Photography

Thoughts on digital files vs. prints for archiving photographs

We’ve had several lengthy discussions in the comments here about which is the best way to make sure your archive of photographs survives the ages: digital files or prints.

I think it’s a tempest in a teapot, because it’s incredibly unlikely that anyone will care about our photographs a generation from now.

You might be able to make some of your photographs last. Print them, frame them, and give them away as gifts. If you’re able to find or make a market for your work, sell some of your prints. People tend to keep the art that hangs on their walls.

But that will likely represent a small fraction of your output. What about the thousands of other images you’ve made in your lifetime?

The sad truth is that you are almost certainly not the next Ansel Adams, Henri Carter-Bresson, or Annie Liebovitz. It’s unlikely that someone will discover your work one day like it’s a treasure trove, a la Vivian Maier.

Even if your photos feature generations of family, soon nobody alive will remember the people in them. Your children, if you have any, might enjoy keeping a small selection of family photos after you die. If you’re lucky, your grandchildren will want a couple of them.

Because most your images are unlikely to survive the generations, I claim that it doesn’t matter how you keep them. Store them as digital files, as prints, or both. You just have to be intentional about it and do the requisite work.

Digital files

A scan of one of my negatives from July, 1982

“But file formats will become obsolete!” That’s a specious argument. The JPEG has existed since 1992; the TIFF since 1993. Because technology changes incredibly fast, any digital format that survives 30 years is essentially permanent. Software will be able to display and manipulate our photographs in their current formats until after we all die.

Even if JPEG and TIFF were superseded, there will be software that lets us convert our files to new formats. It will be a boring job, but we will be able to do it.

Your bigger worry by far is a hard-drive crash. A good backup practice can eliminate your risk. I back up to an external hard drive and to a cloud storage provider. Every time I add, change, or remove a file, software on my computer instantly doubly backs it up. When my main hard drive failed a few years ago, I lost no files. Also, your backups make it easy to move your files when you buy a new computer, as you must every so many years.

You will also want to add notes to your photo files to remember key information about them. I store camera, lens, and film, as well as a description of what and/or who I photographed. At least on Windows, you can do this right from the operating system, no special software necessary. It’s easy, but tedious.

You will also need to create some sort of system for storing and searching your photos. I store mine in folders by year, and then by date/roll of film. I should have started using Lightroom or a similar program to tag them all from the beginning so I can search them and find individual images. I didn’t, and now I have an enormous job ahead of me someday.

Prints

If you choose to print your photos, you will want to choose a good-quality printer or printing service so the images last. Inexpensive prints, such as those from the drug store, are likely to fade sooner. You will want to write details on each photograph, and then store them in acid-free boxes, probably separated with acid-free interleaving paper.

You probably won’t print everything you photograph, as storage will soon become a problem. For this reason, I print and store only the small fraction of photos I like the most.

Because a flood or a fire would destroy your prints, consider printing doubles and storing the copies at a different site.

Passing on your work

After I’m gone, I hope that my children will keep at least some of my printed photographs, maybe even frame one or two of them to display in their homes. Printing and storing only my favorite work will make it much easier on them to do this — they will pick through a few hundred prints, rather than tens of thousands of digital files.

I could also store my favorite work on a thumb drive or special external hard drive for that purpose. Make it two, with one stored offsite, in case something happens to the first one.

But whichever I choose, I have to keep after it, and make sure the chosen images make their way into my children’s hands after I go.

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31 thoughts on “Thoughts on digital files vs. prints for archiving photographs

  1. A depressing read, because it’s true.
    It is said that nothing ever disappears from the Internet. Google et al might have everything ever posted going back decades. I don’t know enough about computers and the Web to really say much about it, but I wonder if the photos we post online will outlast the ones we save in our hard drives or print on paper.

  2. Andy Umbo says:

    You should check with the historical society of the state you live in, and see what their policies are. Our state historical society is far better than our local city historical society in keeping items of value. It is well funded and well run. I’ve worked on a few “pro/am” photo collections that ended up there, i.e. peoples work that contained images of areas of the city that have changed over the years, political or business figures, etc. There’s been discoveries of photo work where people just walked around town taking pictures their whole lives, that have been an immensely valuable resource. The state society is even interested in personal scrap-books that may be of interest, and any other ephemera, and is happy to review items.

    Last year I went though all 4+ filing drawers of negs, contact sheets and transparencies to check on the archival storage. I used the opportunity to start separating the work into items I thought the historical society would be interested in, like my large format scenes of the downtown areas of my city, and all the work I did as a professional for my local city magazine of personalities of interest. I also have a box separated out that is all family stuff, to go to one of my sibs or nephews after I’m gone. I have other stuff that the historical society may or may not be interested in, but it’ll be up to them.

    It is of interest to note that my sister, who’s been an academic all her life, with masters degrees in archeology and anthropology, and has literally done all the research and has all the paperwork on our family history, doubts that after we’re gone, anyone will be interested in it at all. She doubts whether my nephews will have much of an interest, and thinks it’ll all end up in the dumpster. She see’s it happen all the time. It’s just the way life works.

    When we have these discussions, there always seems to be a contingent of people that want to bring the old ferocity of digital vs. film arguments to the table, but they are absolutely missing the point. Once you are dead, and someone walks into your office, highly detailed ephemera, like professionally printed photos with details printed on the back, are going to be immediately identifiable as something someone should look through or do something with, especially if you have educated family and friends. I don’t care how you double, or triple copy your digital information to hard drives, it’s just a hard chunk of black plastic sitting on your desk and people aren’t going to be all that interested in looking at, or getting around to doing something about it. Virtually all the historical photo “finds” I’ve tracked over the years, have been found based on a third party, like an estate company, coming into the family house and identifying that there “might be something of interest here”, by seeing physical ephemera.

    Jim, I would think all your “road travel” photos would be of interest to any state historical society!

    • The older some of my road-trip photos become, the more interesting they are, as the roadscape has changed in many places. I do think that one day I will want to find the right historical societies to donate images to.

  3. Spot on. The only time most of us will produce any image of true historic value will be by accident. The reason why we have so many very old photos today is because of their rarity at the time they were made; people valued them more and made an effort to protect them (remember those nice ‘portrait cases’?) Today’s mass-produced … well, everything … instantly reduced the value of whatever.
    However, your documentation of road changes and old buildings may be of value to historians at least in the area.
    The endurance of the media itself, whether digital or physical, is less than permanent. Enjoy them now, because they won’t be here later. Neither will we.
    (This from someone who has shot, and lost, thousands of photos over half a century.)

    • Really good points Marc. With mo things, if there’s fewer of them, they seem to have greater value in our eyes. If a deceased relative left behind a dozen photos from decades of taking pictures, it would seem far more valuable than if they’d left thousands on hard drives. It’s just that scarcity/exclusivity thing we fall for (and that advertisers trying to use all the time!).

  4. I have just started getting prints of some of my favorite images to hang in my home. I am thinking of getting some smaller prints and assembling them in some sort of album to leave behind for someone who might care…my own little time capsule.

  5. tbm3fan says:

    None of us here are really taking photos for the benefit of others outside of ourselves and family. As for how to preserve them let me put it this way. Since my first computer in 1983 I have had at least half a dozen over that time frame and God knows how many hard drives. OTOH I still have photos that I took when I was 8 years old which makes that 60 years now. In fact I have all I have taken with the negs/slides in preservation folders. On top of that my mother passed on family photos dating back to the families earliest days in NYC at the turn of the century. Some from even the 1890s of my great grandmother in Ireland. I know some but don’t know others as my mother now has dementia and can’t educate me. Now these are all prints made by places in NYC, no i-hour photo, and have no negatives. I get the suspicion that the shops kept the negatives after printing your photo.

    • “None of us here are really taking photos for the benefit of others outside of ourselves and family.” – Bingo.

      I need to sit down with my mom and have her identify all of the people in the old family photos she has, before she’s gone. They’re people I never met but whom she knew well.

      • Andy Umbo says:

        I have to say I tried to get my Dad to talk about his life “on tape” for years, and he never would. I was figuring out how to jury-rig something secret with the then modern digital voice recorders when he passed away in 2003. Not only should you talk to your aging relatives and get the info down, you should try to get them at least on audio. I miss hearing my parents more than seeing them. They wouldn’t even notice you putting your phone down, on record, or an actual small digital recorder.

        TBM3, processors, even the drug stores, always returned the negatives, atho I’ve heard of some places that don’t, within the last few years. Prior to that, you bet you got them back; but what happened is people threw them out or lost them, just kept the prints. I remember even 55 years ago, getting the prints back from the drug store in a pocket, with a smaller pocket inside that the negs were put in. After both my parents were gone, we went through all my Moms pics back to 1930’s Chicago and 1940’s Hawaii, and if they had been kept in the original envelope, the negs were in there still. Trouble was, many of original envelopes were long gone. Alas…would have loved to have some of those vintage 620 negs! I think most people, even those who were big photo users, once they got the prints, rarely if ever got additional prints made.

        • tbm3fan says:

          Most of the photos passed on to me were from the late 1890s up through 1940. I could tell most were taken by a photographer, as a business, and not the family. Basically they weren’t snap shots that we took. So I am pretty sure they never got the negatives but would ask the business to print out a copy or two. Time moves on, the business closes, and the negs go into the vapor…

      • That’s the critical bit, Jim. The people in family photos live on because one generation shares the stories of the pictures and the people with the next. The photos themselves are just a tool for that. I know about my great maternal grandparents and great-great-grandparents and great great great grandparents because my mother shared the stories. My dad did not, and so I don’t know his family.

  6. NigelH says:

    Accurate statements Jim if (as someone already said) a little depressing. Given the amount of family photos I see in boxes at flea markets it is clear even fairly recent family photo archives are of little value; how else would they end up in the public domain.
    Even photos that my father left are fading into memory as we don’t know who many of them are of so when myself and my siblings pass it is likely they will become more forgotten.
    It is easy to think that our passion has value now or sometime in the future but none of us are really creating much that is unique and of sufficient interest to anyone but ourselves and our close contacts.

    It makes me question what legacy I will leave behind and who beyond my children will know I existed.

    I have little confidence in cloud-based archiving of my photos having read of a few incidents of people losing data as a result of trusting commercial enterprises; such as Google deleting a photo archive when, through a bank error, payment for the space was not made – also when MySpace lost millions of files after a migration way back when. There are no guarantees so if stuff is precious use any and all storage methods you can I guess.

    Thanks… :P

    • I think a great way to look at family photos is that they are valuable to those who made them and are in them during their lifetimes, and that’s what matters!

      Few of us are fortunate enough to leave a true legacy for the ages. Most of us are simply ordinary people.

    • The loss of Google photos is less about cloud backup and more about poor strategy. It’s not a backup if the only copy of the file is at Google. Reread Jim’s section about backup prints.

      • NigelH says:

        Yes I understand that, one backup is not sufficient in itself. My point was to emphasize that relying on just cloud as your archive is not enough.

  7. Besides the negatives I have, I do not take any precautions to preserve my work. After my death, someone may put the negatives in a box for a few years, but eventually, someone will throw them away.

  8. I have never regarded the shoeboxes of drugstore prints with accompanying negatives or thousands of digital images I have produced over the years as anything more than ephemera. But on the off chance that any of the mounted black and white prints of film images that I have hung on my walls, given to friends and relatives or donated to public institutions survive me I have printed them with pigment inks on archival cotton paper.

  9. I print them myself. I use 100% cotton archival inkjet paper and 100% cotton museum grade board. I use Epson Ultrachrome HD pigment inks. The Wilhelm Imaging Research estimate of the lifetime of this combination is 200+ years. The prints are relatively small, typically 8×12, so my costs are not too crazy.

  10. True, but every now and then you hear of old prints, negative or glass plates being discovered that shine an historical lens on events, people and places long after. Luck probably has a lot to do with it, but luck is helped by the presence of a physical object. A digital file will need more than luck I suspect?

    • The trouble is that those images have to survive multiple generations to be that historical. Most photos pass through the “just junk photos” phase first.

    • I’ve used it a number of times. I like it because it reminds me of who I was then, at a time when I have little memory and even less photographic record.

  11. Olli Thomson says:

    I agree with Marc’s comment at the top. You never know how your pictures will be used in the future. Your documenting of roads, bridges, buildings that will potentially soon be gone matters. As well as historians, they may matter to local communities, or local schools, studying their own neighbourhoods.

    My take on this is shaped by some of the places overseas I have lived that are nearly as comprehensively photographed as the US or the world’s tourist spots. Many of these places are developing and changing rapidly with whole neighbourhoods disappearing and little record of their existence. At least I’ve managed to preserve a little of that. Whether anyone will care is another matter but all I can do, all we can do, is make our images available and accessible.

    I also think organising and archiving our images matters because it’s one way in which we assert the value of our pictures, seeing them as something more than just ephemeral or disposable. A few years ago I visited an exhibition at the NGA in DC of work by Sally Mann exploring her roots in the American South, and touching on issues of race and identity. As well as Mann’s work there was a collection of snapshots and family photographs featuring an African-American women who worked for Mann’s family for many decades. These were never intended for public display, but for me they were more compelling in communicating some of these issues around race and identity in the American South at that time than Mann’s own work – impressive as it was. You never know the value images can have and the ways they can continue to have a life beyond the here and now.

    • I can see that in my head I was writing about fine art photography and family photography, and I overlooked the very kind I do most often: documentary photography.

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