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Four Easy Tips for Preserving Your Digital Photographs

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Like many of you, I’ve got hundreds (thousands?) of photos. This is one of my favorites:

It’s not the most flattering photo in my collection, but it was taken by a good friend back when I was still a crazy grad student, and I crack up every time I see it.

Of course, the photo is only in digital form, which means it’s got a “preservation” problem.

Digital preservation is the set of management processes that ensure the long-term accessibility of digital information. At NDIIPP we deal with these issues on a grand scale, working to ensure the nation’s valuable digital cultural heritage survives for the long-term benefit of all.

But the valuable cultural heritage material we’re interested in often starts off as a lone artifact in someone’s personal collection.

That’s why we’ve been offering guidance on how you can preserve your own personal digital information. Not to say that there’s any long-term national interest in my photo, but you never know. In any event, it’s valuable to me and that’s enough for now.

We’ve come up with four simple steps to start you on the digital preservation path: Identify, Decide, Organize, and Make copies (I.D.O.M. anybody?).

Identify means to take an inventory of where you have pictures. Are they still on your camera? On your computer? Stored on a photo-sharing website? Identifying where your photos are located is the first step to getting a handle on preserving them.

Next, decide which photos are the most important. Digital photography makes it easier than ever to keep every picture you take, but that’s not always a good thing, especially if you’ve got similar pictures with only slight variations.

A smaller collection of really essential photographs is easier to maintain than a sprawling mish-mash of everything, so don’t be afraid to toss some away if they aren’t important (a process known in the cultural heritage world as deaccessioning). If you do get rid of copies, make sure you keep the one with the highest resolution.

My photo is the only one I have from that time and place, so it’s about as essential as you can get. Luckily for me, the copy I have is at 300ppi (pixels per inch), which is a decent resolution for my purposes, including printing at its current size.

The output of a photo editing tool showing the different dimensions of image size.
The output of a photo editing tool showing the different dimensions of image size.

Next, organize the photos that you’ve selected. This is the most time-consuming part of the job (depending on how many photos you’ve got) but will be well worth the effort for accessing the pictures in the future.

Give each photo a descriptive file name. My photo has the relatively nonsensical name “butch_dogg.jpg,” but I know exactly which picture it is when I scan through my directories.

You should also tag your photos with descriptive information to remind you of the “who, what and where” in the photo. There are a number of photo editing tools that can help you add tags to your photos. Additionally, most cameras add valuable information to your pictures automatically in the form of Exchangeable Image File Format (EXIF) data.

EXIF image metadata showing technical details of the photograph captured by the camera.
EXIF image metadata showing technical details of the photograph captured by the camera.

The EXIF data tells me the exact date my photo was taken, something I wouldn’t know otherwise.

Next, create a directory structure for your picture storage environment. You can organize your photos by year, location, person, or any other structure that makes sense to you, like this:

My structure looks a bit random. Need to work on this!

Write a brief description of your directory structure and the photos in it and store it with the pictures.

Finally, make copies of your pictures and store them in different places. During the “identify” process you probably found pictures stored in a bunch of different places. This is good! That is, as long as you’ve got a system for keeping track of them.

How many copies? Well, more is certainly better (and you can get deep into the mathematics (PDF) of how many), but the main things you want to do are make multiple copies; store them on different kinds of storage media (CDs, DVDs, USB flash drives, external hard drives or online storage); and store them as geographically dispersed from each other as possible.

I have a copy of my photo on my current laptop (having outlived four previous computers), and on online storage that I’ve maintained for more than seven years. Still, I could probably use another back-up just to be safe.

You should check your photos and storage media at least yearly to make sure that you can still get at them and to mitigate against hardware or software obsolescence.

I.D.O.M. — the easy way to save your stuff!

This post was updated on 2/7/13 to fix broken links.

Comments (16)

  1. And if you really want a copy to show your great-grandchildren, you can get print copies.

  2. Great article, how about a follow on about JPEG and Raw. Especially as it involves lossy compression.

  3. Your EXIF data stored with your photos includes important information, including the date that the photos were taken. It is vital therefore that you ensure that your camera is set to the correct date every time you use it – so easy to forget when you change the batteries when many cameras revert to the ‘default’ date.

  4. Now, how to get a useful digital image from a 150 year old photo in Black and white or other print tones . Is a standard home scanner good enough? and how to deal with very small photo prints fromthe 1800s.
    A quick method would be desirable as there are a number of them and many are small and unidentified.

  5. Lots of great ideas for follow-up articles!

    I could print out a paper copy of this picture, but I have a feeling that my grandchildren, let alone my great-grandchildren, will be so versed in digital information that paper versions will seem quaint. We have to ensure that the digital versions survive and remain understandable.

  6. Print copies will not necessary be the best decision if showing them to your grandchildren is the objective. I’ve seen (poorly) printed born-digital photographs that faded within a few years of printing. Also, when most amateur photographers rely on drugstore kiosks for prints, you get what you pay for. Listen to Butch and take good care of your digital files.

  7. A clever anagram, but there’s no guarantee that any of those image formats will be around in 100 years (especially the many RAW formats). DNG is the closest to a “standard” but even that falls short.

    CD’s and DVDs will almost certainly go the same way as the floppy disk, plus their archival quality has been proven to be questionable at best.

    Hard drives fail over time, so that method is unreliable as well.

    The best way to preserve photographs is to make archival quality prints.

    Mark Olwick

  8. From the LOC about preserving digital photo files.

  9. Thanks, great article.
    I still have an 8-track tape that was the height of portable music technology when I was in Junior High. Any system that exists now will be replaced and the information in your files will be difficult to retrieve.
    For your most important images make the best quality prints you can.

  10. Keep your photos on hard drives, flash memory, and optical media, as butch_dogg suggests. But he forgot a key step:
    Migrate. IDOMM. Copy the information forward into new storage media as they become common.

    I have digital archives starting from the 1970s, that originally were on floppies, ancient hard drives, 1/2″ 9-track tapes, 1/4″ cartridge tapes of various densities, DAT tapes, Exabyte cartridges, external SCSI disks, ZIP drives, etc. I have read all of these and today I keep that data on modern disk drives. It’s important to read those old media while you still can get the drives and interfaces, and still have software that understands the file formats and archive file formats and filesystem formats. Every 5 or 10 years I copy that drive or two, onto a brand new disk drive in the latest interfaces and with the latest file system format.

    So far, it’s working. It works particularly well since storage is getting much denser and cheaper very quickly, so you can aggregate a lot of old data onto a single new drive, then duplicate that drive on a second cheap drive, and stick the dup in a closet (or in some family member’s closet on a different tectonic plate) where no virus can erase it.

  11. Excellent comment on forward migration! It’s implied in “make copies” that you’ll need to make copies of copies on new media as time passes, but it’s very valuable to explicitly talk about that. Perhaps another post!

  12. Re: Charles Severs question. I have a Epson scanner and my tumb nail size old pictures get scanned fine with it. I’ve made prints from them up to 8x 10. As for unidentified pictures, I post them on my tree at under the person who I knew had the picture. exp. Found in the collection of … If there is a place name on the picture, post at USGen Web and Rootsweb. I’ve had many photoes named now so get out those un named pictures and let them be seen. If you know where the person is buried, Find A Grave is a wonderful place to post your old pictures and it has links to other family members.

  13. Thanks for the great information on preserving digital photos. I just bought the best quality external hard drive I could find. I think making a copy to back up on that drive is a great idea. It definitely needs to be organized as well. There is nothing more frustrating than knowing that you have a certain photo and not being able to find it.

  14. Great source of information and nice suggestions.
    Unfortunately identifying similar images is hard and I was referred to a unique tool by a professional photographer. It is named Visual Similarity Duplicate Imaged Finder by MindGems and provides incredible results – I have not seen such a tool so far.

  15. Can you recommend the best most secure digital memoirs to create picture and music entities?

    Thank you for any help!
    Ramona Lynn Sandersfeld

  16. What do you think about scanning all my photographs from the 70s, 80s and 90s and making a digital album, backing up scanned photos to a flash drive? If you like this idea then do you think I should bother saving the prints after I have put them into a digital album?

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