Digital Photographs for a Lifetime


One of the things I was struck by a couple weeks ago in my graduate systems course is how fragile data is. It’s interesting how a lot of people seem to think that digital is a safer or more durable format than film, when it’s most often the other way around. Once you shoot and develop a roll of film, the physical degradation your film strip will experience over the years (if stored properly) is nothing compared to the digital degradation of your digital files.

The general, technical term for this is bit rot.

Floppy disk and magnetic tape storage may experience bit rot as bits lose magnetic orientation, and in warm, humid conditions these media are prone to literally rot. In optical discs such as CDs and DVDs the breakdown of the material onto which the data is stored may cause bit rot. This can be mitigated by storing disks in a dark, cool location with low humidity. Archival quality disks are also available. Old punch cards and punched tape may also experience literal rotting.

Here’s what it can do to your digital photographs:


Personally, I backup each of my photographs twice – one on an external hard drive and one on a DVD-R. This definitely isn’t enough for long term data backup, so I’m going to have to rethink how I backup my data very soon.

In general, preserving digital data is a very difficult issue, even for companies with large amounts of money and resources. The fact is that nothing lasts forever (except souls, of course. Email me for more on that), and the challenge is mainly how to extend the life of our data as long as possible.

So what options do we ordinary folk have for backing up digital work? What steps can we take to make it more likely that our photos will be around in 10, 50, or 100 years?

Optical Disks


Manufacturers claim that their high quality CD-Rs and DVD-Rs can last between 50 and 100 years, but this is assuming you buy the most expensive disks and store them flawlessly. Most experts estimate that your CD-Rs have a conservative lifespan of 6+ years and DVD-Rs 15+ years. Even then you’ll need a bit of luck.

The truth is, most of our discs won’t last very long due to a plethora of factors. First off, most of us are probably more cost-conscious than “data-longevity conscious”. We don’t always buy the highest quality disks to burn on.

Second, we don’t always store data properly. Improper storage or handling leads to disc rot.

Third, we’re generally time-conscious as well, so we don’t always burn our disks on the slowest, and safest, speed.

Here are some steps you can take to extend the life of your optical disks:

  1. Quality: Purchase the highest quality disks you can
  2. Burning: Burn your disks on the slowest burn speed for optimal data integrity
  3. Storing: Store your disks in jewel cases in a dark place at room temperature away from light and heat sources
  4. Handling: Be sure to take good care of your disks. Avoid touching the bottom or trying to clean them if possible. If text printed on a piece of paper is ripped or fades, you can still read it. If your disk gets a bad scratch, it could be rendered completely unreadable.
  5. Labeling: Don’t label your disks with adhesive labels or permanent markers
  6. Maintaining: If you’re seriously paranoid, you might want to transfer the data to new disks periodically, accepting the potential data degradation introduced in the transfer in order to avoid the physical degradation of the disks.

Hard Drives


It’s not uncommon for hard drives to fail after a few years. Most manufacturer warranties are around 3-5 years.

First, let’s talk about the hard drives in your computer. Generally, drives last long when they’re constantly running at a steady pace. A computer that is always on will likely last longer than a computer that is turned on and off multiple times a day.

Also, in addition to the mechanical parts of a hard drive failing, the magnetic bit strength of a hard drive slowly fades over time, leading to data loss.

A possible way to play it safer when it comes to hard drives is to store the same data on different drives (increasing redundancy), since it’s unlikely that both will fail at the same time. Thus, if one fails, you can quickly get a new one and copy it over.

This is the general idea behind RAID, a popular technology developed by another professor here at Cal. There’s different levels of RAID, but the duplication strategy I just described (RAID 1) is probably the most applicable for consumers. The other RAID levels are more applicable for companies who want redundancy but don’t want double of every bit of data (no pun intended). You can buy external hard drives with RAID technology now, or you can just purchase multiple hard drives and do the mirroring yourself.

Some hard drive tips:

  1. Purchasing: Buy high quality hard drives. Saving money by buying large cheap disks isn’t a good idea, since you’re most likely trading more space for less reliability. What’s the point of storing more data if you’re much more likely to lose it?
  2. Handling: Sudden movements or shocks to hard drives can mean death to your data, especially when the hard drive is starting up. Keep the drive safe and stable.
  3. Maintaining: As I said earlier, the data on hard drives slowly “rots” over time. To prevent this rot you should periodically read everything on the


If you want to ensure that your grandchildren will see a certain photograph, the best option might be to make prints of it. While a print at your local drug store might only last 10 or 15 years before it starts to break down, a high quality print could last your lifetime. Here are some tips:

  1. Ink and Paper: The physical components that go into making a print are of utmost importance. Do some research and make sure you choose materials that last.
  2. Archival Materials: What you choose to display or store your photographs in has a big impact on the longevity of your prints. They need to be “chemically inert”, meaning they won’t cause the material in your print to break down.
  3. Location: Store your photographs in a cool, dry, and dark place. Heat, humidity, and light all cause the materials in prints to break down. If you hang your photos somewhere, avoid direct sunlight, since it will fade your photographs.
  4. Handling: Avoid touching the surface of your prints, since your fingers obviously aren’t chemically inert.


logo_awsCloud computing is becoming a pretty big deal, and many people have already entrusted other forms of data to big players such as Amazon or Google. In fact, services like SmugMug and Twitter trust Amazon’s S3 storage service so much that their images are all stored there. The question is, should you?

In generally, it’s probably safer to entrust your images to Amazon than it is to back them up yourself. I’m not exactly sure how services like Amazon deal with data corruption, but they have professionals dealing with the integrity of their data, while you’re most likely not one. The most common reason for data loss is human error, so in this regard, you’re much safer with Amazon than handing external hard drives yourself. In terms of price, it’s not so bad either.


The most durable way to store information is physically, not digitally. Here’s an interesting quote that I came across in this New York Times article about data rot:

Making lots of backups is good advice, and on different formats, different places; consider paper as an archival medium. Some paper we have has lasted thousands of years. If Moses had gotten the Ten Commandments on a floppy disk, it would never have made it to today.

Personally, I think the safest ways to preserve photos are with companies like Amazon for all your data, and by making prints for individual photos.

Have other tips? Leave a comment sharing them with us and I might add them to this post!

Image credits: Camouflage by friskypics, VCDHD / DVHD by jepoirrier, Hard drive array by shanghaidaddy

  • Eugene

    Great write-up Michael!

    I am particularly impressed/happy that you mentioned that having/making prints is a back-up avenue of our images (memories). I keep repeating this fact to friends and family: saving the images on DVDs will last at most ten to fifteen years, but a quality archival print will last a lifetime!


  • Madzia

    I agree that making prints is an excellent idea. But instead of printing each photo out and putting it in an album, I am going to use an online publisher (Blurb) to make them into hard-bound books. Easier to handle, easier to store, and in the long run, also much cheaper! I have three years' worth of 365 projects, they will make good diaries.

    I've been following you on twitter for a while and just wanted to say I really appreciate your posts. :)

  • kindofpretty

    Backblaze is another good alternative to Amazon for online backups…
    They just publicly released their methods on how to back up ~ its good to see that they are open about their (fairly impressive) technology.
    You can get a trail for 15 days while you upload your data and then it is $5 a month from then on. I use it myself, found the service very slick with only a handful of downfalls.
    Check out the trial here:

  • K_Praslowicz

    This is just one of the reasons that I've never been able to throw my film gear away. I'm so horrible at, and hate the process of backing up my unimportant day-to-day files, that I think I'd lose all interest in the process if I had to manage the stuff I really care about. Hell, if Robert Capa's briefcase full of film can disappear in 1939, and resurface in 2008, and everything is still usable, I'm sold.

    Making prints is the way to go no matter what medium you use. The most technologically illiterate person in the world can hold one and get the image from it by instinct. If I were to die now and only had my images on a DVDs or a hard drive that get misplaced in an attic for ninety years and somehow doesn't rot, I don't really expect members of my family to still have technology around to be able to view the images. A stack of prints though, even if they fade some, get wrinkled or scratched, will still be usable.

  • RondaMullen

    Thanks for the great info! I was wondering what you think of storing photos on flash drives? I know it's another digital format that will not be a forever solution, but what do you think for a medium length solution?

  • Mat

    I backup to DVD every couple of months, and upload everything to Flickr as off-site storage. I also keep the original files on an external hard drive that is always running, but physically separated from the actual computer.

    But I'm trying to print more and more. I really like Madzia's idea of having photobooks made up, and I think this would be a terrific annual activity to preserve someone's best work.

  • faisal

    1. THANKS for using my photo!!!
    2. I use amazon s3 cloud to automatically backup all my works and files daily at 2am each night. Its the best thing you can ever do! HIGHLY recommended.

  • traclay

    This was a very informative write up, learned alot. Keep it up.

  • Michael Zhang

    You're welcome, and thanks for your input. =)

  • Michael Zhang

    Hey Ronda,

    I think they often claim to keep the data intact for 10 years. Flash drives are a little different than the other things mentioned in the post, since they're not about moving parts.

    You would probably be safe with using it as very temporary backup, but it probably shouldn't be used as long term backup.

    If by medium length you mean a year or two, the data will probably be fine.

    Keep in mind flash memory can only handle a limited number of writes/erases before they fail. This number is usually so high (~1 million?) that you don't need to worry about it, but if you're using an extremely old/worn flash drive then you might want to get a newer one to be safe.

  • Joe


    Ok, first let me start by saying that I have worked in IT for 10+ years, and spent several of those as the Worldwide Manager of Technical Support for a company that makes backup software. When I speak on this subject I am speaking with the weight of someone that has been on the phone with hundreds of people that have lost important data (sometimes business critical data). I understand what it is to lose data that has no significance until it is gone, and what it is to lose data that will put your company out of business.

    Digital storage is far more robust than most give it credit for, when done right. Yes “bit rot” does happen, but it is VERY rare. Tape does physically degrade (we also had an instance when a nearby radio station was slowly erasing backup tapes with their transmitter), CD's degrade, hard drives fail.

    But, consider this: RAID5 is the default standard for hard disk data protection. I have purchased 2TB RAID5 backup systems (namely the Buffalo Terastation line) from for less than $300.

    Tape backups (when kept in shielded and temperature/humidity controlled storage) are capable of restoring data with fidelity more than 20 years after that data was written (this is the reason that tape backup is still the standard in the enterprise).

    Now that being said, spend some money, buy a RADI5 storage device, and also use an online backup service (I recommend Mozy or Carbonite – google either). This way not only do you have a local redundant RAID5 storage array, but the data is also being stored in a special data center (likely on RAID50 arrays, this is two RAID5 array's copying eachother, and also being backed up to tape – even if they are not telling you that they do this, they do).

    If you use this method, your data will be as safe as you can reasonably make it. So for ~$300 for the Terastation, and ~$55/yr for the online storage, you have a good bit of piece of mind. I have been using this method (or something very similar) for more than 7 years without losing any data (other than misplacing things).

  • Michael Zhang

    Hi Joe,

    Thanks a lot of your advice!

    RAID 5 + online backup does seem like a very safe plan to keep your data safe. It's just that a lot of people aren't willing to shell out $300 for storage when they can purchase more capacity for a lower price, and aren't willing to pay $55 a year to keep their data safe.

    However, for people with the means to pay this and who wish to keep their data as safe as possible, then they should definitely go the route you're suggesting. :-)

    Just speaking from the perspective of a student. Haha.

  • joakimbergquist

    That first photo of your would fit perfectly as a tilt-shift edit :) try it out.

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  • Joe

    Sure I hear that (I remember those starving student days). Still, it's all about priorities, I personally could have shaved $500 out of about two months of the “beer and (insert other party favor here)” fund.

    Practically speaking the $55 for a year for Carbonite alone should pretty much cover it for a student type (you'll pay more than that for a USB HDD anyway). And then once you get out into the 9-5 world, supplement with the storage array.

    Funny story, about jeez I guess it was eight years ago now, my apartment got robbed. They took pretty much everything except my pots and pans, and my NAS (at the time it was something like a whopping 250GB of storage or something like that). They didn't get that because I had installed it in one of my kitchen cupboards (it was the only place I could poke a hole through the wall from the garage without the landlord seeing it).

    At the time I didn't even realize it was still there until I went to the garage to see if they took my router (they did). The idiot actually unplugged the CAT5 cable from the router that went to the NAS, and never thought to look to see where it went I guess.

    As to not being willing to shell out the money for the RAID setup, it really comes down to this: sure you can get a 1TB USB drive for about $100, but when that drive dies, it's dead, and the data is gone. With the RAID setup, if a drive dies, you just replace it, and the data is still there when the rebuild is done. Long term, the RAID array is a far better investment.

  • Nathan Yan

    Online cloud storage is the way to go – they have so much redundancy (geographic redundancy too, which you don't get by keeping a bunch of hard drives or a box of photos at home) that your risk of data loss is virtually zero.

  • Nathan Yan

    If you're using hard drives for archival storage, however, the moving parts is not an issue – you're essentially using them as write-once drives that you won't be frequently accessing.

    Flash is the same – the limit only applies to writes, which you'll basically be doing once per bit for archival storage.

  • Nathan Yan

    Online cloud storage is the way to go – they have so much redundancy (geographic redundancy too, which you don't get by keeping a bunch of hard drives or a box of photos at home) that your risk of data loss is virtually zero.

  • Nathan Yan

    If you're using hard drives for archival storage, however, the moving parts is not an issue – you're essentially using them as write-once drives that you won't be frequently accessing.

    Flash is the same – the limit only applies to writes, which you'll basically be doing once per bit for archival storage.

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  • CD Printers

    Discs will not last for years if not properly stores. I don’t know where did they found the data that a CD-R CD can last for years.

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  • CD DVD Printer

    Thanks for these steps and tips. Discs will definitely last for years depending on the usage.

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