Preserve Your Family Photos

Portrait from a family album created in mid to later 1800’s

The manner in which we capture and preserve photographs of our families and loved ones has changed dramatically during the digital revolution.

Today it’s much less expensive to shoot family photographs due to innovations in digital cameras, camera phones and so on. Most importantly these technologies are having a huge impact on the way that we save, share and preserve our family photographs.

The most significant change is that most no longer have family photographs printed by a photo lab on a high quality photo paper. Instead we opt to store our photographs on digital devices or storage media and share with others via some sort of electronic means. It seems that there’s just no need for photo prints anymore, right? Well, this happens to be a big wrong and we’ll tell you why!!

Risks with Digital Family Photos
The reality is that most consumers haven’t considered the issues associated with storing those precious family photos on a digital device or storage media. In fact, most of us do not know how to properly store, protect and preserve their digital family photographs for years to come.

What’s the risk? Well, the risk is that these precious photographs will be lost forever unless some basic preservation guidelines are followed.

Why Do I Care About This?
My concern comes from the knowledge that I have of media archival processes (a topic I studied in college) and knowledge of today’s digital habits and technologies. I’m very concerned about the growing trend of storing photos on a digital device because I know that consumers will unknowingly lose those precious memories unless they take action today.

A personal story may highlight this a bit better. I recently came across an old family album from the mid to late 1800’s after cleaning out my parent’s home. This album was filled with portraits of hundreds of my ancestors, most of whom I had never seen before.

Priceless? You bet, but the reality is that this was only possible because these photos had been printed on an archival media (a “tintype”) and then organized into a hard-bound photo album to protect those images from any future damage.

I might not be able to persuade you to change your digital photo storage habits, but as an experienced photographer I feel an obligation to share what the risks and downsides are of storing your family photos on a digital device or storage media.

Digital Photos Are Not Archival Quality
The simple truth is that digital formats are not archival formats. What do I mean by this? I mean that storing your photographs in a digital format is a really bad way to protect your family photographs for the future. The primary reason for this is because digital technologies are constantly changing, even as this article is written.

According to the United States Library of Congress, digital storage media (including phones and cameras) have a “short lifespan”. Their preservation requires “active management, including regular migration of content from older storage devices to newer devices”. The LOC also states that the lifespan of digital storage media is cut short by at least three factors:

  1. Media durability.
  2. Media usage, storage and handling.
  3. Media obsolescence (can the file be accessed with future technologies).

Let’s take #3 for example. In 1995 I had a few of my paintings and drawings photographed and then saved to a Kodak PhotoCD by a professional lab. It cost me quite a bit of money, but I felt I was doing the right thing because it was a Kodak product, a company with more than 100 years of experience in the photo and film processing industry. The Kodak Photo CD was initially very popular with consumers when launched in 1992, but unfortunately the format was abandoned by Kodak beginning in 2001.

In 2013, I tried to open the digital images stored on my Kodak PhotoCD, but the viewer that came with the CD no longer worked on my PC. I then tried to open a digital image from this disc and received a “File type not supported” error message.

What happened? Well, the digital format that Kodak heavily promoted 20 years earlier (PCD) was no longer supported in any of my graphics programs. In essence, I was unable to view and print the images that I thought I had preserved 20 years ago.

Fortunately I was able to recover these images through a laborious, expensive and complicated process. This was a valuable lesson and I’ve since learned to be suspicious of the longevity of any digital format.

What Can You Do To Preserve Your Family Photographs?
So what is the best way to preserve your family photographs? I recommend the following:

  1. Make sure you have printed, archival copies of important photographs. These would be photographs of any key moments from a wedding, graduation, birth, or especially portraits.
  2. Make sure these photographs are printed on a high quality, archival quality paper with non-fading and non-water soluble inks.
  3. Include the name or names of the people in the photograph. This should be done with a #2 pencil on the back of the photograph. Be sure to include the year or date the photograph was taken.
  4. Do not use your home printer to print these photographs unless you are positive that your printer is using archival quality paper and non-water soluble ink.
  5. Protect your paper photographs by placing them in a hardbound, archival quality photo album. Be sure to buy a photo album that is marked “archival quality”. Many photo albums sold today are not archival and can cause photographs to yellow or deteriorate more quickly over time.
  6. Keep your paper photographs and photo albums in a cool, dry area. Moisture is the enemy of any paper photograph and can cause rapid deterioration and damage to your photos.

My hope is that you’ll follow some or all of the suggestions I’ve made above. Protecting those cherished family photographs should be a much higher priority than it is today, but in most cases it’s not and I’m sounding the alarm. Hopefully you won’t follow the norm. Hopefully you’ll decide to properly preserve your family photographs for generations to come following the guidelines above.

For more information on this topic, be sure to check out the Library of Congress web site. It has some very easy to understand tips that you can follow.

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