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Sunday, 19 June 2011


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I've been thinking that I need to print my better digital photos with archival materials and put them in boxes just like I did with film so you have provided a prod in that direction. I would add that, for history's sake, if there are people or specific places in the photos it would be a good idea to identify them. As an amateur genealogist/historian it is very frustrating to find old photos that nothing to to tell anyone who or where the photo was made. Ordinary pencil is archival. Just write (legibly) on the back. I suspect such captioning will add to the survivability as much as what they are printed on and the box you store them in. If you hope for it to survive on its artistic merit alone, it had better be VERY good.

Guys,I think you hace missed a point. For me, permanence is giving my descendents a view of who we were, what we were like and how was the world in which we lived, nothing more. Maybe some photographs are good enough to stand alone for themselves and their esthetical values, but these are a small % of what I intend to preserve. Thats why I switched to digital.I hope my pendrives and external hard disks are more permanente that film and prints from them. .

There was an interesting conversation on this topic in George Jardine's Lightroom podcast, with Jay Maisel, Greg Gorman and Seth Resnick. It can be found at:


The file is 20071016_lightroomPodcast



Even "worthless" pictures might be treasured if they were to be found 2000 years from today.

Have we mentioned this?: What if you yourself need to find that print from twenty years ago, whether to show, reinterpret (perhaps with new skills), or for a reunion or memorial, etc. Knowing exactly where to find that pristine print or negative beats rummaging through shoeboxes and shopping bags hoping it's still there and in good shape.

I recently completed a one-year military deployment that included nine months in Kosovo. I intended to make this a "Leica year" but had to abandon the experiment when it turned out that I would need to take a lot of pictures as part of my job. Realizing that this would be a once in a lifetime thing, I tried to edit my photos carefully, selecting and separating out the best shots as the deployment progressed. These were stored on the work computer (which I can no longer access) and my personal notebook computer. Once I got home, I put them on my home computer and on an external hard drive. So they are preserved, but ultimately not very accessible. After reading this ongoing discussion, I have taken the big step and am getting these 300 plus "best shots" printed. I am not doing this because I think they are of lasting importance to the world, but because it is a "modest measure" to preserve this work and the part of the my life that it came out of. Thank you for addressing this topic.

From what I've read here, I'm pretty glad that I've been printing silver gelatin prints for my whole career. I had no idea that they might be able to last even close to a millennium. As far as digital storage goes, I'm always told by people who seem to know what they're talking about, that drives will only be good for 3-5 years. With a large archive the responsibility for ones descendants to have to back up tens of thousands of images every several years is a very big chore! I think that the way computers become outdated every few years, there will be a truly archival method of storage soon. Solid state or something which presently may be too expensive is bound to be available in the next ten years or so. Am I being too optimistic about this? I'm very old school with my film and chemicals, but have been converting all my better images into large digital files with an Imacon scanner. I'd be very happy if I could leave my life's work to my daughter in a truly dependable digital state and not have all these concerns which have been expressed here over the past few days...I really appreciate this discussion!

I'm with Luis.

I have read all the essays and replies about making archive prints, and I keep thinking that it makes less and less sense.

Making hundreds of archival prints instead of managing your legacy digitally is like hunting, skinning and butchering your own meat to save you having to go to the supermarket.

It is also potentially robbing future generations of an amazing resource.

Let me explain.

I not saying that you don't want or need prints. Far from it. Prints are great, galleries full of them are wonderful places if you want to get the real intent and impact of the artist's work. But it is an Olympian stretch of logic to conclude that the print is therefore the best archive. About the only positive in its favour is potential longevity, and even that is highly uncertain, especially for colour.

Photographs are not paintings. You cannot reproduce a painting by scanning it and then printing it. A painting is a physical artefact. Photographic prints on the other hand are simply manifestations of a photographic image initially captured in slide, negative or digital form. You can make hundreds of nearly identical prints from the same source. Over and over again.

And let's not gloss over the disadvantages, eh? Or the fact that 99% or more of all images now start life as digital files. Of the fact that scanned negatives can make equally good prints (or better) than photo enlargement.

So let's review those disadvantages for a second:

1. Unit cost and effort per print is really not inconsiderable, not if you want to achieve the quality you are talking about for a decent quantity (a small bookshelf worth, let's say 1,000 prints).

2. Print size. If I only make an A4 or smaller print, or a photo book, I have effectively denied future generations the ability to make prints at the large sizes the original was capable of. Forever.

3. Storage. A whole bookshelf? Must be kidding. No way my nephew would know where to put that. And where would he put his own? And his children's? Five generations on you need five bookshelves and by then we will be living in cubicles.

4. Who do you entrust it to? How can you be sure they or their offspring will maintain any interest? I'm sure someone will somewhere but how do you make sure it's them?

5. Lack of redundancy. How do you protect the one irreplaceable copy from potential theft, vandalism, mishandling, house fires, tornados, floods etc? In any single generation the odds are low, for sure. Over 20 generations?

6. Convenience. Rummaging through a bunch of boxes of prints is nothing like as easy as searching online or in a photo browser.

So let's just take a step back for a second and think about why we are doing this, who we are doing this for, and how it will impact them.

You want a legacy for your family? Firstly, I know that in a few generations time some of my family's offspring will be fascinated to get a glimpse of Great Uncle Steve's life and times. Not all perhaps, but some. They will be amazed at the faces, the places, the cars, the technology, the fashions.

But I would humbly suggest that our children and their children are far happier searching and browsing and viewing material on a computer or tablet. Personal computing is only now crossing its first "generation gap" so the desire to preserve and pass on "digital legacies" (images, movies, letters, music) to your offspring and family will become more and more commonplace, and digital solutions will be developed accordingly. They use no space, are easy to view, and can be easily shared.

Since it is little bother to keep, they are also more likely to do so, and add it to their own legacy in turn when the time comes to pass the collection on. And so on.... and on...and on.

If you want a legacy for historians and archivists, then most photo libraries and many historical archives are now available online where they are easier to locate and search from anywhere. Organisations such as Magnum have huge online repositories of scanned and original digital images, indexed, searchable and printable. This is now by far the most common way to locate, research and view images for professional journalists, art directors, publishers and historians. Wading through thousands of hardcopy prints or negatives is only necessary when a new set is "discovered" which has not yet been digitised. I bet Vivian Maier's negatives are all digitised and archived as we speak. There is a good chance people will be able to view Vivian Maier's prints in 1,000 years time. They won't be the originals, but that won't make them any less thrilling to view.

And ponder this, how many of us will ever see a Vivian Maier print in the flesh? On the other hand how many of us, thanks to TOP, have seen much of her work online (even if it they were small and incomplete it was a lot better than nothing).

Yes, there are challenges with digital archiving, but they only really apply to home users, are relatively trivial and much less complicated and expensive to get around than making even a handful of archival quality prints. So let's look at some of them.

1. Permanence of media: You can already buy archive DVDs which last quite a long time, certainly more than 10 years. However, you can also now buy an M-Disc writer and some M discs, which have an extremely long lifespan (probably many centuries).


For the 1000 or so 16 bit TIFF files you could store using a $145 disk burner and 12 $6.50 discs, you would have to make 1000 archival prints. I can give copies to anyone and everyone or leave one in a bank safe or donate it to a historical society. The bookshelf would be reduced to 12CD cases, and in a couple of years, probably just one. Within a decade, new optical and electronic solid state solutions will store thousands of times more, plus cloud based solutions will develop and improve as well. M-disks are just an example of what you can buy now. The future is going to be even more amazing, but the point is this - very long term digital archiving is already here. And, er, it's here to stay :)

2: Lifespan of reading devices

This is a non-issue, really, or a temporary one at worst. The longevity of the device is usually proportional to the volume of media that people own and the longevity of the media itself. LP's can still be played on brand new turntables after all, because they were widespread and last a long time. While that remains true, you will be able to play them.

There is a VAST volume of corporate and private data archived on CD and DVD, not to mention purchased music, movies etc. Both can be played back on most Blue Ray players. Backward compatibility is cheap to implement as long as the same hardware is usable. It will be possible to play standard DVD formats for quite a while, at least as long as many corporate and historical archives need to be accessed. (Incidentally M-disks can be played back on conventional DVD players).

On the other hand externally attached solid state devices using USB, Firewire or eSATA connectivity will be readable for even longer. Again, making such connections backward compatible is not a great issue (USB2 will still read USB1 etc.). When native support ceases, interface devices will appear.

And even if in the distant future, a historian unearths an M-disk from a bank vault, it will not be too difficult to commission some lab to build a reader for it because all the technology and protocols are well known.

So the worst case scenario is....? Every decade at most you or your children will have to copy your archival disks to whatever is new and current. How long does that take, really? A few minutes of your time followed by a short wait as you make a cup of tea. After all, your kids will have to copy all their own data over periodically, and an extra 50-100GB will seem like a very small proportion of the overall dataset in 50 year's time. And in a few more years, I doubt even this small chore will be necessary.

3: Compatibility of file formats

TIFF files are very unlikely to become obsolete. The format is non-proprietary and widely used. Adding TIFF reading capability for backward compatibility reasons is probably a given on Macs, PCs, tablets etc. for a very long time. It costs nothing to do so after all. A few lines of reusable code copied from system to system. I suspect JPEG, possibly DNG, and certainly BMP, will also be around for a while. I suspect proprietary RAW formats are less advisable for obvious reasons.

So, my advice is that the best way to ensure the survival of your images (assuming you never become famous) is as follows:

1. Make sure you have a selected set of decent images that you want to preserve. These should include your best work as well as things you believe may be interesting to your future family and of potential historical value (people, technology, transport, cityscapes, architecture, fashion etc. - anything that is likely to amuse or excite your great grandchildren or a future historian). Chuck out anything that's a duplicate or just a poor photo. I still think 1,000 or so images is enough for most of us.

2. Develop them as well as you can in Photoshop. Make sure they represent the way you want them to be seen. Then save them as 16bit TIFFs and HDTV sized JPEGs (for quick viewing) along with short descriptions.

3. Invest in a long term archival storage solution and make sure you have several copies. Keep them up to date periodically. It's not a big deal to copy a few GB of data every 10 (or more) years and when new storage tech becomes available, consider copying your archive to the new tech once it is mature.

4. Give them to anyone you think may be interested. The more the merrier. A DVD takes no effort to store or browse. I know there are several people in my family who would happily keep a few CD cases worth of data and would also love to show their kids "what life looked like in Great Uncle Steve's day" but imagine how much more exiting it will be in another 10 generations.

So, as a footnote, I will leave you with an amazing thought.

In 1,000 years, many families will have a legacy of images and movies and words linking them with our own generation. Is that not a wonderful thought? Imagine having a complete record of movie files and photos of your great-great-great-great-great grandfather's life. Priceless. Imagine being able to leave something of real value to your great-great-great-great-great grandson! Fantastic.

And it starts right here, right now, with you and me. We are the first generation that has the potential to gift this priceless heritage to our own families. Don't blow it.

"If I'm going to do a crappy job, why bother? Doing a crappy job is no fun at all."

This is applicable to just about every field of human endeavor, not just photo preservation. Doing something well (or at least as well as you are capable of doing it) is vastly more satisfying than half-assing it.

"I bet Vivian Maier's negatives are all digitised and archived as we speak."

Not even close. John has only digitized a tiny fraction of all the work he has--in fact he hasn't even SEEN the majority of it--and he doesn't own all of her work that's known to exist.

One problem with her is that she didn't make prints--that's what's keeping the art/gallery world from embracing her more fully. There are only a small number of "vintage" prints, i.e., ones she had made and/or would have seen with her own eyes. Whatever else she is, Vivian is an example of what NOT to do if you want your work to survive, not the opposite. That she happened to find a champion in John Maloof was just a stroke of luck, not a given.


I'm late to this party and I hope my comment wasn't covered before. Paul has it right, follow the directions and the photographs will last longer than you do. (That's my definition of archival.)

The emphasis should be on creating an image that is worthy of archival treatment. Something so good people in the future will be moved by your image. If we put that much effort into creating better images rather than discussing the fine points of archival preservation, I think photography would be better.

But Mike, she lived in a pre-digital era.

OK, they won't digitise all of them, or perhaps they will in time, who knows? But they ain't going to print them all either I suspect.

You are confusing fame and recognition with archiving. To become famous in Maier's day you had no choice but to print and exhibit. Once you were famous, the problem went away. It's not printing that matters, it's exposure.

Nowadays, fame can spread much faster because images ARE digitised and shown on websites. It was done to publicise Maier's own exhibitions.

The fact she was not famous during her life was because she never had exposure. Prints are just one vehicle to exposure, these days there are more. At the time, she may well have been ignored (often historical works have more instrinsic value).

Her negatives are still there to be explored, thankfully. As an archival mechanism it worked fine.

But I suspect they will digitise as many important negatives of Maier's as they print and in the long run, as many as they can, along with the works of many other important photographers, while they are still able to.

But in my case, I suspect my nephew and his kids will be just as happy to browse through my stuff on a tablet. What do they need prints for? Why do I need to be famous. And, for that reason, why do I need to make prints other than just for the sheer joy of hanging them on my wall?

Well I'm just happy to see that Paul Butzi ain't dead.

I am now seeing ads for laser etching machines capable of printing photos on marble. Problem solved!

The last post was a classic Mike, right-sized or not. The final paragraph sums up why I switched from a big SLR to a m43 camera. No specification compares to the "feature" that it is statistically much more likely to be in my bag when I want to capture something that matters.

Shot my daughter's wedding recently.

Selected the best 125 shots, sent out a few CDs with web size JPGs.

There are dozens of copies of these pictures all over the Facebook accounts of everybody under 30, and on their laptops. Those fotos will live for ever.

The paper based photograph is increasingly irrelevant. Shame, because I like prints, but the world moves on.

Steve, thanks for mentioning the "M disk", hadn't heard of that before. Although, the company seems to be actively supportive of DRM and committed to "family values", so I'm pretty sure I don't want them to ever touch my money.


I think you have it backwards! If you really want to protest the company's support of DRM and "family values," then you should use their products to store digital copies of things they would find objectionable and hoist them on their own petard, so to speak.

I am now, finally, a committed user of digital processes. I have and still love film and silver but the ease and efficiency of shooting digitally seduced me. Now it strikes me that the Achilles Heel in the digital preservation schemes is just that they depend on a supply of electricity. In the digital solution everything depends on a reliable supply of power.

Just today, in the Washington Post is an article about this season's solar flares and the pretty real possibility of our power grid and communications systems getting knocked out in some estimates for years at some time in the near future. http://tinyurl.com/67zar2r

Many of us may have to learn to live in a world without electricity. That has not been the case for over 100 years. Damn, and I gave my niece my old Nikon SLR.

Dear DDB,

You don't have to buy from CDI; the source company:


lists a bunch of resellers.

I hadn't heard of the M-technology before, either. Did some investigating. It's licensed from BYU,US Patent 7,613,869. I read over the patent and other technical literature I could find, and it's not terribly specific about the specific materials in the recording layer. Howard Davidson is guessing it might be glassy carbon over aluminum with a chromium adhesion layer between the carbon and the polycarbonate substrate.

Durability is unknown. The stress tests they have subjected discs to will definitely clobber the dyes used in conventional optical media; the ablative approach should be much more resistant to that. Problem is that doesn't tell you how entire disk would hold up under other kinds of tests, such as repeated thermal cycling in combination with exposure to modest amounts of UV and ozone or normal-temperature long-term aging, which doesn't involve the extreme conditions of these accelerated tests.

The reason for these concerns is that one doesn't know the weak link in the permanance chain. For example, in comparing these disks to the now standard gold archival DVDs, what's the lifetime limiting factor under normal storage? Is it deterioration of the dye layer? If so, then M disks win. But if it's delamination, failure of the support or overlay structures, or some other non-di-related failure, then M disks may be no more permanent.

Don't get me wrong, I think it's very interesting. It's just not proven.

A note for the general audience: weak link problems are common in conservation. To give you a very silly example, it doesn't really matter how permanent Epson Ultrachrome inks are if you print them on ordinary newsprint; the paper is going to die long before the ink does.

Less silly, back in the 1990s, the technical folks at Kodak argued to me that the difference in dye stability between Kodak and Fuji prints at that time was not as significant as it seemed because, according to their tests, the print substrate was going to deteriorate before the dyes in either company's prints much faded under normal conditions. Whether that was true or not, I don't know. But it's a fair question.

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

Ctein, you are a diamond tipped cynic in a world that requires tungsten tipped scrutiny ;)

OK I did a one phrase search and came up with a single (but rather fascinating) solution. It looks promising. I posted a link to one source that showed an actual price, just to show that it was not unreasonable. If various US companies proclaim their moral values on their own websites then it probably went over my head! I am European and therefore amoral by birth.

My point is simply that even now, the occasional recycling of digital data and some judicious distribution is already adequate if mildly tedious. But the odds are that, given a few years, most forms of digital archive storage will almost certainly outlast any chemical technique (as a chemist I cannot think of many processes involving chemical deposition that remained physically stable under duress). I am fairly sure you already have some interesting views on this...

Fame or longevity? Well, perhaps if your photos last long enough they may end up being famous! After all how many technically crap and artistically moribund photos do we look at today purely because of their historical fascination?


Dear Steve,

I didn't think that qualified as cynicism, by any use of the word. It's what anyone conversant in conservation would say. Does that word mean something different in Europian, or whatever it is you furrin' folks speak? [grin]

I did present my "interesting views" in last week's column, "Ephemera":


Ahhh, how soon they forget! [vbg]

pax / Ctein

Dear Ctein,

Of course I meant to use the word "sceptic" not "cynic" and I am of course well aware of your understanding of survivability factors.

The price I fear of posting on the 'web in the wee hours after a rash midweek celebration of my good friend's final MBA grading. As her coach I felt almost as over the moon as she did. It was quite a night, but obviously took it's toll on both my language skills and sense of humour.

Regarding M-disk you are of course right to be a little wary of taking anything at face value without some further research. I just cannot fathom how such technology managed to pass me by quite so completely.

The technology was developed at Brigham Young University which may explain their preference for certain "value addled" suppliers, but I am having problems locating a reseller in the UK (nearest is Ireland).


Re: Steve Jacob's comments on the lifetime of USB vN-2, Firewire, and CD/DVD:

I am by no means sanguine about these being readily and easily available in 10 years, much less 100. Already I bought a laptop with USB 3, and my techs are having to rewrite the drivers they wrote six months ago to make the legacy USB 2 interfaces work. Was it hard? A few hours work, but they didn't bother to port it to USB 1, so this software is dead for USB 1. I don't want my project money going for that.

Apple is moving away from Firewire, and if they don't support it, who is going to? Try to buy a FW800 CF card reader. Mine broke recently, and as far as I can tell, those are history. I just got an email asking if we had anything in the lab that could interface to an instrument with either RS-232 or GPIB. Yeah, we could have made it work, but we did something else instead. Computers don't come with that anymore. Those formats will last a while longer because no one throws away perfectly good $60k spectrum analyzers, even if they are 20 years old, but we're getting a new one which will have ethernet and USB 2 (Agilent, HP, and Tek have been notoriously slow in adopting new interface technology. I haven't checked to see if the new models support USB 3). Cat-5 cable seems to be relatively long lived, but it'll go away when 802.11x becomes widespread, then good luck finding an ethernet card to interface to your iPad 7, and a driver. Does anyone still wire new homes with Cat-5? That was short-lived.

And if you believe that CD/DVDs will have playback methods in 20 years, I have a stack of 8 inch floppies with my MS thesis on them that I'd like to show you. If you have something that'll read them, I'll send them to you, and maybe we can get the Wordstar files off them. 5 inch floppies are headed out, computers don't come with those anymore, and I can't remember the last time I burned a CD. I still listen to them, but I still listen to vinyl too. My car doesn't have a CD player anymore.

Speaking of Wordstar (which was very popular BITD. Can Word open those?), one would hope that TIFF, JPEG, etc. formats would stay around, but I've already got some old BMP files that can't be read on new machines. I had to boot up an old machine to save them as JPEG so I could keep them.


It's a matter of choosing the right format. There are billions of CDs and DVDs in people's homes, and millions being sold every day. It will be a long time before people will no longer want to read them. I think 20 years sounds reasonable.

As for Firewire, probably a bad choice, but I can still connect older USB devices to a USB port.

As I said, I may still have to recopy the archive every decade or two, but that's hardly a deal breaker.

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