The Trouble With Tech or Why You Should Print Your Photos Else Risk Losing Them Forever

The Trouble With Tech or Why You Should Print Your Photos Else Risk Losing Them Forever

I am hardly the first person in the industry to prattle on and on about why you should print your photos, but I think it is worth mentioning, here today, some things you may not have considered about your digital files. After all, either by intent or just circumstance, we've all been led to believe that our digital files are "safe forever", especially if we've gone to great lengths to back them up on secure drives or on cloud servers and such. But, are they really all that safe?

NOTE: I am writing this from the point of view of a self proclaimed computer nerd, but not a computer programmer or engineer. I love, use and evangelize about tech, but I consider myself perhaps only slightly above the average person when it comes to formal computer knowledge. Feel free to correct any oversights on my part, but hey, be nice about it, dig?

Obsolescence Is A Thing

If you are a regular user of a computer and digital files of any kind, today here in 2015, you are regarded as simply a normal, everyday person who does stuff. For the sake of this article, I am lumping in smartphones into the category of "computers" because, well, they are

Now, 10 years ago, you might have been called a sorta-kinda nerd because there were still many folks who used computers only casually. 20 years ago, regular computer users were considered total tech nerds, and there were not that many who did. 30 years ago (yes, time did exist back then), you were in the hyper rare number of computer owners, deemed total and complete nerds, if you used your computer regularly, daily, for various functions ranging from work to games. (For the sake of completeness, I'll add that 40+ years ago would have made you a frickin' computer science engineer, as those were very, very different times back then.)

So, here's the thing: I am a computer nerd. Have been one since I was 9 years old. To this day, I have different sized floppy disks, a shoebox-sized 1MB external hard drive, way too many external hard drives in general, various SyQuest units, ZIP and JAZ disks, and a pile of 20 to 25 old Apple and Mac computers that all have internal drives in them. I would say 99% of these files are still very much intact, or the drives are anyway, but the computers required to access the files - not so much. So, as I sit here drowning in my 2015 tech, I do not have a way to get the files of the disks, or even open them. Why? Obsolescence.

I am certain that, with a significant effort, I could resurrect some of the old computers, or find a working JAZ drive on eBay and a computer to attach it to, and ultimately open these old files and view them. But then what? Print them? On what, an ImageWriter or something? Gee, that'd look stellar. Or maybe attach the JAZ drive to my existing Mac? Nope, that's beyond the realm of incompatibility. So suddenly, this is getting complicated.

Wait, before you get jiggy in the comments section, pause a second. I know there are ways to connect this to that, and access older, antiquated files and convert them using methods and hardware I am not nerdy enough to know about. But that fact doesn't negate my point - in fact, it strengthens it.

Because if you have to be significantly knowledgeable about computers, files, hardware, connectivity, converting, etc, just to access old files, then what happens to the average computer user when they want to get to those old files? The fact is, it is nearly impossible for almost anyone to do that, even here in 2015. Everyone I know who has used computers for 15 to 20 years or more has old files somewhere they cannot open on anything they own, and they have given up on trying. Many have simply thrown these old volumes in the trash over the years. 

In fact, just the other day, my brother called me asking if I had a FireWire 400 cable for something he wanted to do on an older laptop of his. FireWire 400 is hardly ancient technology, but I realized I didn't have a clue where any of my 400 cables may have gone. I dug around, and found nothing. Gosh, what if he had called asking for a SCSI cable? (the dumb part is, I have old SCSI cables in boxes, actually, but I digress.)

By all definitions, most all of my old files are intact on these old volumes. And, it is reasonable to assume they will be for many years to come. However, what good is putting items in a huge, super strong safe if you don't have the combination, or the key, to the lock? That's exactly my situation with these countless disks and drives I have floating around from 3 decades of computing. I can sleep calmly at night knowing my files are safe, and I can cry during the day that I have no way of accessing them.

OK, and that means what?

Let's face it, this continues to happen to this day, and for the foreseeable future. And as a quick aside, "being able to access old records" is one reason standardization is such an important topic in the world of computing. Sadly, most computer users haven't any idea what that is or why it even matters. 

A reasonable and practical level of scalable standardization helps control the speed that obsolescence occurs, thus allowing us to open 5, 10, 15 year old files on our current computers. The JPEG/JPG image file format is the premier example of that in digital photography, and has been for decades now. If I can access a drive with a 15-20 year old JPG on it, I can open it on my current Mac, such as this 18 year old image of what would appear to be me standing on a brick wall playing a bass guitar (don't ask). 

Both of these files exist on my external drive attached to my pretty-darn-new iMac right now, with an 18 year span in their creation dates. I will add, the reason why I have the 1997 file is because I archived to a CD-R via an external CD burner in about 1998 (I believe I was using a PowerMac G3 minitower and some brand of burner in 1998 to do it). This CD-R was still very much readable by my computer in roughly 2004 (then an eMac, as I recall), when I copied some files off of it and onto an external drive. Since then, various computer upgrades have seen the file, and many others, copied to half a dozen new volumes, including my most recent iMac. Had that file been a proprietary format that had since discontinued, the file would be useless to me. So, in this case, standardization for the win.

But what about 18 years from now? We've seen some discussion about new digital photo formats that could "replace JPG" in the near future, such as the new BPG format mentioned here on Fstoppers in December. It's no surprise that a brand new file format would be superior to a nearly 30 year old format, but the question of standardization comes back into play, in my mind, when I read about things like BPG.

Suppose BPG kicks so much ass that the public goes into a fervor and demands it, thus having it implemented into the many and varied tech items we know and use everyday, such as our computers and laptops (photo editing applications and web browsers), smartphones and, of course, our cameras? Well, if BPG is added, then all is well, for the most part. But if BPG replaces JPG, it will be the beginning of the end for billions of archived digital photos because, over time, less and less people will have the means to access these files. (I'll repeat, I am talking about the average user / consumer, not you über comp-sci engineer types.) 

It's worked before. This is a screen shot, of course, but these font files currently exist - and work - on my iMac, 28 years later. I don't know the formal, technical reasons why they do, but it's still damn cool.

If you haven't been thinking about this stuff, rest assured others have, ranging from software companies to hardware manufacturers to the government. While the mainstream masses lose their shit over the latest phone/camera/laptop and line up for hours to buy them, amazingly intelligent folks in the tech world are trying to keep computer hardware and software advancing throughout the world while still being purposeful and without jumping off the figurative technological cliff, causing mass extinction of billions of files almost overnight.

For me, I don't care what it is, but some file format has to be standardized, and above all, scalable to the point where it can evolve with technology while still allowing older versions to be accessed. Since humankind shoots something like 100,000,000** photos a day, mostly as JPG files, worldwide, every day that goes by means we could sever access to trillions of photos, in the long term, if we don't expand on JPG and, well, stick with it. But, is that enough justification to keep a 30 year old file format going?  (It's worth noting that the PDF format, introduced officially in 1993, is often cited as the most promising format, in terms of standardization and acceptance, for very-long-term archiving of digital documents. And I don't mean "until next summer", I mean until like 2067 and longer.)

**raging wild guess, but come on, you know the real figure has to be close to that.

Backups, Cloud, Etc

Ok, so you back up your photos on some kick ass RAID setup over 10TB, or maybe you use cloud services like Dropbox or Carbonite (or many others) to put your files somewhere safe. Good for you. If your local drive on your computer meet its maker next month, you're golden. If a client calls on you in mid 2016 for new prints of a set you shot this weekend, you're all set. Fabulous.

But what if, hypothetically, you quit photography tomorrow and just leave those files sitting there. On your RAID setup, they're safe, technically. But what happens in 5 years? Or in 10 years? What about 20 years? I would not be confident in putting my old archives away in the closet shelf until 2035, and then assume I could just fire them up and get to my files easily in 20 years. Technology evolves, and your RAID setup could be useless to attach to your computer in 2035 (whatever the hell that will be like then). And what about if you backed up your RAW files? RAW support evolves very quickly, often faster than software makers can keep up with (I once gave a private retouching lesson to a student who pre-ordered a D810 when they were first announced, and his version of Lightroom couldn't open the D810 RAW files since Adobe hadn't released an update yet at the time of our session.) But the same can be said for backwards compatibility, or lack thereof, over 5 to 20 years. Basically, who can say that Photoshop CC35 (or whatever) will open any RAW files created in 2015?

As for cloud backup, remember that businesses can fail. What if Dropbox shuts down tomorrow? That sounds like a minor global crisis for anyone who doesn't have local copies of their files. While most people do not only store files on cloud backup and nowhere else, because that's crazy, the fact remains that cloud backup is not, in and of itself, some kind of hyper secure, long term storage solution. And the same concerns about file formats and software accessibility still apply. 

Printing For The Win

The rant above is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to this subject, and I have already professed my lack of formal expertise on it all. However, regardless of the details, I can offer you a solution that is guaranteed to preserve and secure your digital photos: print them. Simple as that. 

Sure, prints can get lost, burned, torn, soaked and start to fade (which takes a very long time if printed in a quality manner), but if you treasure your images enough, a reasonable amount of care can preserve them forever simply by putting them in a box. Or on your walls. Or in an album. You know, the way photos have been stored for over a century? Yeah, that.

I will also add that while we take many many many more photos these days than 10 years ago, and exponentially more than 20 years ago, we do not have to print them all. Just because you shot 17,382 photos of your kids between 2009 and 2014, it doesn't mean you need to find some way to print and store 17,382 physical prints somewhere. You see, in my opinion, we may take many more photos these days, but we don't do it with any particular amount of care. We do that because we can snap 1,000 crappy snapshots at a friend's party and it costs us nothing. Back when we had to choose with 24 or 36 photos we were going to put on a roll of 35mm film, we were far more judicious on what we shot because film wasn't free and neither were print labs. We used to get all 24 or 36 frames, per roll, printed, and for the most part, kept most. I would say if I shot 1,000 images over a weekend somewhere, I would have 20-30 really great shots that I would truly want to keep, at most. Printing those would be reasonable and practical, but also a means to secure them.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have some prints to order.

My favorite album in the world isn't by The Beatles, it's this album of fun, sexy shots of my wife. Printed in a beautiful leather bound album by Queensberry, this amazing book is "archived" in it's box, in my closet, safe from prying eyes, careless children, and the family pets. Apart from a major catastrophe, I'll have these photos forever.
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Andy Lyon's picture

I think responsibility for this upkeep lies with the current custodian of the data to maintain and update the data. If the new format comes out there is always a grace period where you will have a converter easy at hand.

In the UK an old 50p piece was phased out for a shinier lighter smaller version some years ago. The banks gave you time to take your old pieces in for new ones, if you didnt care ebough about them and didnt do it in time they became useless. Its the same with data, you keep it up to date.

The only downside to data being what it is is inheritance. If I inherit data from my parents I dont feel is important I may not keep it up to date, then it is lost for generations. This is where I really feel the printing argument comes into its own, the custodian at least only has to keep them safe and you can always scan to the latest format if needed.

Hope that makes sense, great article btw. Reading a lot of worries like this recently.

Neo Racer's picture

I honestly cant see jpgs going away anytime soon, or at least some superior derivative.

Andy Lyon's picture

What about the storage device holding them?

Louis Tinsley's picture

Great article. I've been meaning to make more prints and actually have a hard cover portfolio. I love seeing article about this.

Sky Neary's picture

Where can you get a portfolio/album made like that?

Nino Batista's picture

The album of my wife?

Sky Neary's picture

Thanks Nino!

Brett Martin's picture

I used Lightroom recently to convert all of my JPG "snapshots" and my personal/work RAW files into DNG files. It is my understanding these have the best chance for longevity. They also have built in data corruption protection via a unique checksum for each file. These DNG files are open source and it is what the Library of Congress uses to store their digital media. In a single click in LR I can "verify" my backups and current working copies of 10's of thousands of photos are healthy. In the future I can upgrade/update the DNG files to the latest format. Just like RAW files, metadata and edits are non destructive.

On a side note, I do print my favorite photos regularly. It's not really practical for everything though. For years my parents have been taking photos at family events with a Canon A-1, printing the photos, and then framing and gifting them to various relatives. I think printing is very important, but only really for those special 5-10% of the photos in my collection.

Ralph Hightower's picture

I'm in total agreement with the points mentioned in this article. I've been programming computers since 1974 and I've seen microprocessor chips come and go, operating systems change, file formats change, storage media change.

That's the problem with digital technology. It's always evolving.

Larry Clay's picture

An interesting article. First, I agree that in the past there has been many problems with accessing files from obsolete hardware and media. Having been in the computer industry since 1979 I have had my share of issues. I disagree that there is a similar issue with file formats. There no file format that you can point to from the past that I can not readily access and read. It doesn't matter if it is photos, music, database, or text files. As an example, back in the days of Microsoft DOS I used Wordperfect for word processing. I can still access and read these files using a number of different programs such as Microsoft Word and Openoffice. These are files that are over thirty years old.

File formats like JPEG, GIF, RAW, etc. are in such high use today that there will always be software available to access them. It really doesn't mater what "new" format comes out to replace them.

As far as printing your photos as an archival scheme, I think that is less then practical. Even if you only print the "good" photos, many photographers have thousands of images that would need archiving. This becomes an issue of money, resources and most of all time. I will continue to archive my photos to hard drives, and the cloud with full knowledge that I will be able to access them any time I want for the rest of my life and my great grandson will be able to do so in 2067.

Spy Black's picture

Although prints allow the "luxury", if you will, of anyone seeing your work, regardless of medium you'll need to address the archival requirements of ANY medium. People foolishly say crap about how film stores forever, etc., when they have no idea how much film, still and motion, has been lost forever in time because they were not properly archived. I'm referring to black & white here as well, color film is a far more fragile egg.

Regardless of which medium you choose, you will wind up right back at the predicament you are now in with those files on your old computers.

It's good to have work printed, but let's say you have 5-10% of all the work you do printed, say, 8x10 or larger for exhibition. Eventually you'll have hundreds, if not thousands, of images. Where are you going to put them? There will come a time when you will have to put them away just like those files on your old computers. Who's going to see them? How are you going to archive them? Where are you going to archive them?

Where once you could store 1000s of images in a drawer, now you're going to need some expansive real estate for your prints. Those images that will be on display, will they be subjected to sunlight? So you print on acid-free paper using inks computer-deducted to last 100 years. How will you know they will last that long? Are you going to even care?

I have film images I shot back in the 70s, 80s, 90's, and 2000s. Many of the early ones are damaged because as a kid I didn't take the proper archival practices. Others survived quite well, by luck. Yet I look at them and think "who will view these other than myself, momentarily giving me a fleeting glimpse of my separate reality? Who will care?

You'll come to realize that it's all water running under the bridge...

Nino Batista's picture

All valid points, from the technical perspective. But my angle is, my parents (and myself) have boxes of old photos in closets and cabinets and stuff, all of which were put in there somewhat hastily over the years. However, even with a half-assed "archiving" of 35mm 4x6 prints, shoved in envelopes and stacked in boxes, these photos are still in existence some 10, 20, 30+ years later. I think the memories that photos evoke aren't lessened by the fact that the print is small, or faded. And even if there are just a couple dozen or so from an era, its better than zero. So from the standpoint of "family snapshots", even the most basic of printed archives works, as a no brainer, and does not need to be kept with or maintained in any way beyond "reasonable care". Obviously if you store your prints in an open-top box, in your garage, for 20 years, they will suffer far more than if you don't. And, actually, I've found that the most dangerous way to "store" prints is by leaving them out in the open in your house, or on your desk. Between spills, well-meaning but careless young children, pets, etc, prints get readily destroyed if they aren't packed away or hanging on the wall. In fact, the only photo of my wife and I together in 1999 is in a plastic baggy, and has been, and it is in 10-12 shredded pieces thanks to a dog we had a few years ago. All because I foolishly kept the print on my desk. Its just a snapshot, but the only one in existence from that soon after we had just met, which makes me sad. Thankfully I DID do a hasty phone snap of it to show some friends a couple months before it was destroyed, but its all I have now.

ANYWAY, when it comes to our client or commercial work, especially work we feel defines us as an artist, then permanence becomes a bigger concern. Its ok to be proud of some shots you took in 2011, and its ok to want to preserve them forever. And yes, whether its digital or print, archival considerations must be contended with. However, a proper art print, stored in a reasonably sealed manner, can survive for decades in your closet. And, even if it DOES fade significantly, I am willing to bet that your reasonably cared for art prints will survive for 100 years, whereas your RAW files on your external drive - probably not. And regardless, I know which one is slightly less maintenance, as a sealed box is self maintaining for the most part.

Allan Higa's picture

This is probably the most though provoking article I've seen on here, ever.

Wodan Rheingold's picture

None of our media is future proof. I have lost so many electronic files due to incompatibility since '86. Movie codecs only working with some video cards. Programs that only work on PowerPC etc. Photos stuck in old version of iPhoto. Aperture now being discarded... And my old negatives aren't in a pristine condition either due to smoke damage of a fire at the neighbors apartment. I think it's part of life to let some things go. Too bad, though.

Rick Bethem's picture

Great article. After having these concerns a few years ago, I spent several months editing my images over the past 40 years and made a Blurb book out of about 300 images. I made a book for myself and a copy for each of my children. Neither of my kids are computer savvy. Once I'm gone the images are essentially gone whether they're jpg or dng or whatever. No one in my family will have a clue as to where to find them or what to do with them. I now have peace of mind that at least my most favorite images are preserved for future generations to enjoy and they won't need a computer to do so. BTW... Toughest job in photography = editing. Ha.

Nursultan Tulyakbay's picture

I echo Andy Lyon's position on upkeep. I think the "Y2K bug" was a wakeup call to all the techies to use a little forethought when they are developing the latest and greatest thing. Future file formats will be backwards compatible with jpeg or whatever replaces jgeg in the future and so on. The other thought I had was, even if your dropbox, google drive or what ever goes out of business and your local RAID fails, You may have lost those files, but YOU CAN MAKE NEW ONES!!! Granted, they aren't the same but we are creatives, we CREATE. Don't stop creating.

Andy Lyon's picture

I notice a lot of people are targeting the file formats becoming defunct when dismissing areas of this article. I would be more mindful of the technology that may go out of date. Will your SDHC or SATA3 disk be readable if someone discovers it in 80 years in a box?

Jordan Smith's picture

Here is the perfect solution to this dilemma: