PetaPixel

The Impermanence of Digital Photographs

It seems like everyone has access to some kind of camera these days, but will the digital images captured survive long enough to become part of the historical record of our time for future generations? John Naughton at The Guardian writes,

[...] while digital technology has generally been very good for photography as a mass medium, it has also made the resulting imagery much more fragile and impermanent. Of the billions of photographs taken every year, the vast majority exist only as digital files on camera memory cards or on the hard drives of PCs and servers in the internet “cloud”. In theory – given the right back-up regimes and long-term organisational arrangements – this means that they could, theoretically, endure for a long time. In practice, given the vulnerability of storage technology (all hard disks fail, eventually), the pace at which computing kit becomes obsolete and storage formats change, and the fact that most people’s Facebook accounts die with them, the likelihood is that most of those billions of photographs will not long survive those who took them.

That’s a startling thought — while it’s true that digital photos can last for quite some time if you’re tech-savvy enough to preserve them well, how many people in the general population actually do so? For the ordinary photo-taker, making a print will likely last much longer than their haphazard — or non-existant — backups.

Stick your pics in a proper family album [The Guardian]


Image credit: Broken hard drive? – Day 148 of Project 365 by purplemattfish


 
  • http://www.gannonburgett.com Gannon Burgett

    In my opinion digital is more safe than film. If a fire happens in your house or if you scratch a negative it’s gone. Digital is easily duplicated and can be stored in multiple areas.

  • Jon

    A valid point on the frailty of negatives however as most film shooters scan their film to digitise it and then proceed to upload some if not all the images online surely film is a better option for keeping images safe as you can have as many digital copies as you want and then a hard copy, what is essentially your analogue .RAW file.

    Makes sense to me anyway.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jon-Knobelock/504861829 Jon Knobelock

    But a hard copy fiber print from a film negative will out last the lifeline of any of those multiple storage areas. average life of a cd is 10 years, average life of a hard drive is 5 years. So given the time span that is a very short time frame considering Fiber prints can last decades.

    his argument doesn’t claim that digital is a bad way to store files, its just not wise to only rely on digital copies, given the same carefulness a hard copy print will outlast your digital files. 

  • http://twitter.com/Devereauxprints Ed Devereaux

    The Washington post also made mention of this issue. I still have my printed photos but digital? Now were is my zip drive?

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/05/15/AR2007051501873.html

  • http://profiles.google.com/kellyhofer kelly hofer

    Realistically, do we want trillions of photos to survive into infinity. No. 
    Enough photos will survive to give us a sense of the past, but we dont need them all, enough to relive the reality back then. Most photos from most people become trash quite fast, because they have so many of them and they are so mundane, but the ones that are treasures are often recopied, printed, uploaded and so on to survive the generations. 
    I feel that would be enough. 

    I have over 150,000 images, and as a photographer, i dont cry when i loose some, why…because i got more where they came from, memories are not THAT precious. Especially the pointless photoshoots i have, with the same people. over and over. 
    My parents survived with having only a handful photos of my childhood, and i never regret it. 
    All Photos are not as valuable as everybody reassures us they are. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jim-Marsh/674033156 Jim Marsh

    God forbid that the vast amount of Facebook standard pictures should survive more than the cursory glance that they deserve. All of the out of focus, over exposed, under exposed, flash in the mirror, eyes up left, eyes up right, tongue hanging out, little girly pouting practice, gansta salutes etc. etc. should be consigned to the digital cesspit where they belong.

  • Typeinmichael

    Like Jon I shoot film then digitize it and deposit them to my bank safe deposit box, I got this idea from a friend who collects rare wines then store them at paid Wine storage warehouse. 

  • http://www.flickr.com/avaviel Avaviel

    Print large; print often.

  • http://www.flickr.com/avaviel Avaviel

    Print large; print often.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mauricio.munuera Mauricio Munuera

    I’m all for digital photography when it comes to work; it’s cheaper, faster and easier. But all my personal stuff is shot with film. I mean, take the Sony Mavica for example: you had one ten years ago, so all you photos are on floppy disks; if you want to print it today, you have to find a computer that’s at least 5 years old, because the new ones don’t come with floppy drive anymore. This is probably going to happen with our SD and CF cards in a while. And, well, who can assure you that in ten years JPEG will still be readable by computers?
    If you have a negative that’s 40 years old, you take it to any lab and they’ll print it without any problem. That’s my point.

  • http://twitter.com/JEB54 John Branch

    I agree with kelly hofer and Jim Marsh: we ought to HOPE that a lot of our pictures don’t long outlive us. Why should they? Even good photographers shoot a lot of stuff that’s not quite right, no good, or downright bad; it’s part of the process. Ordinary people hardly shoot anything else.

  • http://twitter.com/JEB54 John Branch

    I agree with kelly hofer and Jim Marsh: we ought to HOPE that a lot of our pictures don’t long outlive us. Why should they? Even good photographers shoot a lot of stuff that’s not quite right, no good, or downright bad; it’s part of the process. Ordinary people hardly shoot anything else.

  • http://twitter.com/JEB54 John Branch

    I agree with kelly hofer and Jim Marsh: we ought to HOPE that a lot of our pictures don’t long outlive us. Why should they? Even good photographers shoot a lot of stuff that’s not quite right, no good, or downright bad; it’s part of the process. Ordinary people hardly shoot anything else.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001831092921 Leno Brookins

    Or you can buy a external USB Floppy Drive

  • Mugget

    It’s not that scary really… if you take sensible steps like having your digital photos in multiple places (and that’s the only sensible thing to do if you’re serious about the longevity of your photos), then I don’t see any reason for concern.

    Besides do we really want to see photos from every person with a point & shoot on 10 years time? How many people have lost prints & negatives, misplaced them or thrown them out anyway?

  • Matt Beursken

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I have started to collect tintypes and have a small collection of vintage photographs. I don’t have much hope that digital photographs will survive over long periods of time.Many photographs developed at the earliest days of photography are still around. Many wonderful photos were taken with the old brownie cameras and these have lasted the test of time. Photographs stored in attics, basements and barns come into the light after decades to thrill photo collectors like me. As I type this I’m thinking of printing my best photos, maybe in black and white. As printed photographs become more and more rear those that have been printed during the digital age will have more value. Fame could be just 100 years away.