Digital Photos Are Not Forever!

by Drew Hendrix –

Today’s digital world is fraught with danger when it comes to protecting precious photos. They easily can be ruined even when we think they’re safe and securely stored on magnetic or optical drives, CDs and DVDs or somewhere up in the Cloud.

A badly corrupted image that cannot be recovered. Photo: © Caleb Newcastle

Digital disaster regularly befalls governmental agencies, educational institutions and companies big and small despite their best efforts to prevent it. It can also happen to you –and most likely will at some time– if you’re not careful.

Be aware: the future of your digital photos is in doubt warns Vinton Cerf, one of the Internet’s founders and a senior executive at Google. He says:

“We are nonchalantly throwing all of our data into what could become an information black hole without realizing it. We digitize things because we think we will preserve them, but what we don’t understand is that unless we take other steps, those digital versions may not be any better, and may even be worse.”

Here some of the ways your photos can be lost:

  • The media (CDs, DVDs, magnetic disks, tape and other storage devices) on which your photos are stored can become unstable and deteriorate– sometimes within just a few years.
  • Hardware and software can become obsolete and new versions won’t work with old versions. Or they just plain quit or become so buggy they start to destroy data.
  • Migrating photos from old to new media can run into incompatibilities that prevent it from being transferred easily– such as not being able to find the required hardware, software, cables or interfaces. Copying from one media to another increases the chances of corruption and/or loss of data.
  • Photos stored on off-site computers may become the victims of viruses, fire, floods or other natural disasters. They may be hacked and your photos destroyed in the process. Or the company may go out of business making it impossible to retrieve your images.
  • Viruses may invade your personal computer system and render your photos unusable.
  • You (or your storage company) may erase valuable photos by mistake and they might not be able to be recovered or may require expensive software or services to do so.
  • Password protection, encryption, security devices, or other barriers to access may prevent retrieving your photos when operating systems change and/or expire.

    Another example of image corruption

    Make prints of your favorite photos because every time you migrate them from one medium to another, you risk digital disaster. Photo:

In fact, just the simple task of transferring images from camera memory cards to your computer can be risky– which is why professional photographers never erase their cards before opening every image after they’ve been transferred to make sure none have been corrupted.

To avoid digital disasters, Cerf has a very simple solution: “If there are photos you really care about, print them out.”


Even if you could find hardware or software to read your photos on this antiquity, how would you transfer them to newer media?

You can then use a universal device that’s been available for years to view your photos in any format, at any time or any place without requiring a computer, software or media. Your eyes.

Eyes will never crash, corrupt photos, require upgrading (except maybe for glasses) or use vulnerable media. And they operate with maximum efficiency when viewing a photographic print.

Sure, photos fade, but at a snail’s pace compared to rapidly changing technology. If they begin to decline, just scan them or use a camera to copy them. They can then easily be reprinted– even if you don’t have the original digital file.

If, after reading this far, you’re still skeptical about the digital vulnerability of your photos, check out the Domesday Project– a multi-million dollar digital disaster in which 50,000 images (and reams of other data) became unreadable.

Fifteen years ago this was state of the art. Today, millions of files cannot be read by it.

In 1986, this was state of the art. Today, the Domesday Project files that were created and stored on special discs cannot be read.

So don’t believe in digital stability and longevity; it’s a myth. Now’s the time to look through your image files and pick out your favorites– those that would devastate you if they were lost forever. Print them out, put them in albums, hang them on the wall or scatter them around the room on free-standing picture frames. Then rest assured they’ll be around for years to come.


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Author: editor

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  1. Dancing electrons… The tune to which they dance is not theirs and the band providing the music could, without notice, go home, stop playing… That is a digital file: dancing electrons… Couples of ones and zeroes…
    A photograph instead, is the tangible rendition of a personal perception… It is a visual-emotional process that ends (and re-starts) when a print is made and is shared for others to appreciate its texture, its depth of reflectiveness and coloration when exposed to light… To thus become again, another perception: different perhaps from the original which caused it, but related in that the observer’s experience would refer to something the photographer saw, or perceived and tried to translate… Executing it in its own personal way.
    Ansel Adams’ words remain valid today when he said that the negative (or the digital file) is merely the musical score, it must be interpreted, translated into an execution that would naturally remain unique, repeatable yes, but not reproducible. Listening to a recorded performance of Pablo Casals could only approximate the experience of having listened to the execution in person.
    It would follow that this my preconception of what a photograph is, can not practically be applied to tens of thousands of personally recorded images. Ansel Adams negatives continue to be printed today, but the prints that he made can not be reproduced… However, you could get a nice poster of most of his photographs and by he way, the same goes for Rubens and Vermeer works. Happy printing!

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  2. While printing images is definitely one way to archive them, this isn’t always practical either when some of my photoshoots can be hundreds of images or a vacation can be thousands of images. Then the problem of storage of the prints raises its head, as things like sunlight, ozone, heat, or excessive moisture can affect printed images. Indeed, many of the threats to digital storage also affect paper prints, like fire, flood, theft, or inadvertent loss (such as during a move).

    To me, the key to successful archiving is redundancy, which should include printing of selected images in addition to multiple backups. Memory cards have become so inexpensive that it’s possible to treat them like film negatives and simply store the (labeled as to contents) cards in a fire-resistant safe, in addition to backing up the digital files onto external hard drives and special archival DVDs or CDs. (For John above: memory cards have so many write/read cycles. If you simply store files on them after taking the image without repeatedly reading/writing, the lifespan is effectively indefinite, dependent upon whether stray cosmic rays cause the memory to decay over time).

    Migration from one form of storage to a newer form isn’t really a problem as long as you have the time. The reality is that as technology advances, the amount of storage space increases, so I was able to consolidate several older, smaller external hard drives’ contents into one big modern USB 3.0 drive, of which I then made a backup copy to store in my fire safe. Sure, there’s a risk of error, but it’s easy to check file sizes or even use specialized error checking backup software.

    For me the lesson is simple: Do Not Put All of Your Eggs into Any One Basket.

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    • Yes, I agree. No way can I print all my photos. And yes, redundancy on various devices is definitely the way to go. I don’t even erase my camera cards. They are cheap enough, too.

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  3. While in theory, this article is a good prompt to remember to properly back up, it doesn’t take into account many aspects of backing up that professionals use, such as multiple backups in multiple locations, i.e., physically present at one location, in “the cloud” somewhere, and off-site backups as well. My routine is three backups on different drives at home (work) all up to date (updates nightly while I sleep), one backup rotates out regularly to offsite (once a week), and my important portfolio is backed up not only to those, but also to “the cloud” and dropbox, and through backup service to a friend’s computer in another city. For all these services to fail simultaneously would be inconceivable.

    As for storage medium becoming obsolete, that’s always a possibility (how many 8″ floppy drives are there still out there, and how many people nowadays even remember them? Or clear back to punch cards? I do). However, the takeover by new and/or better means of storage is not instantaneous, and allows plenty of time to migrate to the new storage medium from the old – this is simply a side effect of technology progression, and is to be expected and dealt with by anyone who is savvy enough to utilize electronic storage intelligently anyway.

    Likewise the hardware issue: I don’t expect the Hardware Police to arrive at my door the day after new technology is accepted as the norm and demand to take all of my old hardware, and manufacturers/software designers know enough now to allow backwards compatibility back through several generations of hardware. In fact, I can still attach those 8″ floopies I mentioned earlier to my Mac, with a bit of effort, and access the information on them. That’s more than a few generations.

    File formats? Not likely to be unreadable, when there’s still people writing Apple II and Commodore 64 software, when those machines are decades out of date. Again, there will always be some sort of forward-upgrade path with plenty of time to do so… is Canon going to suddenly stop using CR2 or Nikon using NEF raw files, or point & shoots spitting out .jpgs? Not without a long phase-in/phase out, should it ever happen.

    In short, just because a paper company publishes an article about how the best way to preserve your images is on paper, don’t rush out and spend thousands of dollars printing off all your images and finding somewhere to store them… not to mention cataloging them so you can find the one you want quickly. Also, a paper image is far more likely to be damaged in a fire or flood than a proper electronic backup in a fire safe, or stored offsite. Don’t get me wrong…. I love Red River Papers, they are my backbone, and the best I have ever found for anywhere near a comparable price… but this article was intended to get you to buy more paper, pure and simple. Marketing. Instead, use your intelligence guided by experience, develop a good backup flow with at least three different backups in different mediums and locations, and merely print your best to show off or sell.

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    • I don’t think, as you mention, that “•this article was intended to get you to buy more paper, pure and simple.” Readers of this blog are already committed to printing so I think that it is more of a “heads-up” to let them know that relying only on digital storage can have some unpleasant consequences if they think that it is an infallible storage method. You appear to be very diligent in your preservation methods but I read that only 4% of ALL computer users regularly do even do one basic backup to another medium. And I doubt that even a fraction of that 4% would have the time and/or equipment to do what you do. And storage companies do lose pictures and can get hacked. So while I wouldn’t say to back-up every image you have, I sure would choose my most cherished photos to back up to prints. Besides which, that gets some of them out of the computer and onto the wall where I can see them more often.

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    • Oh my gosh, I am so surprised that people are not getting the bigger picture. All it takes for our technology to go out and everything to be wiped out is someone or a group who knows how to send out bugs that run like wild fire on computers and when you see your file being destroyed and try to back it up, it destroys a nightmarish domino effect. This is NOT impossible.

      What about a magnetic pulse?? People think this is paranoia. Digital books, digital photos digital this digital that and we are forgetting that nothing lasts forever including digitals.

      Yes I use digital backups, several external hard drives but I also am starting to print hard copies. I am concentrating on the important stuff because I have thousands of images.

      Someone mentioned that this post is about Red River trying to use this as a marketing ploy for people to buy more paper. How ridiculous! We know that the Red River company is not the only place to get print paper from so this writing would not make me buy paper from them if I wasn’t intending to buy paper from them already. If this makes people get the importance of printing hard copies does it mean that Red River is holding readers captive to buy paper from them? Of course, not.

      This is wise advice from the writer of this article. Not everyone will take it but I feel I needed to say something so those who don’t fully understand or see the truth, (the bigger picture) can see that we need to be careful and take the time to print out our art or other important documents and photos.

      One day it will happen that technology fails us, it is only a matter of time. We need to humble ourselves and realize that nothing is infallible. The Titantic sank when no one thought it would. Many things have happened throughout history to take down societies who thought the things they created were infallible. The Mayan was one of those cultures that was high tech for their time… but it is no more.

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  4. My system was hit last year by a malware called CryptoWall2 which encrypted all my files and then I was extorted to pay ransom to get the decrypt key: most likely from hackers in China or Russia.
    This malware was so pervasive that all file types were affected except TIFF’s. I had just composed a spectacular panoramic landscape of a sunset on our lake and saved the print file as a TIFF.
    When I suspected something was happening, I tried to back-up to one of my smaller external drives and unknowingly corrupted that drive as well, so the original raw files were lost. So the only good file I have is that TIFF.
    I rebuilt my system and at the very least I back-up here, back-up again there and back-up one more time everywhere.
    My LG BlueRay burner is certified for M-Disc and that is the path I am headed right now.

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  5. I agree with the others above my comment that now is the time to print images out. I haven’t lost any photos yet due to corrupt drives, but I am guilty of not always backing up newer photos. So I realized I need to print out family photos which I don’t want to lose. In fact, I am going to print everyone’s name and date in small text at the bottom so in the future family members won’t get mixed up as to who is who.
    I have had that experience with my in-laws passing away and now my parents. So it is wise to print them out.

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  6. I retain and never erase any memory card. Now I hear the those might go bad also.I do physical backups that I keep in my home, backups on a friends server as well as carbonite. Am I just overly paranoid? Anybody else had any problems with their memory cards going bad?

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  7. Is it that different than using negatves and slides? In most cases you might have only one or two copies printed of the negative. You had to store them correctly without any disasters happening and if your film processor didnt do the processing and washing perfect…you could have serious problems and the cost of archival materials was high….all reasons for losing your work.

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  8. This timely article is right on. I recently had someone ask me to do a memorial print of a photo of their dog. I had taken the images in 2004 and stored them on an external hard drive. The drive is now corrupt and although I was good about backing up all my work in more then one place, I no longer remember where that second back up is. I pulled as much as I could off of the corrupted drive and I’m going to follow up and print my favorites. I have albums of prints that I have taken several years ago. I may never be able to find the original digital negative but scanning and and reprinting the image comes really close to the original file. Since the original was taken with one of the first digital slrs it might even be better than the original.

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  9. Hi Drew… Great article – would like to reprint it in my e-magazine if okay with you. – readership targets the travel industry. I lost 30,000 images recently re a drive that gave up – luckily managed to recover for $200 using Staples data recovery service. I do print out some, but you’ve nudged me to do more. Best regards. Steve.

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