gently separate the layers of film. If negatives or transparencies require cleaning a professional film, cleaning solution should be the only material used. Use cotton material only for application of the solution, never use paper or material of non-pure cotton material.

If a complete washing of negatives is required prepare a mild water solvent film cleaning solution and gently and slowly rinse in the solution using a clean chamois to squeegee the film. Soak the film in cool water with a “Photo Flow” additive, Squeegee again and hang to dry from its edge draining the length of the film. Warm water will soften the emulsion and increase the odds of further damage, avoid this.

The same procedure can be used for transparencies but be sure slides are first removed from their mounts if possible. The only instance you should feel required to do these procedures is in the event that the material became damaged and recovered from a flood or contaminated water.

Use of a photo stabilizer on colour negatives and slides made on Kodak Ektachrome film will facilitate cleaner and provide more uniform drying. PhotoFlo Solution and Stabilizers are available through photographic dealers and pro photo finishing labs.

After the salvage and all efforts to salvage the materials, you can consider additional restoration. Reprinting negatives or making copies of prints might be the first step. Further restoration may be possible through retouching and then recopying.

Information credit to the Image Permanence Institute

Article Name
Saving water soaked photos
Saving water soaked or flood damaged photos. Act fast to keep them from drying out so they can be cleaned an seprated.
Neil Rhodes