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.
On its website, London lab Metro Imaging tells customers that Fujicolor Crystal Archive paper, for example, has a stability of more than 200 years, though only when kept in total darkness, in ideal atmospheric conditions.
The RPS’s Michael Pritchard points out that a number of organisations now make ‘traditional prints of key digital assets because black & white silver-gelatin prints are still seen as the best medium to preserve images for the long-term’.
But he cautions: ‘Obviously, not all traditional processes are stable, with the best example being colour C-type prints, which have frequently faded or colour-shifted even in 20-30 years.
‘Even new methods of printing, such as inkjet prints, only have limited lifespans.’
The prophecies of doom over digital storage have not bypassed traditional film and paper suppliers.
Firstcall Photographic, a UK supplier of darkroom kit, has gone back in time, offering a service to convert digital images to black & white film, colour negative or colour slide film.
‘This niche service has proved extremely popular with a resurgence of interest in analogue, and people understanding the seriousness of future-proofing their images,’ wrote the firm’s sales director Rodney Bates in a letter to Amateur Photographer, in reaction to comments by Google’s Vint Cerf and PMA’s Georgia McCabe.
‘The conclusion from these two highly experienced and eminent experts in their field is that we are sleepwalking into a photographic Armageddon,’ he claims.
‘The housekeeping of digital images is often despised by photographers, as backing up is time-consuming and often overcomplicated by device manufacturers.
‘This results in many photographers simply leaving their images on hard drives or entrusted to third-party cloud-storing service providers.’
Printing out your photos or transferring them to film delivers a sense of permanence in the same way that a self-winding, fully mechanical watch may be a safer option if you still want to tell the time in years to come.
Less could be said of the tech-heavy Apple Watch, for example, which is dependent on yet more existing technology for it to work, namely an iPhone.
• Salt and Silver: Early Photography 1840-1860 runs at Tate Britain until 7 June 2015. For details call 0207 887 8888 or visit www.tate.org.uk
RPS advice on archiving your digital photos
Edit down your digital files to a small number that you really wish to preserve. Ideally, make traditional black & white prints (even from digital files) and ensure the prints are properly processed and washed and then store them in archival boxes, in a controlled environment at less than 21° C and in a relative humidity of 30-50%. Realistically for most of us: make prints using good-quality inks, on the best-quality rag paper and store them in archival sleeves and boxes away from extremes of heat/cold and in a dry environment, with pencil captions on the back (remember the [image file] metadata is important) too.
Digital to film option
Firstcall Photographic operates a digital to film service. Customers can send in up to 36 digital images as TIFF or JPEG files, on a CD, for transfer to film and return by post. It costs £22.50 for a roll of b&w film, £25 for colour negative and £30 for recording on colour slide film (students can claim a £2.50 discount). For details visit the Firstcall Photographic website
• In a strange quirk of fate, the computer used to write this article crashed spectacularly before completion. An ominously large question mark flashed on the screen and all computer keys froze without warning. This forced the writer to ask himself the inevitable question, ‘What did I back up and when?’ Fortunately, Amateur Photographer’s miracle-working IT man was able to rescue the hard drive from the brink (and physically install it into another machine) but not before a traumatic few hours of uncertainty over the welfare of its digital contents