Passing Down Photos In The Digital Age

wwII photo
My dad (far right) with his flight crew on Christmas Eve, 1944 - No digital image would have survived that long

A while ago my mom found a box that had a stack of pictures that dated back to World War II.  There were my mom and dad as teenagers involved in a war.

It got me wondering about how that same scene would play out 50 years from now in the digital age?

When I used to work as a research scientist at a government lab out in the desert there were rooms full of data reels containing data from nuclear bomb tests and reactor tests going back years and years.  But there were no longer any players that could read the data on the tapes and instead I had to go around to all the old timers collecting printouts that were stuffed in old filing cabinets and, in one case, were being used to line the bottom of a storage cabinet in an attempt to recover and digitize that old data.  Even with that recovery effort, reams of data were lost, some of it forever.

I’m concerned the same thing will happen in the digital age.  For some of you, JPG images have been around as long as you’ve been alive, but on the grand scale of photography, it’s a short time.  The standard has only been around since 1991 and while it may be hard to picture a world where there’s no device around that could display a JPEG, technical history is full of examples of just that type of thing happening.

Future-Proofing Your Images

There are few good ways to insure your images are going to be around 100 years from now.  Even film has a tough time making it that long in storage, unless it is temperature and humidity controlled.  But prints are still the best way to have photos around long after you’re gone.

Metal Prints

Metal prints come in two flavors: Paper with metallic inks embedded in the paper and prints on actual metal plates with photographic coatings.  Both of those boast lifespans of nearly 100 years, but since the processes that create them have only been around for 10, it’s hard to put a lot of faith in that claim.  Still, metallic prints seem to be the best method of preserving your personal photographic history on a time scale that long.


Photobooks are another good choice for long term storage, provided they remain in some reasonable range of temperature and humidity.  The advantage is they can be put in storage and discovered, and still viewed, by family decades later.  Provided it doesn’t get wet or moldy, there’s a good chance your kids could find a photobook in 40 years and still view it.

Digital Storage

There are few digital options that will provide generational continuity unless they are upgraded regularly. File formats change, operating systems come and go.  You can’t dump digital images on any kind of storage media and expect it to be accessible in 40 years.  If someone handed you a pancake platter from the 70s would you be able to read it?  With a lot of searching, you might find a data archive company that could read the data, but it’s a long shot.  That’s likely the same situation your kids would face with hard drives of today.

It may seem bizarre to suggest that the best way to preserve your photographic memories is to get prints made, but that, unfortunately, is still the technical reality.