Digital posterity: will your images survive you?

An old family photograph: the young man in the center is my grandfather; he passed away 22 years ago in 1992.

Back story: my grandmother’s passing last year and sorting of her effects unearthed a number of photographs from a much earlier era; my guess is the mid 1950s; that’s the better part of 65 years ago. There weren’t that many – about 10 in all. Ostensibly being the authority on all things photographic in the family, they were passed to me for restoration. Combined with a recent SSD failure on my primary machine, it got me thinking on a subject beyond backups: how can we ensure our images survive us? Do we even want them to?

I think the latter is a stupid question: of course we do. Any artist or person who cares one tiny iota about what they do wants to leave some sort of legacy behind. The more time and effort you put into it, the more emotionally invested you become*. The irrational part of me certainly wants to know my images are being appreciated by others after I’m gone; the practical part of me would like my descendants to benefit from them somehow.

*Thought on further thought this makes no sense, as once you’re dead, you’re dead. The physical world becomes completely unimportant. But that’s another topic for another time, and probably also another site.

Those ten images of my grandma’s that survived probably did so precisely because there were only ten or maybe eleven to begin with; scarcity attached value, and value precipitated a reasonable amount of care. Studio portraits in that era weren’t cheap (and it seems the technical standards were considerably lower, too – no idea how representative this was of the era overall, but the images had the watermarks of several different studios, all of fairly low quality by today’s standards) and therefore only shot on occasion, then treasured. Retouching was performed by hand on the prints – there are one or two images in there that bring to mind 1950’s advertising posters; shot on B&W film then hand-colored and slightly pastely-looking.

Fast forward to today: not only do we not print most of our images, but we shoot so many that we ourselves frequently don’t remember what we shot. I look through my archives from time to time to find stock images for clients or to illustrate posts, and I’m sometimes surprised by what’s there (as well as what I thought was worth keeping at the time). If we ourselves can’t remember what we have – how on earth is anybody going to find it later? We can’t all get posthumous lucky breaks like Vivian Maier. A big box of negatives at auction implies a serious photographer because of the cost, time and effort required to amass such a catalog; a couple of hard drives might contain management accounting records for a textiles firm in an unreadable format, some secret government controversy, a bunch of dodgy home movies, or the next Vivian Maier. But there are so many of them I doubt anybody will bother; even sadder, I doubt many of them will even survive.

It is said that the more advanced a civilisation, the fewer the number of clues it leaves to its passing and the details of its time; if you carve your art into stone, it’ll probably weather quite well. But if your art is on a digital medium that requires specialized precision equipment to read and decode, chances are it’ll never be seen again once the original creator loses interest – it’s just too much effort for anybody without some degree of self-interest in it.

_8038703-4 RH copy
The restored image. I only had prints to work with, in bad condition on unfortunately textured photographic paper. I set up even, diffuse lighting with flashes, used the D800E and Zeiss 2/50 Makro-Planar hanging from the underside of a tripod, aligned parallel with the image on the floor under a piece of glass to flatten it. Polarizers and strategic dark flags were used to cut reflections. This image was physically quite large, so I shot it in two halves and stitched it afterwards; a grey card was used to get an accurate read of the existing color to start as a basis to work from. Given that the end goal was to create something that would look like (at least what I envisioned) to be the original intention of the photographer, I tried to recover as much information as possible from the print rather than go for precise tonal reproduction. The raw file was then retouched: dust removal, repairing missing portions, wrinkles, fold lines etc. In fact, the process is fairly similar and equally as painstaking as commercial retouching for watch photography. Retouching complete, I made a copy of the base layer, and desaturated it to work on the luminance channel and dodge and burn for local contrast; the duplicate layer was dialled back slightly to allow some of original sepia color to come through as the original print wouldn’t have been perfectly color-neutral to begin with. A few small dodge and burn tweaks later, and voila…end to end process, about two and a half hours. Needless to say, I’ll be making some prints.

The natural question is of course how can we ensure the survival of our images? To answer this, I think we need to look at both what survives in the popular consciousness/ culture today, as well as various artistic media that have lasted to date – and why. Firstly, I think you either have to be exclusive or prolific; nothing in between. If you’re exclusive, you have to be popular; then the few very iconic images that you produce will be remembered, reproduced and survive in some form or other – perhaps not original. (I suppose in the end that’s a form of homogenised proliferation, too). The more people care about your work, the more collective incentive there is to keep it alive; the popular ‘classical’ photographers like HC-B and Ansel Adams are a good example of this.

l If you’re prolific, then you hope you have so much work out there that some of it survives; that which remains in circulation might attract people to look for the rest. Usually, I think you have to be prolific first to attract attention and then exclusive once you hit critical mass; unfortunately that’s becoming tougher and tougher as more people are circulating their images. A good example of this is Flickr – for the longest time, I used to average about 1-2,000 views a day; some months ago, things skyrocketed up to 50,000 per day in a matter of weeks. It’s stayed there, too – I’d say that’s a pretty good example of hitting critical mass.

Of course, the trouble with any digital medium is that it’s only as good as the devices and infrastructure; no matter how popular you are on the web, if everything suddenly got erased overnight (perhaps by an invading alien force’s EMP) then you’d cease to exist. But prints and negatives wouldn’t; and I admit that’s one of the reasons I’ve been both printing more and shooting more film of late. Reality is that those images have a higher chance of surviving me, and they aren’t even my best work. (I’m pretty sure that if my grandma’s photos were on magnetic tape, they’d be lost forever – both because of degradation of the medium and lack of support today.)

To some extent, we can mitigate the technological risk by continually keeping our archives on up-to-date media; I do that already as part of my backup plan. Fortunately, as technology improves, storage capacity increases, and hopefully longevity, too – early CDR backups were both capacity-limited and didn’t last very long. Not one single one of my CDRs from ten years ago remain readable today – not because of file formats, but because of physical changes in the media. But hard drives, on the other hand, have increased in size sufficiently quickly that every time I fill one, I can buy one of double the capacity and just migrate everything over to the new drive – instantly creating a static backup (old drive) as well as buying myself more space. When one of my SSDs went down, it was a simple matter of getting a new one, cloning the backup, and swapping out the damaged drive – downtime of less than an hour.

I suspect the final buck stops with education, as always. Put it this way: if you don’t teach your children about the importance of appreciating art, creativity and how it links into daily life and personal development, then they’ll never be able to attach any value to a creative work. If they can’t do that, they won’t care about your images. And they might not even know they exist; much less be able to pass that knowledge on to the next generation, or feel inclined to keep your catalog alive. I know it’s one of the things (I can only hope) to educate my future children on…MT


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  1. An inspiring read – thank you

  2. Hi Ming:

    I’ve taken to making photo books of my family snaps, collecting every 6 months or year of images. The print on demand reproduction quality falls considerably short of the gallery quality prints you no doubt favor. Nonetheless, these books are hardcover, convenient, somewhat impressive (thus likely to be saved), feel reasonably archival and protected, and are, most importantly, ANALOG. Oh, and not particularly expensive.

    I was wondering if you’ve done any book making with any of the various manufacturers: Blurb, My Publisher, Lulu, Shutterfly, Apple, and even Adorama are just a few of many options. I believe Adorama even has true “photographic” print bindings. And a step up to Graphistudio or Finao would be pretty elegant.

    Great post, as always and belated condolences on your grandmother’s passing.

    • I honestly haven’t been happy with any of the ones you mention, though it’s been quite a number of years. I tried making quite a few during 2009-11 but abandoned it after the quality was not just frustrating, but extremely variable. My problem now is that I’ve been spoiled by gravure printed books and the Ultraprints; there’s simply no way print on demand can even come close to matching either at a cost that isn’t exorbitant.

  3. I think about this often. Who knows my computer’s password? Would they even look? For that reason, among others, I print the best, make books from time to time, and ensure that the password(s) are written in a place that would be found in case something happened to me.

    Nice post – worth thinking about.

    • That’s the problem with security: how do you ensure those who should have access, do, and those that shouldn’t have access, don’t?

      • I suppose that’s a question as old as the lock and key, isn’t it?

        But a room is a physical place. Someone would HAVE to look there. A folder on my hard drive is more nebulous.

        • Very true. And a box of prints is fairly innocuous and not really thief-tempting. There’s also the whole separate question of one’s own digital data etc…

  4. Michael Matthews says:

    Thanks for the walkthrough on shooting a photo as flat copy. I do something similar in photographing my wife’s artwork for reproduction as prints. Lacking an old-fashioned darkroom copy stand it’s a matter of art on the floor, camera on tripod, and a strange dance to eliminate shadows as my lights aren’t really proper for this.

    For anybody with a collection of old 35mm slides or negatives, let me strongly advocate for the inexpensive Epson V500 scanner or its successors. Finding a shoebox full of Kodachrome slides unseen for most of the past 40 years, I bought one. For less than US$150 it does great job of automated conversion of slides to digital files. My Kodachromes had been shunted from place to place in a Kodak carousel with no protection other than its original box. Four garages in four states, humidity, heat, bugs, ambient dirt — plus the inexorable degradation of emulsion brought on by all this. By using the fast automated scan I was able to sort out the better prospects, then do a fairly hi-res scan of the selects. Retouching in Photoshop removed a blizzard of nits, gnats (literally), elongated strings of dirt which resembled flying alligators, and a few truly translucent dead mosquitos. Trying to lift any of them physically would have wreaked havoc. The result? A nice assortment of photos taken in 1974 of a traditional Chesapeake Bay boat builder at work in his boatyard, plus shots of a sailboat he built in 1954. The boat is still sailing, at age 60 years and counting, thanks to the unstinting devotion of the current owner to ongoing restoration. The 35mm images print acceptably at 12 inches wide, an enlargement from the original of more than 900%. Might go even larger with proper technique but I’m more than happy with that size on 18 X 12 paper.
    This approach will never attain the Ming standard, but for the rest of us it beats letting those old slides go unseen till they depart with the trash.

  5. Simple. Post it on the internet and it will last forever. You will be giving it away though.

  6. Am I reading into things, or are you telling us you are going to be a dad? If so, congrats! It’s an awesome thing.

  7. This is a great topic and one I’ve been considering for many years (I’m 62, my mother is 99).

    Besides archiving images, it’s also important to make sure you also archive information about the image: When and where it was taken, who’s in it, and any other information that will help make connections later when everyone who can talk about the image is long gone. How to attach this information to a print is an interesting problem and how to attach it to a digital image is also an interesting problem.

    My recommendation is, at every family gathering, bring some prints along and talk with everyone about them, then make notes and figure out a way to store those notes with the prints so they can’t be separated. As the oldest members of a family lose their memories this becomes tougher and tougher. Good to do this with genealogical information as well.

  8. Hi Ming, first many thanks for sharing this little bit of private life. I’m also in the process of digitizing lotsa photos from my parents, unfortunately they threw away the negatives a few years back cause, you know, it just “took unnecessary space”… So I only have prints. Most of them are well conserved though.

    I appreciate that you explained the technical process you used ; there are a few photos that I’ll need to scan at the highest resolution possible, or they’re just bigger prints. I have an EM5 with the 60 macro, I think it should be plenty enough for the job. Would you mind elaborating juuuuust a little bit more on your setup ? I also have 2 flashes, Yungnuo 560 III, but nothing to diffuse the light besides a multi-reflector. Did you diffuse the flashes ? How did you place them to have an even result ? What about those “strategic black flags” ?

    Thanks again.

    • I used two at about a 45 degree angle to the photo, one from either side. They were bouncing off other objects in the room creating reflections off the glass (necessary to flatten the image), so the black flags were behind the flashes to cut out spill.

  9. Hi Ming, great topic. I think what we publish on-line will ultimately be how most people’s photographic legacy’s will survive. For anyone who is serious about their practice it is important for tangible copies to exist of the work, at least best examples or what you hold value to (we owe it that much). Its also important to make prints of work as this not only completes the photographic process, but isolates the work and gives it strength.

    Printed work will always be viewed in a much more considered and intimate way. I champion digital but I am making work with the goal to print. The fluidity of digital certainly has its weakness’s, especially in regards to controlling the consistency in how work is viewed. With regards to fine art I don’t think digital displays will compete of with overall cost, consistency and reliability of print for a long time yet.

  10. A poignant post, thank you for sharing Ming, and lovely job on the restoration. What a handsome family…

    This post has stirred up alot of thoughts and emotions in me, which I won’t bore everyone with, but of those the concept of the history we will leave behind is one I have worried about before.

    This digital age we live in has certainly yielded many potential benefits. Take my love for photography for example…I wouldn’t (and indeed didn’t) take notice of it until 2 years ago. The bar for entry into this world has certainly been lowered hugely by digital imaging technology. This is of course a double edged sword which has been touched upon before on your blog.

    The worrying thought to me is the potential for disaster in the confluence of two aspects of this digital age; our change away from personally-held knowledge/memory in favour of relying on the internet-based-knowledge-base to “learn as we go”, and the questionable long-term security/accessibility of digitally stored information.

    In the event of a zombie apocalypse (which seems to be the current collective subconscious extermination-event fear judging by popular entertainment media) what will pockets of humanity fall back on to rebuild their lives? Leave aside the interesting, but distracting, sociological insight this fear may provide (especially in comparison to previous generations’/cultures’ equivalents like invaders from mars, or skyscraper-sized monsters). In the past it would have fallen to individuals with key skills applicable to survival-of-the-species, aided by tomes of knowledge available in any town library, and therefore accessible assuming their physical forms survived. But what about now, or in 10 or 20 years time? Will we, on an individual level, carry the knowledge and skills to set about rebuilding? And how will we access the digital information-base without power, or compatible media readers? If it happened now, and I came upon a 5.25inch floppy disc, what use would it likely be to me? And that assumes it ever had anything useful to offer, other than some 20 year old CVs or accounts spreadsheets. The chances are I wouldn’t know what potential treasures it held until I accessed them, which wouldn’t be an efficient use of valuable time (touching on the idea of quantity over quality of archival in a digital vs non-digital world), even assuming it was possible!

    Sorry for the flippant analogy, but the point is a serious one, to me at least. And as photographers we are recording history, so this applies to us. It may be ironic that at a time when exponentially more documentary evidence is being created daily than ever before, the means to make sense of it may be at risk of plummeting.

    • Thanks Ian. I’m not sure I worry so much about the zombie apocalypse (we’ll all have much bigger things to worry about anyway) – but more the pace of change and normal life; how do we not make our work disposable? Especially as we are recording the fastest changing period of history yet – as you point out, the irony is that may well be the least remembered in future.

      • Well, ignore the threat of zombie apocalypse if you will MT, but when it happens, one of us will be prepared, the other will be dinner…


        Yes, agreed on the “dispose-ability” point. One of the consequences of the proliferation of imagery, and the exposure we have to it, combined with our seemingly ever-increasing need for stimulation, is that it becomes harder and harder to create something which isn’t cliched. It requires conscious effort sometimes to avoid taking a shot which fits into a current image paradigm, be it bokeh-tastic, backlit with sun flare, ultra-contrasty black and white with, or without, added “grain”, etc. Again, it comes back to making images for yourself, that fit you inner vision. I wonder though, whether the ability to develop an inner vision is harder under the imagery bombardment? I sometimes worry that I am merely recreating what I have seen before, even if unintentionally.

        • I’m honestly not sure I’d want to live in a zombie apocalypse world, though I suppose I’d get some pretty interesting images…

          As for originality: I don’t think it exists. Our preferences, which affect the way we compose and how we see, are a product of our experiences and biases which are affected and influenced by other people. We absorb and get influenced by the world around us and photograph – i.e. reflect – that; we don’t make new objects to photograph. So, yes, it’s not original…but at the same time, if we try too hard, I think we land up struggling a little and landing up not really listening to our subconscious distillations of all of that experience: which IS the bit that’s a unique synthesis.

  11. On a side note. You vent through how you backup your digital files in an earlier post. But how do you archive printed photographs. I print a couple times each year, but at the moment these prints are stored in the envelope they came in, we have a quite dry climate but the envelope can hardly be called archival storage. I remember going through other peoples photographs, stored in the same way, and sometimes the photographs had started to stick to each other. These are also not highest possible quality prints, just the average (fuji) stuff from the consumer print lab. Sadly, I’m really an amateur when it comes to prints, I will research this question further at some point, but I value your opinion far higher than the hits I just got on Google. This was an interesting article on a side topic few write about.

  12. The task of scanning all of Grandma & Granddad’s old slides and photo albums somehow fell on me a few years ago. I got some done out of the gate, then got bogged down and haven’t resumed yet. (There’s a WHOLE LOT of work left…) The idea was to replace literally a truck load of albums with one or two discs, sent to each my relatives (and also put up on the cloud of course).

    It’s strange to think that my ancestors would have run into a burning building to try and save some of these albums, yet now I’m finding it such a major chore to be going through it all. (What’s more, I closed the SmugMug account used for sharing scans back in February and none of my relatives have even noticed yet.)

    But it is my history – can’t just toss it… (I just hope I can somehow get my father to start scanning his parents’ photos – that’s the real shutterbug side.)

    As for my own work, I’ve given this matter some thought in the past. (That’s why I keep reading your blog, Ming!)

    As a courtesy to my offspring and to bolster my own odds of having any sort of enduring photographic legacy, I think the most important thing to do is: EDIT. Ultimately, I’d rather leave my survivors 500 of my very, very best images – the ones that really capture and summarize my life experiences. Something even someone not related to me might enjoy getting lost in.

    It wouldn’t be hard for a longtime enthusiast in the digital era to pass away with 1 000 000+ images in his/her library. Based on my experiences trying to sort through just a few thousand, I’d say good luck getting the kin to comb through all that!

    I really do mean to whittle my main library down over time. And of course all the while, keep stepping up my game. (I want that legacy image folder to be chock full of gems…)

    • The burning building analogy – they’d have been irreplaceable memories back then, and costly to produce in the first place. Our problem today is that images have become almost disposable – so we treat them as such. I’d suggest archiving it online somewhere (perhaps Flickr, since it’s now free); making some modern archival inkjet prints, and sharing those around.

      My survivors will be getting the best of the best portfolio, which I’m currently building and is sorted by time and is moved to new media every two years, and several folders of Ultraprints. I think those should do the trick – plus the site may well live on since nothing ever goes away once it’s on the internet!

      I always believe my best image will be the next one. Otherwise, there’s not much point in continuing to shoot.

  13. Gary Morris says:

    After my father died early-2008 and his wife a year later, my sister, her husband and my wife and I cleared out their house. My brother-in-law found some old movie film cans with movie film inside at the bottom of the closet in my father’s office. Turns out when my grandparents married in 1925, my grandfather purchased a 16mm movie camera to document their early years together. They used the camera until the late 1930s or very early 1940s, when it must have been mostly stored away (my grandparents could afford this luxury because they were very wealthy throughout the 1920s and 1930s, until the US gov’t put them out of business by appropriating their business at the outset of WWII… a whole other story!). Also found were a handful of color movies my grandmother’s brother had shot in Havana Cuba in the 1950s (lots of partying and drinking and skin around the pool at whatever Havana hotel they were camped out in). There was also a single one minute movie shot by my grandfather at my first birthday, 62 years ago.

    My brother-in-law took the now 80-90 year old 16mm films to a studio and had the films converted to digital. The films were in poor condition (celluloid only lasts so long!), each only about 2 minutes 45 seconds long, black and white and no sound… but to see my grandparents as a young couple, my father and aunt as infants running around, the LaSalle with a custom coachwork nursery in the back, has been an emotional and amazing experience.

    I have no idea what the next 90 years holds for my now-mostly digital library of work, or my mpg videos of my kids, my grand children, and of course my prints, but I can say that it was a very moving and emotional experience to view these long-ago movies. Maybe my kids and grandkids will indeed embrace and treasure my library as I have now done with my grandparents library.

    • I wonder if the degradation is because of early celluloid, or because of storage conditions, or something else? Negatives may not be as permanent as we believe.

      But yes, I can imagine the experience must have been a bit surreal. Makes me want to consider more video work to document my family…

      • Gary Morris says:

        The films spent their first 50 years in New York City, many of those years before air conditioning was widely available. I suspect the NY summers (heat and humidity) took a big toll on the celluloid. I’m guessing my father acquired the films in 1991 when my grandmother died (and she had them in Florida for 15 years before then… more heat and humidity). Where you live you would need to be very careful about archival quality storage (I imagine your weather is not unlike the heat and humidity I experienced when I worked in Ho Chi Minh City).

        I think little bits of video (I shoot no longer than one minute and usually about 30 seconds) will have much greater long-term attraction to successive generations. While fabulous photography is certainly appreciated, I see how the static nature of photos is perhaps less appealing overall than motion and voice (particularly to kids now being raised on the variety of social media available today).

        After our annual trips with our grandson I have been self-publishing a book of representative photos I’ve snapped on the trip. Everyone likes it. However, the kid has asked if there’s anything we can put on his iPad. With the ease of capturing video (just tap the little red button on the right hand top of most any camera today) I’ve grab an assortment of short clips (white water rafting, walking on a glacier, etc.) on the trips. I’ve told the wife to assemble the photos I’d use for a book along video clips and make an iBook. The iBook can then be used on his iPad, his iPhone, stream to the TV, etc.

        You can still produce your master prints, but you’ve got to cognizant of your larger audience. Just my 2¢.

        • I store everything in airtight containers, or dehumidified dry boxes. Otherwise, the moisture wreaks havoc on electronics and paper.

          Short clips are a very interesting idea. How would we preserve them for posterity though? Digital format differences etc. have many issues in their own, especially when it’s something you can’t have a physical copy of unlike say a photographic print…

          • Gary Morris says:

            No great answers for you on alternatives to storing digital video as anything but a digital file. However, some small clips I created as far back as 1992 via the old Video Spigot product and saved as .mov files are still playable today on any of our Macs. And mpg files created in the 1990s on Mini DV tape and copied to Macs with the earliest iMovie are still playable. I guess if you stick to more or less standard file types, the files will have a better chance of technological survival. I suspect mpgs will be playable for years to come since that format is more or less ubiquitous. Keep very good redundant digital copies (and if you’ve got files on medium that seems to be loosing favor, such as DVDs, move on to more mainstream media).

            • I suspect we may well have to do conversion in addition to migrating media to ensure everything is still current. The bigger one’s archive gets, the more painful that’s going to be…

          • Can you please recommend the brand of dry boxes you use. Do they come with a hygrometer? Thanks in advance!

  14. Reblogged this on Ned Hamson Second Line View of the News and commented:
    Good try at nearly impossible task today – what to keep and how to keep it for future generations.

  15. Beautiful family! Thanks for sharing with us.

  16. Good find! It’s always a pleasure to uncover these bits of history. Even if it reminds us of our own mortality.

    I am sixty now. I have no children nor plan to have any, so there’s no familial legacy to worry about other than whether my brothers or my partner want to remember me for some reason. So I can be picky. 😉

    I figure my photographic immortality is best served by making archival prints (as archival as I can muster, anyway), selling and giving them away, and by publishing. The latter are copyrighted works that get registered and submitted to the Library of Congress and archived there. If anyone wants to see what I felt was worthy of the effort a hundred years from now, all they need to do is search those records, or whomever is their custodian then.

    I assume the vast majority of my photos will be lost in the sea of late 20th Century/early 21st Century flotsam. This doesn’t bother me because I do photography for me, while I live, and for those I know who might enjoy it. After I’m gone, it’s entirely out of my hands…

  17. The best option for color digital files may be printing archival inkjet prints. That said, in the 1990s I printed some scanned reproductions of my husband’s father’s college artwork, and gave prints to family members. These were printed on Lumijet paper with Lumijet pigment inks for Epson printers, supposedly and archival system. Less than 10 years later, framed prints began to have noticeable color shifts, with the magenta and yellow colors fading, the prints became cyan. Now they look truly terrible, like a 1950 era Type C print, long before Fuji and Kodak improved color paper dye stability. I hope present day Epson K3 inks will live up to or exceed their estimated lifespans.

    For black and white digital files, companies like Digital Silver Imaging in Belmont, MA in the USA offer digital laser printing to genuine gelatin silver prints, which should last for hundreds to thousands of years, as long as the paper is cared for by people.

    • You’re probably right – inkjet is at the point where it leads in archival, gamut, range of paper/ inks, but unfortunately not resolution – but I’d argue we’re certainly getting there on the latter front. I wonder what they claimed the Lumijet ink life was? I do know I’ve got K3 printed images from 3-4 years ago that still look perfect, so hopefully things have improved…

      Digital laser to silver gelatine sounds very interesting. Do you get the full tonal range of a normal ‘wet’ print?

  18. Nothing like the death of a senior family member to bring into focus one’s own mortality. Firstly, let me pass on my condolences. Having lost my own father 5 years ago, I can relate. Many of his images were thankfully captured on 35mm Kodachrome, which were easily digitized. These family memories are far more important than our best efforts at art.

    • Thank you.

    • Nick Coenen says:

      “These family memories are far more important than our best efforts at art.” Very true. While we expend great effort to perfect the craft of capturing images (digital or analog) of the world around us, for me, it is the images of family and loved ones that are the most meaningful. If I had to choose what was truly irreplaceable, it wouldn’t be the handful of 5 star images that have somehow populated my Lightroom catalog……

      Thank you Ming for your sincere and personal post.

  19. Von Manstein says:

    “but we shoot so many that we ourselves frequently don’t remember what we shot”

    Great comment. I’ve always said that the ubiquity of digital cheapens photography dramatically. There is an endless supply of images now and so the value is much much lower. Just look at how much harder it is to make a living as a photographer. Back in my younger days, I knew plenty of people who made for themselves, good decent middle class lives. Today it is nearly impossible to do so. There’s a veritable limitless supply of images. So many we can’t even remember what we shoot!

  20. Von Manstein says:

    Photographic negatives made by my father’s father look great today, 70 years or so later. I could still print them today if I wanted to. They were stored in a drawer for the most part, just kept dry and out of the light. No maintenance needed.

    It will take a LOT of work to keep digital files alive and well 70 years forward. Bit rot alone has destroyed a few dozen of my precious first born’s images, only 10 years old. I had copies of them, but without knowing that the originals were bad, these ended up being archived on top of the good files. I had back ups of the rotted files.

    I now shoot my precious family photos on film. I intend my children’s life to be documented on film and this will be given to them when it is my time to depart this world.

    I do not, in any way, trust this to digital. It may get there one time but it is most certainly not there yet.

    • I have the other problem; a lack of confidence in film until the image is baked and duplicated. Until that point, there’s just far too much that could go wrong post-capture (transport, developing, physical damage, loss). At least with digital I can shoot to two cards and have an instant backup from the time of capture; if you make a mistake, you can undo. I’ve had labs mess up irreplaceable film, and I’ve done it myself. It’s unavoidable no matter how careful you are, and the more you shoot, the more likely something bad might happen.

  21. stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

    Well, here comes the film issue seen in the light of vanishing photographic film industry. I wonder why serious photographers do not use the film recorders for archival purposes. A good B/W neg of say 5×4 size will last ages. If I`m not mistaken Salgado used this procedure when shooting Genesis recording digital files on B/W film.

    • Salgado used it because he couldn’t achieve the tonality he wanted digitally; you can actually see quite a difference in his all-digital work if you view it side by side in the exhibition. I don’t think it was for archival purposes. But I imagine the main limitation would be cost…

  22. Dwaine Dibbly says:

    My goal is to live forever. So far, so good….

  23. The improvements you made are all very skillfully done. But I like the original more. More honest and pure.
    For example, the imperfect edges that you cut off are touching.

    My brother made our old family pictures digital a few years ago. From the sixties on the quality level went down fast.
    The pictures were taken by anybody that could push the button and nobody took the time to pose anymore.
    People chatting and chewing while being photographed in strange colours that are fading away rapidly.

    • I’m sure the originals were even better when they were new. I personally would have just left them and digitised (which I did, since I have the RAW files) but this is what my parents wanted. The client is always right…

  24. Interestingly, last night I spoke to a Medievalist friend who, like me also works with digital technology. She was convinced that many of “her” medieval manuscripts will still exist as objects in 500 years, whereas much of our current digital data will be lost. Now, that may sound more dramatic than it is as the objects that came down to use from previous centuries often are just a tiny proportion of what was actually produced at the time. We all constantly throw things away during our life, and society does the same. As a historian I see this simply as part of life, and in my professional work I have learned to work with what is left. Loss is just part of life, like forgetting, and it does not always have to be a bad thing.

    Now, from a more practical point of view the interesting question here is how do we ensure that the data we really want to keep is preserved well. The answer you will get from a digital curation specialist will have several components, but a key part likely will be the statement that continued use is the best preservation strategy. If enough people care then someone will put in the effort to migrate to new file formats and keep the data usable.

    From a practical point of view preservation it is not just about having backups at different locations though. Would it be useful to not only save the RAW file but also a high quality JPG and/or PNG with all the edits in the way you want them? Will there still be a RAW converter for the D60 files in 30 years from now, and assuming it does exist will it render in the same way as Lightroom does today? Is DNG as a documented format the best way to save your data as the chances are better that someone can write software in 200 years to display your photos? If I was seriously concerned about longevity of my photos I would probably consider saving the RAW, a DNG and perhaps a JPG version, with added metadata. You then need to have that data in at least two physically separate locations, and you need a catalogue and instructions for someone else to find and access them after your death. No use if your data is encrypted in the cloud and only you know the 25-digit password.

    That’s a lot of effort though…

    • You’re friend is probably right; things were built to last back then – simply I suspect because there weren’t many of them. Our mechanical watches of today will outlast digital disposables; one was engineered to last, one is a consumer disposable.

      Migration and file formats: I don’t think people will care until it hits them in somewhere painful. I suspect it’s one of the reasons there are actually a lot of companies both using and supporting old hardware/ software: they just can’t change, because migration would be incredibly disruptive, complex, and possibly not work properly at all.

      I save all my RAWs and finished TIFFs/JPEGs. I can only assume that there will be converters, since no compatibility has ever been removed from the current converters…

      • Try opening a Kodak PhotoCD. It is not that easy unless you are technically inclined, although there are still some simpler (but costly) commercial programs that will decode them. Kodak never publicly released the technical specifications, the current converters are based on reverse-engineering.

        Andy Warhol’s 80s Amiga art was recovered from archived floppy disks. A computer club needed to reverse engineer the GraphiCraft .pic file format.

        Nice article. I’ve got to start scanning family slides and negatives. I’ve already found many “dead” CDs that my mom had the local photo store make when she switched to digital. Strangely there will be more of a gap in our family’s photographic history from the early 2000s than before or (hopefully) recently when I taught my mom to import the photos on a computer with local and cloud backup. Now if the library corrupts…

        • Thank you. I have avoided proprietary formats for final work as much as possible for that reason – all sorts of issues with early files no longer opening…

          Dead CDs are common. Curiously though, why do all of my music CDs play fine? I presume it has to do with some technical difference between the way those are made vs. burning at home.

          • My understanding is that bought CDs use some sort of more stable physical “pressed” printing to make them, whereas burned CDs use lasers on a more unstable chemical media.

  25. The question of accessibility of digital media is an interesting one. Of course, paper can also spoil, but just recently I tried to open an old Word document which a setting in the current Word program made impossible. It also made me wonder if we will be able to read old files – let alone damage to the storage media.

    • Another very good point: if you don’t check regularly, you might find yourself out of luck. I suspect it’s one of the reasons why we’re still using the (rather poor) JPEG format – not much information, visible compression, and large file sizes. But at least it’s compatible backwards, forwards and sideways.

      • Yes, JPGs might be readable forever but the digital raw files are another issue I think.

      • Frans Richard says:

        Another option, possibly better from an IQ perspective, is to (additionally) archive your images in uncompressed or lossless compressed TIFF. However, that, like any digital format, will require a (computer like) device that is capable of reading and interpreting the data. But TIFF is definitely better than any proprietary RAW format.
        This and the Word example beowulf mentions make me think that, as our technology becomes ever more complex, we are becoming increasingly dependent on complex devices to access our stored memories. In contrast, for “old school” technology, like prints, we need nothing but our eyes.

  26. That’s what I’ve been thinking for a long time. Prints do age with time, but they are still “readable”. High-grade DVDs from a few years back: nope.

    I just finished to design a book about the 100th anniversary of a boy scouts’ organization in Switzerland. So, also images from all the eras. Prints and negatives from 1917 to the 60ties are sometimes faded and scratched, but fine to work with. Negatives from the 80ties are a disaster. The cameras were crap and the shot discipline went down with that as well while everybody started to take photographs.

    • Modern prints tend to diverge: commercial prints are terrible; the kind of thing you get from a minilab won’t last more than 6-8 years without serious degradation. It isn’t our memories that have faded when we look at the prints; it’s the colours in the prints themselves. On the other end, high end digital printing – the archival pigment inks I use for Ultraprinting, for instance – have survived accelerated UV/ environmental tests simulating 100-200 years, depending on ink formulation, before showing any degradation. I think that’s pretty remarkable.

      • – the archival pigment inks I use for Ultraprinting, for instance – have survived accelerated UV/ environmental tests simulating 100-200 years, depending on ink formulation, before showing any degradation………

        If that is the case Ming, I am impressed. I am sure my latecomers will appreciate it much.

  27. The process you went through to restore this photograph is mind boggling and you did it all in 2 1/2 hours! I appreciate your thoughts on that the images were more highly valued because there are only 10 photographs. I was born in 1955. We have only a couple studio photographs, none of our whole family together. There are boxes of prints, many black and white, and super 8 movies. My dad love taking pictures and home movies. Trouble is finding anyone who can transfer Super 8. I have movies of my son, now 18 years old, that I cannot get transferred to a usable medium. Movies are most difficult because the technology moved quick and the medium became quickly outdated. Thanks for your insight. I will keep this in mind as I filter through my cases of photos and 30K of images on my hard drives . . .

    • There wasn’t that much information to retouch compared to the work I do now – in a way, that was refreshing. But it’s a good thing you realised it’s necessary to start now…:)

  28. Wonderful timing Ming. I’ve just woken up to discover that my main storage drive has corrupted itself overnight. I know I have backups of everything I’ve processed to jpeg, so it’s not the end of the world, but it’s possibly the past couple of years RAW files wiped out which is bad enough.

    You’d think working in IT I’d know better by now…

    • I keep three copies of everything in separate locations on different types of media. Had to use those backups on more than one occasion…hard drives are definitely not forever. I now change everything on a rotating two year cycle. Costs a fortune, but I haven’t lost anything that I haven’t consciously wanted to delete.

      • Very sensible, particularly as a business rather than an individual. If I’ve lost my RAWs it’s annoying but for you it could have much bigger implications.

        My personal backup scheme consists of both local and cloud storage for all documents and processed images but that is a bit too expensive for the RAW files (hence their current vulnerable state). I’ve been meaning to sign up to crash-plan or similar for a long time now as my third layer but jobs like that are all too easy to leave on the “to-do” list.

        Oh well, lesson learnt!

        • Cloud storage makes sense IF you have the bandwidth; however my problem is one of trust: I have no clue who actually has access to my data, or where it physically resides, or if I delete something, is it really gone? I suppose we can generally hide in anonymity simply because there’s so much data, but that isn’t always a good plan…

          • I see your points but again I think it is the difference between a business and an individual. My images are solely my property and there is nothing private or particularly confidential in there. If there was then I’d be much more inclined to rely on my own backups instead but there is always the question of how to regularly off-site the data in case of disaster (house-fire, burglary, etc).

  29. It would appear to me that your relatives hired a pretty darn good photographer to make this original photograph!

    • I think you had to be pretty good back in the day, but that said, the image quality is a bit dire. Very obvious focus misses and developing errors like watermarks, bubbles etc.

  30. 1)all raws/rendered tiffs/jpegs saved on primary drive and in secondary drive via time machine AND cloud/Dropbox back up
    2)print all favorite images as 4×6 or 8×12 as you go
    3)does it even matter in the virtual torrential downpour of digital images created every day??
    Maybe not…but what the heck 😉

    Just one guy’s take on it….

    • I think the only real way to save the images is for them to be seen and remembered – so we must therefore make images that are worth remembering, too…

  31. Reblogged this on Helen Bobis and commented:
    Love the insight of how we treat our heritage.

  32. I hope you realize that there is a strong resemblance between you and your grandfather.


    Jack Siegel


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