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Even if JPEG and TIFF were superseded, there will be software that lets us convert our files to new formats.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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