No one knows for sure how long digital images last. But if you use Photoshop or Photoshop Elements, here are some steps you can take to increase your digital photo’s lifespan.

1) Save all your images as PSD Photoshop files. Photoshop can still open an image made with the first version of the program and that’s 16 years old. If you use another file format you run the risk that future generations of the program cannot open it.
2) Save images in at least three different places. I suggest an internal hard disk, a removable hard disk, and a GOLD CD ROM.
3) Save to an old fashioned tape drive or the web as an additional backup.

You might also consider online storage with a service like .Mac. I believe that online storage solutions will become very popular as bandwidth availability and price improves.

Another thing to realize is that a print is a back up. That’s right, for decades, a photo print was a backup. So make prints. If you use archival papers and inks they could last 100 years under the right conditions.

While none of these technologies will survive more than 100 years, they don’t have to. For instance, I believe that future generations will use holographic storage. And when that becomes available, people can simply start transferring images to those mediums and converting formats if necessary.

And to put it in perspective, if you have old slides taken by your parents in a shoe box somewhere, chances are they have already degraded to the point that they are not salvageable. Photographic prints from your local drugstore or chain processor last an average of 27 years.

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This post sponsored by the Digital SLR Store

Join the conversation! 30 Comments

  1. How come you have changed to partial feeds? I like to read the site in Google Reader and that obviously doesn’t work with partial feeds. You can get stats from feeds and add advertising if that is what you need.

    BTW I think storing in jpg or tiff is a better idea that psd. It is a standard that is supported by many vendors and not just one. Remember what happened to Google video? However, unlikely that Adobe will go away it is stilll a risk. This is the same reason I don’t just keep copies of my photos in raw.

  2. My wife’s grandmother wanted to have a slide show for her Florida pals. So, she sent us a sequence of old photographs to scan. After she was done scanning, my wife wanted to burn them to a CD-R, But, we were completely out of CD-Rs. However, she managed found some old blank ones in the bottom of a box in the closet. When we took them out, we realized that the discs were completely degraded. The discs couldn’t have been more than ten-years old. But, they were unusable. It was an odd juxtaposition’s with the fifty year old photos we were trying to save on them. The irony was that the picture data on the CD would degrade faster than the pictures we scanned to collect it.

  3. i’m scarred that if i make back-ups to DVD … i might get in to trouble some years from now …
    dunno how long these bluray drives will be backward compatible with the normal DVDs …
    i still have some files on a zip disk that i made in grade school …
    i have yet to find someone with a zip drive that works … :(

  4. Aaron you have a problem with your feed reader. We’re delivering full text not partial feeds.

    As for your suggestion that JPG or TIFF is better – sorry – but that’s REALLY dangerous. Here’s why. Not too long ago, the folks that held the patent to GIF threatened to sue the whole world because of licensing and royalty issues. They actually got close to causing the entire web to pull all gifs. Guess what – the folks that support JPEG and TIFF could do the same thing at any time. But if you own Photoshop you will ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS be able to open your PSD images with it. FAR less risk in my opinion.

    Also, JPEG is a lossy compression – and a lousy way to store archives accordingly. But you’re certainly entitled to your opinion.

  5. I shoot raw and use Aperture. Just to be safe, I export the edited versions as high quality JPEGs which, while not allowing much further adjustment, are more than adequate for printing. I can’t see the point in burning disk space to hold TIFF or PSD for images that are finalised. If I have done any complex layers or filters in Photoshop, I will keep both the JPG and the unflattenned PSD.

    I backup to hard drive and at least one (usually 2) DVDs and keep JPGs of my best and favourite images on my iPod.

  6. I keep a backup on the two PCs at home, to Mozy, S3, Flickr, Zooomr and an external drive in my desk at work. The idea of burning a gold CD-ROM is mind boggling, especially as I’ve taken 3,000 raw shots so far this year, at a size of over 25 Gigs!

    I dont’s ee a reaosn why I won’t be able to find abandonware in th efuture to read RAW, so I’m not that bothered althoguh I do have jpgs (uncompressed in any way at in some cases 15MB each along side (both before and after)

  7. PS I’m getting partial feeds to in Google Reader Scott. Is
    http://twipphoto.com/index.php/feed the right url?

  8. Scott,
    What brand of gold cds do you recommend?

  9. Hi Scott

    Looks like your feed to me. Have a look at the link below and you will see how it is cutting off the articles.

    http://feeds.feedburner.com/Twipphoto

    Thanks for the fast response.

    Aaron

  10. I agree with Aaron (not about the JPG, yes it’s lossy). What happens when a better photo editing application comes along and you want to change to it? Yeah you could batch convert 16 years of images or you could have chosen an non proprietary format from the start. Or what if you change platforms and discover gigabytes of old images that you failed to convert 10 years ago? You many no longer have a copy of the software that will work on your current hardware.

    I don’t think comparing GIF (developed by compuserve using a technique they claim they didn’t know was patented) is a fair comparison to TIFF which was developed to be a common format from the start. Adobe now owns the copyright to TIFF, but because of the wide adoption I highly doubt it’s going anywhere anytime soon.

    Storing files in a proprietary format for long term storage is never a good idea. Storing tapes in a secondary location is better for bit integrity than recordable cd/dvd. Tapes still need to be refreshed every so many years. As for a format, how about lossless JPEG2000?

    I’m a software developer for the Harvard University Library where we have many many many terabytes of archival quality images that are either tiff or jp2. This is a large topic in the library world. Check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_preservation#Digital_obsolescence and http://www.digitalpreservation.gov/formats/

  11. So Spencer is your argument that since Adobe owns copyright to Tiff it’s somehow safer to use Tiff than Adobe’s own PSD format? Makes no sense to me – but hey – go for it. And by the way – there’s no guarantee you won’t have to batch convert from TIFF either.

  12. The correct feed is http://feeds.feedburner.com/Twipphoto and if it isn’t providing full text – then it’s beyond my programming skills to fix it. We haven’t changed a thing. Maybe Feedburner is having an issue. There’s nothing I can do – I have the feed set up to offer full text.

  13. I use the gold CDs from Delkin.

  14. Scott – Yes, using tiff is in fact safer than using psd. My argument is that tiff has a published specification from which anybody can write an application to read and write the format: http://partners.adobe.com/public/developer/en/tiff/TIFF6.pdf

    I don’t know much about the specific details of psd (I do know that applications such as Gimp can read it), but I can’t find a similar specification document for it.

  15. Spencer I see that point but the logic behind it is flawed. If the argument is that you want a safer choice because Adobe may fail – then the image spec they own might go down with them.

    I think we’ll just have to chalk this one up to a difference of opinion and move on.

  16. I don’t believe my logic is flawed. The fact that Adobe happens to own the copyright for the tiff format is beside the point. If Adobe went away the already published spec would still exist, and continue to exist into the future. If you want as much certainty as possible that an image you create today will still be renderable 50 years from now a closed undocumented format is definitely not the way to go. However, as long as you’re on top of things and make sure to migrate from psd to another format before it is completely obsolete then you’ll probably still be ok.

  17. Scott, while I have your attention I thought I would point out that I’m enjoying the podcast and the community that you’re developing, keep up the great work!

  18. Spencer I won’t respond any further than this but feel free to keep the conversation going.

    I think you’re so intent on making your point that you’re missing mine. If you re-read my post carefully – you’ll see that the premise is you use Photoshop. It will never make any sense if you use Photoshop to worry about using a PSD file.

    Once again – we disagree. That’s okay. The information is here and people can use it as they see fit. Glad you enjoy the show.

  19. I convert raw to dng and save both in three places, plus i keep several older computers stored with the older software, but in good shape, in case the whole world stops using jpeg or they disintegrate.

  20. I would suggest against converting backup files to Photoshop format, simple because it’s lot of work for absolutley no reason. Formats don’t really expire, open formats like jpg and tiff have and will be around forever (and eventhough GIF is patented, it is still readable by virtually all image apps).

    My advice is to rather back up images in the format they come in (jpg, raw, dng etc) and store them online to avoid obsolete storage devices and cables. As long as you can access the files, you can be sure they can also be read.

  21. Wouldn’t DNG be a better choice if shooting RAW files?

    Sure it hasn’t been around as long as PSD files, but wouldn’t the DNG store more of the original image data than PSD files does – and thus be a better choice?

    I love the fact that PSD files seems to be readable “forever” but in terms of long term storage I’d like to keep the “digital negative” not just the image itself…

  22. Scott

    I have tried the feed (http://feeds.feedburner.com/Twipphoto) as suggested, but still seems to be only partial feeds, for example I get the (more) link on this post after Tip #3 and have to follow the link.

    I have checked the xml and that is all the data that it contains, so it is not a feedburner thing.

  23. Folks please keep comments about feeds and such out of these comment threads. Email us if you have those kind of problems. It’s off topic. I won’t pass any more of those comments through but will answer this one. The problem is the MORE tag. It stops the feed from working. Unfortunately, when we post a long article – we have to use the MORE tag because the rest of the stories scroll down the page too far. We don’t intend to change how we do that. Thanks.

  24. subcorpus, backup to DVD is dead as in …”dead”. The cost of a new hard disk today, 500GB, is about $0.25 to $0.33 per GB for brand name disks, like Western Digital. I advice to stay away from Seagate. Get yourself a FirmTek Sata enclosure (http://www.firmtek.com) , stay away from external FW or USB drives, and swap hard disks like floppies. It’s a little bit of money upfront but in the long run it’s actually chaper than DVDs and hard disks, quality ones, are a more lasting device for backups than DVD. When you’re done with backing up your photos eject the disk, store it a safe place and set an alarm for a “spin” in 6 months. As long as you exercise the drive every now and then it will last for a long time.

  25. I took a class in image processing this past year, taught by the head of a biology electron microscope center at a major research university. Images and archival is all they do, and the director is recognized as one of the top in this field. These were the overview recommendations

    1. always keep an unedited, pristine, no crop, no nothing, as it came out of the camera image. This is partly from a backup standpoint, and a “don’t mess up your only copy” thing.

    2. use TIFF (uncompressed) as your archival format. It is lossless, and almost universally readable. He did say he was close to saying to use PSD, as it was becoming widely used as a standard, but wasn’t quite there yet.

    3. Storage is free, save a bunch of copies, corrected for various things (different printers, etc)

    4. From an archival standpoint, DVD was superior in longevity tests than CD’s, but the real answer is that we really don’t know how long they will last. Hard drives are problematic, because there are so many more moving parts, and they are not rated for longer than 3-5 years. They might last longer with special care, but I am not aware of any studies on this. It is possible that there will be a time that you cannot find a dvd drive to read your disk, but there will also be a time that you wont be able to find something to handle the interface for your hard drive, so that may be a wash. His rule of thumb was to use technologies that people have next to their TV’s, as these will last longer.

    5. Don’t underestimate the value of a print. Good quality ink on good archival paper should last in the 100 yr range (this is one of the best arguments against refill ink cartridges, the studies on their longevity were terrible).

    There are certainly nits to pick with this, and I don’t even agree with all of these totally, but this is what they do.

  26. Thanks Brian and as far as nits go – this is a photo blog – if photographers aren’t shooting – their second favorite activity is nit-picking :)

  27. As stated above, I vote for DVD as a backup medium (in addition to HDD) because it is easy to do incremental offsite backups. That is, once I backup 4GB or so to DVD (once or twice) I hand it over to my wife’s parents. That way, I have an up-to-date offsite backup, but don’t have to shuttle drives around. When I run out of drive space on my backup drive, I upgrade to a new drive, copy the old files over and then store the previous drive. I could reuse earlier drives, but I haven’t had the need to yet.

  28. As someone who has mostly been a photographer in the digital age, longevity is one of the reasons I still shoot film (I also shoot digital). I feel much more reassured knowing I have something physical I can refer to that has a very long shelf life (and a known shelf life). Though film negatives degrade overtime, and digital does not, I think that digital is a more fragile medium.. put another way, you either have it or you don’t (a 1 or a 0). You can’t accidentally delete a negative, you negative can’t crash and get wiped out. Sure it can be damage in otherways.. but, for me, again, it comes down to having something physical to refer back to that speaks to permanence much moreso than bytes in the computer ether.

  29. What gave GIF a problem is that there were patented compression algorithms. TIFF is quite a bit older and is actually quite trivial to make a program that read and convert if it’s not compressed, and if uncompressed, it should not run afoul of patents. In the long term, JPG shouldn’t have any problems either, any patent claims would probaby run out soon.

  30. I didnt tough about that, you re making an interesting point with this article Scott.

    Also, Spencer point of PSD vs TIFF is very interesting, but I’m not 100% sold to the idea.

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