Did You Know You Can Archive Your Digital Photos on Analog Film?

Bit rot, or the slow deterioration in the performance and integrity of data stored on various forms of digital storage media, is a real concern for photographers. Over time, digital photos degrade and some even become totally defective. The best insurance against this problem may actually be analog film. 

Digital photography offers a lot of advantages over the analog process. Namely, it's a lot cheaper and it allows a greater degree of freedom when shooting. Images are also more easily manipulated and with greater sophistication. But digital photography also has its disadvantages, too. One big one is bit rot. I have been shooting digital for about 15 years and, already, I have degraded or defective images. Now, this is certainly by no means a huge percentage of my files but imagine if one of those images was one of my "greatest shots." In some cases, the degradation is only slight, but it is still perceptible. I have some files that are totally gone, that is they won't open at all. 

35mm negative made from digital image, then scanned without manipulation. (c) Michael Ernest Sweet

Bit rot is not the only thing I have struggled with in the digital realm, though. I have also just plain lost images. This has happened when I have switched recording formats, computers, etc. Some photos I only had stored in clouds and then lost when I closed accounts (Facebook, for example). The point is many digital photographs I have made in my lifetime are simply gone in one way or another, from one thing or another. Others are degraded or defective. Yet, I have every single image I have ever shot on 35mm film. My negatives have followed me halfway around the world on every move and are still as good as the day they were developed. Now, to be clear, I am not saying that negatives cannot be damaged or lost, they can. I'm simply saying, in my experience, I have all of my analog images and I do not have all of my digital ones. So it goes. Your experience may be different. 

35mm negative made from digital image, then scanned without manipulation. (c) Michael Ernest Sweet

For me, I like the idea of archiving analog film but I also like the idea of shooting digital. If only I could have the best of both worlds. Wait, I can. Some years ago I discovered a company called Gamma Tech, which still maintains and operates a film recorder. In fact, I believe they are the only company still offering this service! A film recorder is a big and expensive (and becoming obsolete) machine that allows one to make analog negatives from digital images. The service is not cheap, about $5 per negative for 35mm. They also make medium format negatives and slides. Yet, this could be a very big bargain if it provides added insurance against losing my very best images. I don't advocate for archiving all of your images on analog film. The price would be insane. However, I would argue for you to archive your top 50 images in this way. You know those totally iconic photographs you've made, the ones you cannot imagine living without? Put them on film. Get physical negatives as added insurance. A physical, analog negative is stable for more than 100 years (in reasonable storage conditions) and can be read with the naked eye. It is a physical, tangible "thing" that you can hold in your hand. You can also hold it up to a window and read the information. I bet you even have some of aunt Betty's negatives around from the 60s and 70s. Likely, she kept them in a shoebox, but they survived, didn't they? What about those photos you posted to MySpace in 2005?

Analog film is such a stable archival format that Hollywood still uses it to archive their films, even the ones that were fully shot in digital format. Yup, that's right, they make an analog copy on 35mm and then place that in the vault. Why? Because they also agree that it remains the best insurance against loss or damage over the long term. It's also a format that is not technology dependent in the way many digital formats are. 

35mm negative made from digital image, then scanned without manipulation. (c) Michael Ernest Sweet

Some detractors will point out that this method essentially produces a "copy" of the photo on the negative and will, therefore, cause a loss of quality. True. It does work in this way, but all the info needed to digitally regenerate the image will be on the negative. That is, things like contrast and tone can be rebuilt digitally once the basic info is scanned in. The idea is not to have the negative to make prints (although you could) but rather to have a physical thing from which to restore a digital file should it ever be needed. Others may point out that if digital images are stored correctly (everyone will have their own preferred or touted workflow), they are in no jeopardy. There is no scenario where this statement is totally true, just like there is no scenario where analog negatives are totally protected. The idea is to have both, to double one's chances, as it were, of not losing an image because it was only stored in one place or in one format. Even multiple copies of a digital file are vulnerable to the fact that they are all stored in the same format — a format that depends on a particular technology to read. 

Do I sound crazy? Maybe. But look at it this way, the only way to make a physical, tangible record of your most prized photographs is to make prints (which I also highly recommend) or analog negatives. Most people recognize that prints are a good backup. Stored properly, they too can remain stable and provide a backup for decades and decades. Making an analog negative is just another form of physically archiving your work. Why not add it to the mix? Most photographers will never make more than 50 or 75 truly great images in their lifetime. Even Henri Cartier-Bresson is ultimately known for just a handful of images. Commercial photographers like Helmut Newton or Richard Avedon, who made hundreds of great photographs, are still only remembered for a handful of iconic images. Having an analog archive of your handful of "great" images seems to make good sense. Suppose you have 50 fantastic photos. That's only $250 to have total peace of mind. Get your negatives, put them in your fire safe or bank vault, and sleep well at night. 

Note: I have no affiliation with Gamma Tech, nor do I receive any compensation for referrals or promoting their services. 

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45 Comments

Rob Davis's picture

If you want to transfer digital photos to analog film for aesthetic reasons that makes sense. Going from
digital to analog (and conceivably back to digital again) is not an archival strategy.

Any decent cloud storage service is going to have strategies in place to preserve the integrity of your data. For those portfolio defining images, keep a copy of your original raw file and a tiff of your final edit on one of those services. Maybe an unedited tiff if you really want to cover your bases. You’ll be fine and that’s not enough data to cost all that much.

Stephen T's picture

"If you want to transfer digital photos to analog film for aesthetic reasons that makes sense. Going from
digital to analog (and conceivably back to digital again) is not an archival strategy"

Well the British Library, one of the largest copyright and archival libraries in the world, disagrees with you. When it decided some years ago to archive culturally important web sites, it chose to archive them on acid free paper, rather than as digital data. I got that direct from the project manager responsible for the project. There are a variety of archival strategies and you choose the one which is most appropriate for the thing being archived and what access you intend to grant to it. Obviously I do not expect corporations to archive their invoices on acid free paper. That would be ridiculous. However it might make sense to archive culturally important digital photographs by printing them on acid free paper or storing film negatives made of them with a medium format film camera.

Rob Davis's picture

I can’t find any reference to that on Google. I’m not sure why that made sense to them.

Transferring a digital image to analog film is likely going to introduce layers of distortion not present in the original. Not to mention color shift upon transfer and the fact analog film itself is subject to degradation over time it makes.

If we still have websites where you can download and play 40 year old video games that were once sold on cassette tapes, I think digital storage is going to be okay for 99.9% of photographers.

Stephen T's picture

For individuals possibly yes. Though I have given an example down thread of digital data from a mere 35 years back that is now inaccessible without considerable effort or cost. Most of us may be dead by the time the tools to recover digital photographs in their present format are gone. Archive libraries think on a different timescale of hundreds of years and form their archival strategies accordingly. In those terms, conversion to analogue may make sense. It depends on how often you must do rolling conversions of digital data so it always remains accessible.

Halexan Akayinski's picture

I wonder why Hollywood is trying to convert all the old films to digital spending millions of dollars. Somebody should show them this brilliant idea (!) (I wonder if this article was supposed to be published on April 1st ?)

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

As I mentioned in the article, Hollywood DOES archive on film. Yes, this article was meant to be published on April 1. We did not make the deadline.

Lawrence Huber's picture

Making them digital is for ease of showing them with film projectors being nonexistent.
Archiving is not the goal.

Stephen T's picture

Surely those conversions are being done so that they can be shown in modern cinemas without projection equipment. Not for the purposes of archival.

Frederick Woods's picture

Well, here’s all I can add to this issue: I’ve had digital videos I took about 18 years ago stop being reproducible on certain commercial platforms because the codec used was no longer supported. I was indeed able to “save” the videos by using specialized software to convert the videos using a more modern codec, but it certainly raised doubts in my mind as to the longevity of digital media. This may not be “digital rot,” but I’m not sure the concept the author is raising is without merit.

Is it really so hard to envision a future in which formats are no longer supported? Or (perhaps more likely) your hard drive crashes and your last (or only) copy lost forever?

Heiko Kanzler's picture

That's from my point of view the main issue with digital data, not rotten data, but simply data (file) formats no longer supported.

Wolfgang Post's picture

With all the various IT strategies for protecting data integrity in place it makes me wonder: What are the redundancy and backup methods for film, actually? How many film photographers create duplicates of their beloved negatives and prints, storing them in industrial storage facilities in controlled conditions? If they don't do that, stop talking about bit rot and other funky terms.

J.d. Davis's picture

I honestly thought the biggest problem with storing images was there wouldn't be any machines around to read the files - who knew?

Avery Miller's picture

Interesting write-up! I think it's a very curious idea, and one I'd certainly be interested in. There's something nice about physical copies of things. Well I'm not sure if this is the most efficient way to avoid "bitrot" (surely the rule of multiple backups in multiple locations would avoid this at a lower cost), it seems very interesting indeed. Something I've looked into (but haven't gotten far with) that is kind of related is making duplicates of my favorite negatives-- if anyone knows of services or methods for doing stuff like that, please let me know!

Nicolas Levy's picture

Has the author of the article even considered archival prints?
They are infinitely more available than the one company doing archival film, cost immensely less for equivalent quality, are tremendously easier to re-digitise should one ever actually lose their digital archive...
And one added benefit is that in the meanwhile, you can actually enjoy looking at your prints. ;)

A 5x7 inkjet print on rag paper should cost less than 8-10usd anywhere in the world, should last 100 years if archived in a folder, and if scanned at 900dpi on any basic scanner, would give you a 30mp file.
Any decent lab will let you print 4images on 11x14 sheets, allowing you to “back-up” large quantities of images at economic prices.

Zé De Boni's picture

I disagree with your DPI re-scanning calculation. But yes, prints are really cheap, much more than you mention if you do them in your own printer. Every photographer concerned with image preservation must have an available printer, even a small commercial one can do decent jobs ..

Jeffrey Bennett's picture

Film is more archival than prints, and is easier to store.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Yes, of course. As I say in the article, I also suggest archival prints. An excellent way to go also. It's about a combination of things, including multiple drives etc.

Stephen T's picture

There are issues with digital storage - whether of photographs or documents - and conversion to analogue may be a viable means of derisking these issues but digital data does not degrade with time unless it is inadvertently or deliberately corrupted. The article is dead wrong about that.

Provided it is competently managed digital data will not alter in the slightest degree from how it was when it was created. The issues with digital data are around being able to access the data as time goes on. Over time file formats become obsolete then after more time the tools for opening them no longer support these obsolete formats. Try playing a digital movie encoded with an obsolete codec! The digital data hasn't changed but it is still inaccessible to you.

The British Library has this problem. Do you maintain old software and hardware to access obsolete file formats or do you convert on a regular basis all your file formats to the current supported formats? The answer is, you do both, deciding which approach on a case by basis on which is the most cost effective and reliable. Curiously, the library archives some of its digital data on acid free paper stored in controlled conditions as that has a life expectancy over 500 years. That, I guess, would be the equivalent of capturing digital photos on film.

Stephen T's picture

For anyone interested, here is an example of the difficulties of digital archiving, if you do not a strategy for managing your archives. I have some old Wordstar documents dating from the mid 1980s, when it was the leading word processor. Try as I might I could not find any modern version of MS Word to read them. Earlier versions used to. Of course I could have found a commercial conversion service that would have converted them for a price. But I wanted to do it myself if I could. In the end I resuscitated an old 386 PC, installed DOS 3.3 on it, installed WordStar 4.0 on it (yes, I still have the installation discs and they still worked), loaded up the files, saved then as ASCII text files and wrote them out to a 3.5 floppy disc. Then I used a USB floppy disc drive connected it my Windows 10 pro box to load them into Word 2013. Of course I lost all the formatting data but I had the raw text. There may come a time when Nikon NEF files are as difficult to access as old WorldStar files. It may take decades for it to happen but my 40 year career in IT tells me it will eventually If in the 80s I had archived those files as printouts then I could have put them through an OCR and recovered their content in no time. Sometimes analogue storage is best!.

Jeffrey Bennett's picture

I couldn't believe there wasn't some conversion software out there, so I Google around. I didn't find any, but I did find this that might pique your interest: http://wordtsar.ca

J.d. Davis's picture

16, 33 1/3, 45, 78, 8 Track, cassette, Reel-to-reel (7", 10") CD, DVD, DAT, BluRay; Don't know about you, but I'm NOT going to buy The White Album again!

Alissa Marquis's picture

For professional quality LVT negatives from digital files, Chicago Albumen Works is the best. Do not recommend Gamma Tech.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Why? What has been your personal negative experience with Gamma Tech?

Roger Botting's picture

I was doing something similar to this in the mid 90's when it wasn't possible to get a decent paper print from a digital file. I would get negatives made from my digital files and then make colour prints.
But Don't count on colour films or prints lasting forever. The dyes will fade.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

I agree, Roger. It's all about storage and being diversified. Properly stored film stock will last well beyond 100 years.

Stephan H's picture

On one of my harddrives there's every picture I've ever taken digitally starting in 1999, and they all can be opened. On the other hand there's a few films from the mid 90s where only some of the prints survived and I can't find the negatives...

As an amateur you only need minimal organisation and backup strategy to never "lose" a digital picture. Get a cheap off-site online backup service or pay for some cloud storage so a crashing harddrive doesn't matter.

I can see more obscure .RAW formats getting difficult to open in a few decades, I guess if you have Minolta or Samsung raw files you should convert them. .JPG hasn't gone anywhere since the mid 90s, I bet it's pretty safe to assume that every relevant software will be able to open .JPG for years and years.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Wow, Stephan, you have had the complete opposite experience to mine. So interesting to hear about it. Thanks for chiming in!

sam dasso's picture

You make easy task difficult. If you need to archive for 100 years you archive to archival quality DVD. If your goal is 1000 years you archive to M-DISK blue ray. Make five copies if you wish. Save in 3 different formats. Put one copy on a cloud just in case. Put another copy in a safe deposit box. So many choices and each one of them is far superior to converting to film.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Well, in your opinion. I have my own opinion. We are both right!

Thatcher Freeman's picture

I wouldn't be surprised if it's difficult to find a Blu-ray reader in 20 or 40 years. With software and video being distributed on the internet, disks are likely going to be a decreasingly popular format as time goes on.

sam dasso's picture

And what will you do with film if film scanners disappear in 20-40 years? Print your negatives to photo paper that will disappear on your enlarger that is already gone and chemicals that no longer available?

Thatcher Freeman's picture

You'd rescan the negatives digitally

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Sam, just don't make the negatives if you don't want to ... LOL

Stephen T's picture

I think you're missing the point. The discs will survive. The data on the discs will survive. But the disc readers will not. In 20 years, DVD and Bluray readers will be landfill, except for a few kept by archive libraries. After 100 years even they will no longer be serviceable. Preserving physical copies of digital data is easy. Keeping tools working to make that data accessible is a whole other ball of wax and the difficult part.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Betamax, DCC or Digital Compact Cassettes, VHS tapes, U-matic tapes, Laser discs, and even early hard drives are all on their way to landfills by the millions! The good news is that most photographers don't have any photographs worth saving beyond their lifetime anyway!

sam dasso's picture

Microfiche comes to mind. Believe it or not some libraries and even ATF still have microfiche readers.

sam dasso's picture

Very possible, but if you keep external blue ray reader or two together with your disks, you will be just fine if you don't intend to be alive in 1000 years. Also when beta max was disappearing I just made copies of my tapes to DVD. I'm sure M-DISK will be replaced with another archival media you could use in case blue ray players disappear.

Thatcher Freeman's picture

The thing that gets you there is that your Blu-ray reader that you've been saving will be connected by SATA or USB, and either of those connections may become obsolete and unsupported within a few decades.

sam dasso's picture

True. So next step is to save Windows computer. That is not that far fetched. I still have VHS -DVD combo and Hi-8 player. But jokes aside, you can use service like Legacy box to convert your analog tapes or film to digital storage today. I'm sure in a future there will be service to convert blue rays to whatever newest and greatest will be.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

About as far fetched as making analog negatives LOL

Jon Martin Solaas's picture

That is a valid problem. Goes for music as well. Google up on the re-issue of Radka Toneff/Steve Dobrogosz Fairytales. Digital master tapes were considered lost after years of searching but was found in a remote museum, hardware for playback, a defect Telefunken MX 80 was also found, and repaired at the Norwegian National Museum. And then the work to customize the Telefunken to match sample rate and other funky parameters started ... (https://www.stereophile.com/content/recording-april-2018-fairytales-orig...) Back in the day this album was often used as a reference recording for hifi-enthusiasts and it has been voted the best Norwegian album of all times, so it would have been similar to loosing a Munch painting or some other national treasure if the originals were lost or inaccessible forever. Of course countless copies exist, but until the restoration they were limited to the mass production technology of the past century. (Regardless of the sound quality the album is a total knockout, look it up on Spotify)

Edit: Here is a detailed description of the restoration process: https://bobtalks.co.uk/blog/white-glove/white-glove-2-fairytales/# I imagine all the problems with wrong pitch and bitrates doesnt apply to photos, but all the problems with ancient digital hardware does.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

So, people have suggested 100 different ways to go about archiving but still need to fight against the idea I presented about using film stock. What gives? Why all the hate for analog film stock?

Thatcher Freeman's picture

From what I understand, black and white film degrades substantially slower than color film, but to store your color pictures in black and white film, you'd have to either only store the luminance of the images, or you'd take three frames of black and white film for each of the three color channels. At that point it's mostly just expensive, but I don't think it's a bad idea. Ideally there would be a way to archive your photos at home using this method. Having to get some other lab to do it I think might be the biggest downside.

Stephan H's picture

I guess I just don't get the WHY. There's cheaper, faster and easier digital solutions, you just need to be somewhat active about it - using several harddrives and replacing broken ones, making sure you move all your data to new computers as you're upgrading - plus making sure you're using formats that are still widely supported (and converting as needed).

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

I agree, Stephan. Digital diversity is also critical. I guess my main point was to provide an ANALOG option in the array of options ... so that all the backups are not digital.