Will Your Photos & Digital Media Survive?

Doug and Alice Lamb in 1950

My father-in-law’s passing this month has seen my wife (and her six sisters) realizing that there might be only one of a specific family photo. Since my bride had built a collage of photos when she was a young girl living at home, I offered to scan and retouch them so everyone could have a copy.

The issue? There are hundreds more where those came from and how do we create them digitally so 50, 100 or more years from now some offspring of ours can even see them?

Most of us have hundreds (if not thousands or like me, 20,000+) digital photos sitting on hard drives, at Flickr, or on some old and obsolete media? In my home office closet I have Syquest, Jaz, Zip, Mac OS 7 formatted CD’s, DOS CDs, and other media I can’t read NOW…and it’s been less than 15 years. My grandchildren or great-grandchildren will pick up a Jaz cartridge and say, “What the heck is this!?!” Viewing the photos on that cartridge? Not a chance.

But it gets worse since most of the digital media we’re creating today may not survive the media it’s on, let alone if it’s in a proprietary format.

I’ve been doing quality scanning and photo retouching for many years — and try to continue to earn the role of family archivist — but I’m highly sensitive to longevity of the media I’m putting my photos on. With these Lamb family scans, I realized that it was an imperative that I thought ahead to future generations and how they’ll likely use this media and how it must be stored:

  1. The resolution of the scan (300 pixels per inch? 600? 1200?) I chose 300ppi for ease of printing today but have them in higher resolution
  2. The file formats. I included compressed .jpg’s (to print with most current photo outlets), uncompressed .tif’s and a couple of key photos in Photoshop’s .psd format
  3. The CD burning I did was with the ISO9660 standard, which means that everything before the “.” in the 3 letter filename suffix could only be 8 characters. This standard, however, is readable on a PC, Mac or Unix box from over 20 years ago, supported today by Mac, Windows, Linux, Unix, and is likely readable far into the future.

I care deeply about future generations after continuing to be haunted by an article I read in the January 1995 Scientific American entitled, “Ensuring the Longevity of Digital Media” (PDF) by Jeff Rothenberg. In it he describes how unlikely it is that future generations will have access to digital media we’re creating today, and that our digital artifacts are dying (again, unlike what we can do now with photos as old as some I’ve scanned from the 1800s). Rothenberg also does a great job at articulating all the issues we have with media created with today’s applications on today’s operating systems and how it’s improbable they’ll be accessible even 25 years from now. His predictions have (unfortunately) come true for me already.

The Rosetta stone has far outlasted digital media. Photo by Jeff Rothenberg

Imagine all the digital videotapes you have that will be toast in three or so decades. Thousands of digital family photos from you, your siblings or cousins that all start with “DSC” or “IMG” and are all over the place, some on computer hard drives probably making pre-failure crunching noises as I write this post.

What to do?

a) Most markets have pro photography shops that offer workshops in photo scanning and retouching or they deliver services that will ensure your print photos are created digitally as perfect as possible. Start now to scan them and do a few each day since even a box of a couple of hundred photos can take several weekends

b) Request “archival paper” for your prints. It’s easy (and not much more expensive) to get paper that is rated for 60-100 years and at least some future family archivist like me will be able to scan a keepsake photo

c) Choose open formats and standards and burn your CDs, DVDs and other media to them. This will ensure that some miscellaneous “.zzz” format won’t be dropped by the manufacturer or the tools to make it (or read it) won’t disappear. Think that’s not possible? I have iMovie’s I created in Mac OS X Panther that I can no longer open…and that’s from 2005 (though I have workarounds and know Final Cut so all is not lost)

d) Backup your media. If you put all of your digital family photos on some huge 2 Terabyte hard drive, buy a second one (they’re now $150-ish) and store it somewhere else. This includes ever more inexpensive photo sharing sites as well as storage where you can keep your digital media forever (make certain you instruct your heirs to keep paying the bills!).

Below are thumbnail versions of the scans I did, exported to iPhoto and also output as this LambPics.pdf (the images below are that PDF’s pages exported as JPGs and, just so you know, the images inside the PDF itself look A LOT better than these below!).

Some of the photos scanned were in pretty bad shape, others were tiny and are, post scan, suitable to be printed at 8″ x 10″, and still others had water damage that’s now gone. The best part? Everyone in the family will now have copies and they can make copies-of-copies with no loss in quality.

Click on any thumbnail to view a larger version…


  1. Neil on March 15, 2010 at 2:08 pm

    Do you have any good tips for tools that’d allow you to write a description of the contents of the photo and have it stored inside the photo? With traditional pictures you know whats in them from what was written on the back, JPGs, etc have the ability to have content placed inside of them, but there doesn’t seem to be a good standard or tool to put them in there in a consistent manner.

  2. Steve Borsch on March 15, 2010 at 3:43 pm

    Hi Neil — Should’ve added EXIF data. This page explains it and gives some examples of software to add it to your photos: http://bit.ly/cgsqBc

    “Almost all digital cameras store extra information, called metadata, with your pictures. The extra information captured by your camera is called EXIF data, which stands for Exchangeable Image File Format. While most current photo manipulation software supports the reading of this information, there are many specialized tools for reading, editing, extracting and converting EXIF information.

    You can also store information in your pictures using other types of metadata. Two of the most commonly used formats of metadata for photos are: IPTC, the standard developed by the International Press Telecommunications Council; and XMP, the “Extensible Metadata Platform” developed by Adobe. The software listed here is designed for working with all types of metadata including EXIF, IPTC, and XMP.”

  3. Steve Borsch on March 15, 2010 at 4:01 pm

    Re-read your comment and what you really need is software to add/edit IPTC data. It lets you, for example, attach a bunch of descriptive metadata to a photo like a headline, a caption, etc. So a scan like I did would have the person’s name(s), the year it was taken, location, what the event might’ve been, in short the digital equivalent of what Grandma used to do by writing on the back of the photo.

    What platform are you on? Mac, PC, Linux?

  4. […] Steve Borsch ponders the survivability of digital photos then posts a video interview with FCC chair Genachowski and reviews WCCO TV’s just-launched The Wire […]

  5. Mike on July 11, 2010 at 8:52 pm

    Thanks for the great post, Steve.

    I work with http://www.snaphaven.com, an online photo backup service with lifetime guaranteed photo storage. SnapHaven members have unlimited photo backup to our write-once archive quality servers and can enjoy their photos in their own password protected online photo gallery.

    We are always trying to encourage people to backup their photos before it’s too late. And now, with the purchase of a SnapHaven membership, we are offering free photo scanning. I hope you come check it out at http://www.snaphaven.com/freescan.html.

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About Steve Borsch

Strategist. Learner. Idea Guy. Salesman. Connector of Dots. Friend. Husband & Dad. CEO. Janitor. More here.

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Podcasting hit the mainstream in July of 2005 when Apple added podcast show support within iTunes. I'd seen this coming so started podcasting in May of 2005 and kept going until August of 2007. Unfortunately was never 'discovered' by national broadcasters, but made a delightfully large number of connections with people all over the world because of these shows. Click here to view the archive of my podcast posts.