Pens for the Backs of Photographs

The Problem

As I scan and archive photographic prints I want, at a minimum, to note that they have been scanned and when. I may wish to note some of the subject or photographer information. I have the same objectives for recent prints, for example from the portrait studio.

The first part of the problem is that modern papers are coated with something that is very difficult to mark. It is matte finish, but slick enough that an HB mechanical pencil will not leave a visible line, even though it makes an impression in the paper.

The second part of the problem is that the really well-reputed pigment ink pen, the Sakura Pigma Micron, never dries. I have read that some pens’ ink reacts with the paper, binding to the cellulose. This reaction presumably causes the ink to stop being liquid. I think that Sakura pens, and many others, are in this class. The coating on the back of the photo prevents ink from absorbing, and therefore from reacting with cellulose. I believe the high-value fountain pen inks, like Noodler’s, are in this category.

I have seen recommendations for Creative Memories Photo Marking Pencil, and for Stabilo Wax Pencil, and ProMaster Photo Marking Pen. I have not found these locally or on Amazon, but am interested in them.

Any solution must:

  • Write on the slick finish of modern photo papers
  • Be “archival” (notes follow)
  • Dry in less than one day—10 to 15 minutes is preferred
  • Not smear or transfer to other photos

On “Archival”

There is no official or IEEE standard for what “archival” is. So, anything labeled “archival” means that the manufacturer has, well, labeled it archival. As a result, I look for an archival product that has a history, and that has a good reputation. These are weak criteria.

Another issue—one the manufacturers must struggle with—is that ink interacts with its substrate. The same ink may perform differently on 100% cotton paper than it does on buffered wood pulp paper. How many manufacturers test on the back of coated photo papers?

One note, Sharpies are not sufficiently archival for me. I have personally seen them create a yellow hallow around the writing in just a few years.

The Test

I used five different kinds of pens, of which four are marketed for the archival community. They are:

  • Uni-Ball Signo 207, which contains security ink. I believe security ink binds to paper chemically.
  • Zig Photo Signature pen, which is not a pigment ink pen. This pen dries almost instantly, like a Sharpie. It even smells like a Sharpie. Presumably it fades like a Sharpie. I hope that it doesn’t age to fuzzy yellow like Sharpie.
  • Zig Ball 0.5 mm Archival is a typical roller pen, in most ways similar to the Pilot Precise v7, but without the needle tip.
  • Zig Millennium is a pigment ink, archival pen.
  • Sakura Pigma Micron pen is an archival pigment ink pen that is well loved by Internet sources.


I wrote on the back of a picture, and on finishing writing I took my finger and swiped along the writing. Except for the Zig Photo Signature, all of the pens smeared.


I wrote two test sets again, using the pens that smeared, then blotted one set with a clean coffee filter. I left the photo exposed for 24 hours and then swiped with my finger. The results are quite clear.


One pen was worth further testing; the Zig Millennium actually dried overnight. I tested it with a timed smear for up to 2 hours, and found that it requires a multi-hour dry time. These timed tests were not blotted.



For photos with absorbent paper backing, use the Sakura Pigma Micron, which satisfies all requirements.

For slick-backed photos use the Zig Millennium, but blot and allow to dry overnight. An acceptable substitute may be the Zig Photo Signature, though I am concerned it will behave like a Sharpie over time, and that would be a bad outcome. It does mark beautifully and dries almost instantly.

Oh yes, an example of ordinary pencil…utterly useless. I wrote “A Pencil” below.


Post Conclusion

It is shocking how little information is available on these pens. I have not been able to find a single set of accelerated aging test results for these pens. And I can find essentially nothing demonstrating these on the backs of photographs.

7 thoughts on “Pens for the Backs of Photographs”

  1. This one’s a serious design problem. Kodak says use a soft pencil, # 0 or 1, which they say doesn’t harm photos. Being just carbon, after all. But they also say that for many years, all color photo paper has been “resin coated” meaning coated with a plastic. And laws eliminating volatile solvents have killed off many old tried and true mixes/inks. What you want is a pigment dispersed in a liquid that dries quickly, doesn’t penetrate, and yet bonds the pigment to the plastic. No wonder you’re having trouble finding a pen that works. I’m thinking the solution lies with either compounding something using a volatile solvent (toluene?) with colloidal carbon (lampblack) and some kind of binder. Something like shellac. Or press in a soft metal, like stamping with gold leaf? Or just punch near the edge with a bunch of holes to form a serial number?

  2. Just noticed. These photos, and I think this is universal, have been annotated on the back using some sort of type concurrent with their production. What did the processing lab use?

  3. Thanks for the helpful post!
    I wanted to add that some of these pens do not work on Prinstagram/Instagram prints.
    They use card stock and not photo paper but I wanted to add this for anyone else who might read this otherwise very helpful post! The Millennium pens do not dry, even after 12 hours.
    Sakura Micron pens don’t really dry either, but they get closer to dry than the Milleniums, ha.
    Hope this is helpful!

    1. I have no experience with Prinstagram/Instagram, but it sounds like they are using a plastic-coated paper like most printers. I don’t love any answers, but that is exactly the problem I have been struggling with for all these years. Inks designed to write on (drafting) “film” will dry, but almost all require a special pen. The cheapest and least special pen that works is a dip pen, which I use with Higgins Black Magic ink. I believe that Rapidograph Universal ink and Reeves and Poole Encre de Chine work too. Messy proposition.

  4. Thanks for this post! I am in the process of signing and dating the backs of my prints for the first time and I purchased the Zig Millennium after reading another article online. The writing did not smudge on the back of Kodak Metallic Endura but it is smudging on the back of the Lustre (with additional lustre coating). I googled and voila! You have all the answers I need! I’m off to bed and will let them dry overnight. Thanks a bunch for your helpful and clear testing!

Comments are closed.