Photographers must print images they want to preserve, or treasured photos may be unavailable to future generations when digital storage media wears out or becomes obsolete.

This image by William Fox Talbot, showing Nelson’s Column under construction in 1844, brings history to life in 2015. It features in Salt and Silver: Early Photography 1840-1860, which runs at Tate Britain in London until 7 June [Photo credit: © Wilson Centre for Photography]


That’s the stark warning from the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) and Photo Marketing Association after Google vice-president Vint Cerf recently warned of a ‘digital dark age’ where data stored on computers will be lost for ever.

Speaking at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Jose, California, Cerf said last month: ‘When you think about the quantity of documentation from our daily lives that’s captured in digital form, like our interactions by email, people’s tweets, and all the World Wide Web, it’s clear that we stand to lose an awful lot of our history.’

Turn the clock back 175 years when the emerging photographic trend of the day was more salt-print than selfie. Photography pioneer Fox Talbot was busy churning out prints from the earliest form of paper photography.

Yet, Fox Talbot’s work lives on today, bringing history to life in an exhibition at Tate Britain that documents daily activities and key moments of the mid-19th century, such as the building of Nelson’s Column.

salt and silver main.web

Newhaven Fishermen, c. 1845 by David Hill and Robert Adamson. A salted paper print from a paper negative, from Salt and Silver: Early Photography 1840-1860, now on at Tate Britain  [Photo credit: © Wilson Centre for Photography]

These days, zillions of photos languish unsorted on computer hard drives and mobile phones in danger of being lost for ever if not properly archived.

Such concerns have been collectively voiced by the photographic industry for years. But the message carries extra resonance now that a Google big gun has fired a warning shot across the digital bows.

‘Cerf highlights a real concern for historians,’ observes RPS director general Michael Pritchard.

‘We are still looking at Talbot calotypes from the 1840s and I suspect we will still be able to enjoy these and today’s photographs, if they have been properly printed, in another 200 years.

‘I would be much less confident about anyone being able to view most amateur digital files, created today, in 200 years.

‘How we archive, preserve and make available digital images (and other digital files) for the future is a real concern for organisations such as the British Library and the National Archives and should be a matter of concern for all digital photographers.’

Pritchard points to three areas that pose a threat: the durability of today’s storage media – ‘Will media survive in their environment?’ he asks; secondly, the accessibility of storage media – ‘Will they still work when played?’; and thirdly, Pritchard questions whether machines of the future will be able to play back digital files, rendering them obsolete.

‘The best estimates suggest that magnetic media [such as computer hard drives] have a lifespan of 10-20 years and CDs/DVDs around 10-25 years, and USB flash drives perhaps 10,000 plus read/write cycles,’ he asserts.


The typical lifespan of an SD card is ’10 years or more’ with current technology and normal usage, according to the SD Association

Pritchard’s view is one echoed by Georgia McCabe, CEO of the Photo Marketing Association, a trade body based in the United States. McCabe recently warned that ‘the most photographed generation will have no pictures in 10 years’, and called on the photo industry to ‘figure out’ a way to convince the public that their photos must be properly stored.

Though she does not go so far as advocating ‘everyone print everything’, she says mobile phones are particularly vulnerable, especially where the user has changed phone or accidentally damaged it without saving their images elsewhere.

And what happens if ‘your hard drive goes kaput?’ she asked rhetorically during an interview published on the PMA website last month.


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  • BobInBpt

    I was under the impression that it was just the opposite.Old photographs deteriorate as well. We were certainly all given the impression that digitalized photos and movies and music and such were indestructible. Is this just another of Madison Ave’s great lies to sell their products????

  • Lilianna Juhasz

    I am not a luddite. On the contrary, I am a computer professional in addition to being an amateur photographer. A few years ago I sent a nice leather bound set of photo albums to the parents of my Goddaughter expecting that photos would soon be accumulating as their first born achieved each ‘first’. Both are also avid photographers and I expected no less. Although I was properly thanked for the gift, to my surprise, I was told that they probably would not be using it for any new pictures because everything is now digitized. I casually pointed out that computers break, files get lost, but photo albums have survived in our families for several generations. I too have a store of photos and documents on a digital media, but I also have a lot that sits on ‘floppies’, that can’t even be accessed any longer. I can probably see eliminating the need to keep boxes and boxes of negatives since we have effective archiving and reproduction methods. But, one never knows what to expect in the future. Best not to dismantle the darkroom just yet.

  • point

    Migrate, migrate, migrate and back up in at least three different ways.
    Regardless, prints or negs are not long term in a reliable way. Most people have no ideas that it is the film one should store carefully. Especially B&W and Kodachromes which last a long time but even other film types if stored properly. Moms and Grandmoms TOSSED or misplaced negatives all the time, negatives got lost in moves, prints lost in floods and fires. Worse, along came those horrible wax albums in the 70s. 10 years later, the wax turned to crud that ruined prints! Then there is the scissor and tape happy parent. I could go on. Analog is great and important but, until industry and museum experts meet and address the digital storage format issue on a regular basis, well, back up, migrate, and save in a variety of formats (TIFF, JPEG, RAW, ETC).

  • Steve

    Although many good points are made in this discussion I believe most of what has been said here is thinking short term. Any current digital storage will be reasonably safe for the next 5 years but the article is looking longer term. What happens when your cloud storage company of choice goes out-of-business? Many of you will remember AOL’s You’ve Got Pictures, MySpace, EverPix, PictureLife and IPINet all gone and some of them taking millions of photos with them. Even if they remain in business will your photos be available to your family if you are hit by a bus tomorrow? What about a canceled credit card that was paying for the storage or a change in email address? What happens when CD’s, DVD’s and solid state drives become obsolete? Edison cylinders, betamax, 5 inch floppy discs, 3 inch floppy disks, 8 track tapes, 8mm movies, smartcards, PCMCIA cards, laser disks, Zip disks and SyQuest drives were all state-of-the-storage media at one time and all have gone away. Yes in some cases there will be time to transfer to new media but not always. But more importantly transfer means someone must care enough and have the funds and/or the know how to preform the transfer. Who hasn’t had the fun of discovering old family photos tucked away some where for 20 or more years? That will never happen if photos are only stored digitally because the 20 years without intervention will be a death sentence for all things digital. The pace of change is speeding up not slowing down. Few early generation digital camera files can be read due to hardware and file format changes. Even digital cameras as few as 10 years old cannot use modern memory cards.
    The ONLY way to hand down photographs that will be able to be seen by our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren is to print them on archival quality materials. Although they are not immune to fire. flood or theft neither are any digital storage media and one bad scratch on a print means it means it may no longer be suitable for framing. One bad scratch on CD means 1000 family photos are irretrievable and the same scratch on a DVD may mean 5000 photos are lost. The cloud is not meant for long term storage (even the head of Google docs recommended printing photos)
    So there are really only 3 scenarios for your photography in the future:
    1: Do nothing and in 2045 your family will never seen any of your photographs.
    2. Store photos on the modern digital media and have one of your grandchildren find them only to hold up a DVD and go “What the h_ll is this?”
    3. Print your photos and have your family delight in looking through the old prints, albums and photo books that their ancestor so thoughtfully created all those years ago.

  • Xanthuss

    I know what you mean. I recently inherited a archive of emails for a committee I am on. They are archived in an old file format that very little in the way of software to read exists anymore, and those cost a fortune to, so the committee has no way to read them now.

  • No, i think with better cloud based storage, there will be a huge number of digital images available for the future generation.

  • David Kachel

    Most family photographs end up at weekend swap meets because the families neglected to put any information on the back and therefore, after a couple of generations the family has “no idea who these people are”.
    The same is true of digital images. No information gets recorded most of the time AND there is no paper print.
    If the family photographs aren’t important to the family, why should anyone else care?
    Historical and art photographs are another matter, but people generally take care to identify and catalogue those. And they are backed up and otherwise preserved.
    One last point: a fine art photograph is a COMBINATION of what the photographer captured (film or digital) and of the photographer’s mind (what he does to that image to make a print). It is not contained just in the capture and is therefore probably lost anyway when the photographer dies.

  • SmartApps

    Nobody should be printing for archive. That’s silly, we’ve seen what happens to photos exposed to the elements. Luckily modern technology comes in to SAVE thousands of photos from disappearing. The same thing would happen if our current digital data is in harms way, technology and science will find a way to fix it.

  • SmartApps

    Any scenario we have now for preservation of images is vastly superior to what people had 100 years ago. Yet we still manage to get their images online for people to view. It’s not a strength of the printed medium, its the strength of modern technology.

  • SmartApps

    You don’t need to be able to recover old formats because people converted those a long time ago. And if JPEGs go away, it wont be overnight. We will have many many years of opportunity to convert files over. I think most of people’s fears come from ignorance of technology, not a fault of technology itself.

  • Jacques Lowe was the photographer who lost all his negs in the WTC.

    No one’s archive is entirely safe. I’m trying shoot more film and store it carefully. Nothing is guaranteed though.

  • Hagbard Celine

    I started having my favorite photos printed on Fuji Crystal Archive paper about 2 years ago after my grandfather died and the family was sitting around looking through old photos he had taken.

    I realized nobody was going to gather around my flickr page after I died. But if they find my photos they’ll do the same as we did and pass them around looking at them and talking about them.

  • Anairb

    Remember the horrific story of the American photographer (can’t remember his name now) who printed archival prints of all his best photos and stored them and all his archivally-processed negatives in a bank vault – deep down in the basement of the Twin Towers…
    I realise that this is an extreme case. However, I stored my (much less valuable) negs and photos in a tin trunks in a safe, dry garage. Or so I thought… A unusually heavy rainstorm blocked one drain and flooded my garage. If I had been a Cartier-Bresson I would have committed suicide… Fortunately, or sadly, I’m not.
    Then came the digital revolution (of which I am a great fan). I stored all my original files on a range of CDs, expensive to El Cheapo. The CDs that we were assured would last for 20-100 years… Five years later I was able to open only one-third of these – and the quality had no relevance. High quality gold and low-quality bought-in-bulk suffered equally. The rest were corrupt and out-of-reach of any recovery solution.
    Nowadays, I save on various hard disks, in three places in The Cloud. All without any confidence in any of these. I have already lost two hard-drives. On one, fortunately, I had notice and could copy my files across. The other, equally fortunately, had been backed up to The Cloud.
    In 1988 Howard Brenton wrote a play called Greenland. It posits several characters falling through a time wormhole in the Thames, and ending up 700 years in the future, in a time after the world has been ravaged by The Big War and the few left over have reverted to a mostly agrarian society. They are objects of more than usual interest to the Future people. ‘You come from the time in late 20th/early 21st Century which we call The Dark Ages.’ Many things have survived (though one could argue about the possibilities of books surviving a Nuclear holocaust) but all the digital stuff is gone. It was a sobering play back then, before digitalisation had really got a foothold. It’s even more sobering now. Back to scratching everything on stone…

  • BetterPhotography

    I understand the problem. But I can’t believe that printing photos is the answer. Printed media is at least as susceptible to decay and damage as digital media is.

  • Volodya53

    AlexK I am not worried about the JPEG format as much as I am worried about digital rot- the decay of digital content due to loss on media as is outlined in the article. JPEG is so entrenched as a format that even 100 years from now the market will produce an application or terminal emulation to convert JPEG into the next format. The same is true with TIFF.

    Digital rot is the problem and there are valid strategies of migration and preservation. Printing is not the only solution and there is no singular solution. The answer to this problem lies in multiple copies on multiple media and migration. Anyone relying on one media or one cloud provider is headed for disaster.

    To best manage your photographs you should be storing them in multiple repositories and multiple media types. Hard drives, SD cards, Compact Flash cards and SSHD media are not sufficient alone to go for the long term. Cloud providers can go out of business or even lose content.

    The best strategy involves multiple repositories in multiple locations with an active migration strategy. DVDs, multiple drives and a cloud provider would be a good start. I recommend finding a friend to swap out drives with so that when your storage location is destroyed in a flood, fire, tornado or theft then you have a duplicate repository. Remember that you should also have an active metadata strategy associated with the storage media. When you do a photo shoot make your notes into a text file and put them into the folder with the photos. Duplicate that into the multiple locations – updating each. When dealing with hard drives I suggest you purchase new ones frequently (every six months) and migrate forward. That is also the best time to check your inventory. Remember to get one of your copies with some distance from your home copy. Perhaps one at home, at work or a friends house. Cloud is also one option. I like to access those photos when I am on the road. Printing is costly and prints degenerate over time unless you preserve them properly. Output to film is possible as some service bureaus offer dumping photos to 35mm. Again that analog media requires archival preservation.

    When preserving digital content think multiple repositories with metadata. I purchase a new drive every 6 months and keep my old drives updated. When I have had failures I have not had problems recovering photos. Some people keep their original SD or Compact Flash cards as an additional back up and that makes sense. Remember – all media fails and both hardware and software becomes obsolete. You must stay ahead of technology and the inevitability of loss.

  • AlexK

    I am fairly sanguine about this. I have several thousand photos on disc. These are backed up to an external drive transparently using Apple’s Time Machine. I replace the external disc every few years. This makes the problem of changing data storage technologies and the life of the storage medium less of a worry.

    More worrying is however if the standard format of today, JPEG, goes the way of the dinosaurs. I would be worried about whether a data migration would be possible and the length of time and effort needed for it. I would probably write a program to do the translation on each image one by one and let the program run for a day or two.

    I think anyone who trusts anything important solely to a cloud provider is asking for trouble. There are issues of privacy, security and the stability of the company (if you are paying do they have a partner lined up to take over their responsibility for looking after your photos?).

    These issues are not confined to photography. Documents using ancient word processors like Volkswriter may be irretrievable, and even now a simple text document in a pre-ascii format may be hard to recover. Data migration to new formats will be an ongoing issue for everyone.

    A more immediate problem is finding the phot you want. I have a system that works for me now but may not scale and feel a need to take a course on digital librarianship. And i am organised, well mostly. Most people will have only a mass mess of photos just dumped onto a hard drive and never looked at.

    To sum up, this is a problem needing public education and new simple methods of backup and organisation.