Digital Life Expectancy: Will your photos last?

Just about once every two years, I diligently walk into the nearest Best Buy, purchase an external hard drive, and proceed to create another backup of my photo files. I used to think that was enough to keep my images safe. Now, I’m not so sure.

I think most people, including myself for a while, don’t realize that digital photography presents some unique challenges for preserving our work for at least our lifetime, and possibly beyond.

In the past, properly archived film negatives would easily last through a photographer’s career and act as “RAW files” you could return to over and over again.

In the digital age, one could easily argue that as long as refresh your backup of files on to a new drive every few years, the same goal could be accomplished and you could achieve media durability.

But what will happen ten years from now when computers no longer read your RAW or JPEG files? It might not happen, but what if it does? What will become of your digital archive of obsolete file formats?

Professor Peter Smith, a senior lecturer at the Boston University College of Communication, raises a good point: “If you are alive and diligent, it might be possible to update operating and application software to be able to open files, but once you die, who will bother?”

So our file preservation challenge now becomes twofold:

  • We must keep our files extant by refreshing our hard drives or other media.
  • We must update our file formats to avoid media obsolescence.

Bill LeFurgy, an archivist and librarian working a the Library of Congress, recommends creating new archival copies of your media every five years and keeping older software versions to read your older files.

In addition to hard drives, it’s a great idea to keep a second back-up of your photos on the cloud, using services like CrashPlan or Carbonite.

I would also recommend keeping various copies of your best work in multiple file formats – RAW, JPEG, TIFF, etc.

Finally, photographer Jonas Peterson presents a simple, yet overlooked solution: print your best work. Creating physical copies of your favorite images can easily preserve your work and keep it existing long after you’re gone.

So what’s a photographer to do? Back-up. Print. Repeat.

Cover Photo by Robert Scoble.

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