Remember how we used to archive our photos? Those albums with the sticky pages that you pasted your prints into before putting them on a bookshelf, to be retrieved in those moments of nostalgia when you realize just how fast the kids are growing up. But that was the days before digital media gave us so many options. DVDs, thumbdrives, the cloud, social networking sites. The options seem endless so your photos will always be there, right?
Well..... let's take a look at how reliable all these options are.
Computer hard drive (Including backup drives)
Pros: Easy access, simple to share by email or social media if drive is installed in a computer. Fast access for editing.
Cons: Hard drives will die. About 25% will fail within four years. Data recovery is expensive if possible at all.
Average Lifetime: 4-5 years
Optical Media (CD/DVD/BR)
Pros: Cheap, easy to store.
Cons: Fragile. Not handy to access. Impending obsolescence.
Average lifetime: 1-5 years.
USB Thumb drive/SD Card
Pros: Solid state, reasonably durable, will stand up to being used better than optical media. Format likely to have a long lifespan.
Cons: Small size is easy to misplace. Less easy to label. More expensive than optical drives.
Average lifetime: If used only as an archive the lifespan can be decades but if data on it is constantly being written and erased, 10 years.
Cloud storage or gallery service. (Dropbox/Flickr/zenfolio/etc)
Pros: Immune to physical dangers such as flood, fire, or vandalism. Can be accessed world wide. Can backup multiple devices.
Cons: "The cloud" is just someone else's computers, and these companies go bankrupt all the time. Images can vanish without warning.
Average lifetime: Depends on the financial health of the company hosting them.
Pros: Simple uploading and sharing. Free. Easy to access from anywhere.
Cons: Images stored are a degraded image that doesn't print well. Arbitrary account decisions can lead to locked/deleted profiles.
Average lifetime: Facebook will probably be around for awhile, but what will they become in ten years? How are the pics you put on MySpace doing?
Retail Print from photo lab
Pros: Paying for prints forces you to sort out which photos are really worth keeping. Prints never go obsolete.
Cons: Degrade quickly when stored or displayed improperly. For backup they need to be scanned if no digital copy exists.
Average lifetime: When stored properly in an album - 50-60 years. Hung in a frame out of direct sun - 15-30 years.
Archival print from print shop
Pros: Long life. When taken care of will outlast any subject. Pigments last much longer than photo lab ink and produce a better image.
Cons: Can cost 5-10 times what a standard retail print costs.
Average lifetime: Colour - 100-150 years. Black & White - up to 300 years.
Your old black and white prints could be hanging next to the transporter room!
- Print anything that is important to you and put it in an album.
- Have a backup copy of important photos on good quality thumb drives that you only use for this. Store them in labelled envelopes.
- Have a cloud storage backup. Flickr is fine for this.
- Really important images that you want archived for future generations should be turned into archival prints.
Not to get melancholy, but our own mortality plays into this too. If preserving your family history is important then you need to make prints. In the days after you pass away your family is going to go through your stuff (I'll wait while you clear your browser history). People are going to make sure your photo albums go to someone in the family that takes care of this sort of thing, but they're unlikely to check for an online storage account or spend days going through your DVDs.
People will try to tell you that the photographic print is a fragile thing that can be wiped out by fire, floods, or any variety of disaster, but you know what? These kinds of things will also mess up any of the other options to a degree. Hard drives don't do well in floods or lightning strikes. Heck, a poorly thought out vacuuming of your desk (Never let a vacuum touch a computer. They're giant static machines.) can wipe a hard drive. None of these options handle file successfully. Distributed cloud storage saves you here, but as I said above, it's a poor bet as your only backup.
The bottom line is that there's no easy answer to preserving your photographic memories, but if you aren't printing them, your life's record will probably vanish one day. That would be a tragedy.
Thanks very much to The Print Lab for info on archival prints. Other info came via Storage Craft, BlackBlaze, and PC World Magazine.
"Hard Drive" / Computer Problem" - Open Clipart Vectors (Public Domain)
"Japan Camera" - G. Aquitaine (Creative Commons)
"Enterprise" - Paramount Pictures (Fair Use)