Tips for Safely Writing on Photographs & Snapshots

Please see our updated blog post on this topic for the most up-to-date information.

How to Document Your Old Photographs

This blog post outlines best practices for safely writing on photographs and archival sleeves and storage enclosures. Documenting your personal photos is an important step in preserving your family’s history.

You may want to label some of your photographs with names, dates, and locations. Using the wrong writing implement can permanently damage old photographs and other items in your collection.

Never use a pen on your photographs! They often have non-archival oils and solvents in them. The inks can smear, bleed through to the front, or transfer to other images in your collection.

Never use standard permanent markers, cheap pens, highlighters, and such when marking your materials. If you’d like to mark your photographs, negatives, polypropylene or polyester sleeves, family artifacts, or collectibles, use the right type of pencil or marker.

The Ever Useful #2 Pencil

Professional archivists often recommend using a #2 pencil on the back of photographic prints that are fiber-based (the back feels like regular paper). This refers to photographs printed on uncoated fiber-based photographic paper and not the newer plastic- or resin-coated types of photo paper you typically find in more contemporary family photo archives. You can tell a resin-coated paper by the slick, glossy feel of the paper. #2 pencils don’t work well on this plastic surface.

Write on the back of your photos, along the edge, and keep your notes succinct.

There are two main reasons why archivists recommend using a regular #2 pencil. It is reversible—it can usually be easily erased. Pen and marker ink is not reversible—it can’t be erased or undone.

Graphite is also relatively inert, with none of the oily gunk that makes up the ink in many types of pens. Pen ink often includes oils, solvents, and other non-archival components. Inks can bleed, smear, contaminate the image you’re writing on, and transfer onto whatever else is in contact with it.

Even when using a safe #2 pencil there are some guidelines to follow. Always work on a clean, hard surface and apply a light touch when writing to avoid “pressure transfer,” which may cause whatever you are writing to be visible on the image side. It is also best to write near the edges of your images—not in the middle—just to be safe!

What is a Stabilo-All Pencil?

Stabilo-All Pencils are versatile, high-quality graphite color pencils. They are excellent for writing on the backs of plastic-coated photographs and other glossy surfaces such as film, glass, plastic, porcelain, and metal. They work well on paper photos, album pages, and mounted photos, and on polypropylene or polyester sleeves. They are water soluble and can be wiped off of smooth surfaces with a damp cloth. But please note that they cannot be erased when used on paper.

Stabilo-All Pencils come in several colors—black, white, red, and blue—for writing on different paper colors and highlighting information.

As mentioned, standard #2 graphite pencils work well on paper photos but not on plastic-coated contemporary photographs. This makes writing on the backs of these newer photos a bit tricky as they usually all have a polyethylene-coated surface. Regular pencils will also not work on polypropylene or polyester sleeves, which you may wish to use to add another layer of protection to your photographs. In both of these cases Stabilo-All Pencils work great.

A white Stabilo-All Pencil shows up quite well on the dark-colored back of this photograph’s mount.

Stabilo-All Pencils are available from Archival Methods in four different colors and in several package quantities. All colors come in packages of 12. We also offer two multi-packs. We have a 6 pack that includes 2 black, 2 white, and 2 red pencils. And we have a 5 pack which includes 2 black pencils and 1 each of the red, blue, and white.

Write on Labels, Not Your Photos

Caption Pocket 4×6 Photo Pages each include a removable acid-free insert on which you can write important information. You can also print out information on acid-free Permalife Paper and then trim the paper to the size of the insert and use that instead.

There are many ways to label the who, what, when, and where of your photographs without writing on the actual photos.

Acid-free All Purpose Index Cards are the perfect tool to help you organize your archive of photographs.

A number of our photo kits come with either acid-free All Purpose Index Cards and/or with acid-free 4 x 6 Archive Envelopes, and each offers you space to safely write whatever information you need using pencil or archival markers.

When writing on envelopes, sleeves, or other enclosures, always write your information before you place your photographs or artifacts in the envelope or enclosure. This will help prevent “pressure transfer” of whatever you’re writing from possibly damaging your contents.

We offer Archival Photo Envelopes for storing your 4 x 6″ and 5 x 7″ photographs. These pre-printed envelopes provide an easy way to identify your photos by date, subject, and location.

The same holds true for acid-free File Folders, Negative File Folders, and all of the different types of sleeves and other enclosures you can use to archivally store your collection of photographs, negatives, and paper ephemera.

Acid-free File Folders can be purchased separately or as part of the Document Storage Kit, available in tan, black, and gray.

So, there you have it—all the ways you can safely write on your photographs, snapshots, sleeves, and enclosures in your collection or archive!

And if you have still have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us. We’re always here to answer your archival questions!

Blog updated: 8/7/2023