If you have color prints made during the last half decade or so, chances are good you'll find a notable shift in colors and overall fading by now.

For years, some people assumed that, if a color print faded or was somehow destroyed with the passage of time, a new print of equal quality could be made from the original negative. But negatives, too, are far from immortal.

Kodak says (in Publication E-36) that Vericolor II negative film stored under normal conditions (70 degrees F. and 40 percent relative humidity or less) will yield satisfactory color prints for from two to five years. After that, it's anybody's guess.

So the sad reality is that most of the color prints in existence today will be nothing but memories 40 years from now. The problem is compounded in that roughly 90 percent of all photographs taken today are color.

Not all color products deteriorate at the same rate. In the January, 1981 edition of The Professional Photographer, an article reports on color-fading research by Henry Wilhelm. According to Wilhelm, Kodak's Ekta-color 74RC paper exhibited under average home conditions "is likely to perceptibly light fade in three or four years and seriously deteriorate in 20 years or less."

On the other hand, Kodak Kye Transfer prints, though generally too expensive for the average amateur photographer, exhibited outstanding dark stability -- upwards to 100 years or more. Although dark storing well, the Dye Transfer prints under typical display conditions were found to fade more rapidly than Kodak's Ektacolor 74RC prints.

Cibachrome's non-RC prints were found in the same study to have better light fading characteristics when stored under dark conditions without refrigeration. According to Wilhelm, these prints were "essentially permanent." However, when exposed to light for prolonged periods of time, the Cabachrome prints fared less well.

All this boils down to: How does the average person protect the investment in time, energy and money? How best can color photographs be kept from fading? Wilhelm found the best way to store color materials is under controlled-humidity refrigeration. Wilhelm claimed that "prints made on Ektacolor 74RC paper could be perserved for 100 years or longer if properly refrigerated and taken out of the refrigerated and taken out of the refrigerator only for occasional viewing or short-term display."

Wilhelm admits this storage method is far from practical. He advises it as a means of preserving our most important color works until more permanent color materials are invented.

Other ways of perserving our pictorial heritage, of preventing our generation of color photographs from becoming the "lost generation"? We can do several things -- like switching back to black-and-white photography until more permanent color materials are developed. Or shooting our most important shots in black and white. Then, when the color fades, we'll still have the image preserved in b&w for future generations.

Color slides, too fade -- most notable with heat. That means that every time you show your slides in a heat-producing projector, the image fades a little. Obviously, then, low-intensity lamps and short projection times increase the life of slides, while high-intensity lamps and projection times of a minute or longer per slide are murder on your work.

The best way to extend the life of very important slides is to store the originals under low humidity and temperature and have duplicates fade, the "master" original can be used to make more dupes.

You can likewise keep your best prints in "proper" storage, using them only periodically as "masters" from which copy prints can be made. These copy prints may be color (which will fade in time with heat, humidity, and light exposure) or black-and-white.

Before you jump down my throat for suggesting you make black-and-white copy prints of original color prints, think about it.

You can make the b&w dupes yourself. You can get by with a camera equipped with normal lens plus a steady hand. But if you're serious about creating high-quality b&w copies, a minimal investment in a few pieces of equipment is in order.

First, remember that making a copy print is just what the process implies: you're taking a photograph of a photograph. For best results, you should have a camera with a built-in light meter (like a 35mm SLR). The camera should be equipped with a flat-field lens, such as a macro lens.

If you don't own a macro and aren't ready to invest in one for the sake of making a few copy prints, you can get along nearly as well by purchasling some inexpensive reversing rings that attach to the front of your camera's normal lens and allow you to mount the lens backward to the camera body. In other words, the back of the lens is facing the subject and the front of the lens is facing the film inside the body. In this way, you'll be able to photograph a flat subject with minimum distortion from the curvature of most lens front elements.

Next, invest in a good copy stand, which consists of a stable post on which you can attach your camera, a sturdy base on which you'll place the original photograph to be copied and from two to four light sockets on movable arms.

Once the oringinal is centered on the copy stand base and the camera is focused on it, look carefully through the finder to make sure there's no glare coming from one or more of the copy lights. If there is, adjust the light so the glare disappears.

Use a slow film (low ASA) like Kodak's Panatomic X. Use the camera's self-timer or a cable release to make the exposure, to minimize camera shake. And make several exposures -- one "right on," one overexposed and one underexposed.

Once you've completed your copy work, have the film processed promptly, or do it yourself according to the directions that accompany the film.

If you decide to make your own prints, I suggest you check out Illford's Ilfobrom Archival Chemistry Kit -- everything you need to process up to 100 sheets of 8x10 paper (not supplied) archivally. Who knows? Once you begin working with black-and-white, you just might decide you like it. Stieglitz did.