Where will all the photos go?

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Every day, billions upon billions of new images are made; one recent statistic put forth that there were more images made in the last year or two than the entirety of human history before that. It shows, too – in the early days of photography the bar for both content and technical quality was pretty low, given that it was amazing that there was an image at all; these days, there are so many repeats of ‘iconic’ images that they have become cliched and passé. Even though the rise of social media and broadband has enabled content to be consumed at a faster than ever rate, the math only goes one way: the rate of content being generated is increasing faster than the population, and the number of hours per day remains fixed – it is therefore easy to see that either less time is spent viewing a single image, or eventually people will get nothing done except scrolling instagram*. We already know the effect this has had on both the hardware market (positive, then saturated, then people get bored faster) and the professional market (terrible) – so the question I’d like to discuss today is a more fundamental one: what will happen to all of these images in the long term?

*Arguably, this is already happening.

From day one, photography has been the only way to create a permanent record of transient moments: we freeze that passage of time in a way that can be examined at leisure with the focus of attention shifted deliberately to different parts of the image. This is important, because for an event happening directly in front of you, it’s only physically possible to concentrate properly on one small portion at any given time. It means every observer will have a different read on what actually happened depending on their own personal biases and what caught their eye at the time. But – with a photograph, you’re free to notice details that you might otherwise have missed. This is not the case with video, funnily enough: whilst it’s possible to replay and watch different portions of the image, it’s very difficult for us to ignore motion in certain areas only – especially when that motion is of the kind that’s very obvious (color, contrast etc. – the usual rules of subject isolation).

Ironically, the diminished time per image view means that the permanent record has now become very nearly as transient as the event itself: just look at how long an image remains ‘current’ on the average person’s instagram feed. It probably drops off reasonable scrolling distance after no more than an hour or two, and you’re unlikely to be checking the feed multiple times in that duration – the upshot is you see the image once, maybe twice if syndicated to other feeds also. The lifetime of the average digital image, is a few seconds – at best. And that includes capture – the vast majority of which are reflex throwaways from a smartphone.

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We of course had the same thing years ago, with 35mm compacts and 1-hour lab processing 6×4” prints – but something about the perceived cost investment and ‘limitedness’ of 36 frames meant those images were looked at more. Even now, probably partially due to the age of the last film images – I know those prints are looked at far more often than our digital archive, despite being in another country and far less accessible. Even somebody very digital-savvy and organized and in the business like myself doesn’t view most images more than a few times; the really strong ones I might revisit a couple of times a year for various reasons, but that’s about it. And that’s for an image created with much care and deliberation by a person who is going about making images as a passion.

It is therefore clear that the vast majority of moments will remain forgotten; there is almost no point in photographing them because even in the minds of the captor they don’t linger. Would fewer images help? Not anymore, because the social media model of consuming content is so ingrained at this point there’s no undoing it. We wouldn’t revisit old images because they’re boring, not new, not satisfying our instant gratification craving. Don’t get me wrong – I’m just as guilty of throwaway images and experiments as the next guy – but I like to think that some of these at least contribute to the process of developing seeing so that the next ‘serious’ image might be stronger. They are the visual equivalent of scales and exercises that I might not show anybody directly, but indirectly manifest when you are working ‘for real’ – and may well make the difference between the right compositional reflexes and the wrong ones.

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But even then – what happens to them? In general, they stay on the capture device or disappear into the cloud, to be lost unless you’re a celebrity and your throwaway moment was one of personal indiscretion. Most of the time all of the digital baggage gets automatically migrated to new devices, but there’s also a lot that’s lost forever though a lack of backups, hardware failures, forgetfulness, or simple disorganization. Some images are only remembered by their creators when they are lost; usually for events of significance where the event is remembered first before the image itself (“little Timmy’s first steps”) – usually followed by the lament of “ah, there was a photo/video but I can’t find it” which has since replaced the “if only we had a photo of _”.

The vast majority of images simply aren’t going to be missed, much less remembered, simply because the subject matter is not memorable to begin with – and that threshold of ‘what makes memorable’ is only going to continue to rise as a function of simple statistics as more images are made. Exceptional images are going to enjoy disproportionate viewership anyway as they get circulated through the bowels of social media; what won’t enjoy the same exposure is inevitably the creator, whose name gets separated from the content fairly early on. The reality is there is almost no way to trace ownership and origination, much less prove it; in the majority of cases it is he who shouts the loudest has the strongest claim to attribution**.

**I strongly believe that it the best method of copyright enforcement at the moment is to be both publicly visible and publicly associated; if the image is almost always seen with your byline or watermark, it’s going to be difficult to pass it off as somebody else’s work.

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Though most of the digital access issue can be remedied by physical copies – i.e. prints – there are a whole host of issues with physical media that aren’t present with digital. Firstly, physical copies are subject to entropy and degradation in a way that properly maintained digital archives are not; secondly, you can physically lose them and there’s no easy way to comb a stack of papers for a print of an image that was produced on a certain date. If you can’t find something, you can’t view it. The two main things prints do is a) subconsciously force you to invest time into viewing something you’ve invested time and effort into curating and producing, and b) through that viewing time, reinforce your memory of the image. Beyond that – negatives, prints, books – need just as much if not more care than digital.

The argument that file formats may become unreadable is a non-starter, too. Firstly, the most common image format – the jpeg – is highly unlikely to lose support anytime soon by the simple fact of proliferation. There are too many images in jpeg for any new platform or software not to support it. On top of that, one of the key success factors for any software adoption – especially in the current age of mature ecosystems – is legacy support. It’s very, very difficult to convince somebody to switch workflows or platforms when you have to completely start over. And if you’re really paranoid, you can always use tools like Adobe’s DNG converter to turn your proprietary files into an open format. I’ve personally always found this to be a bit pointless though as you can’t save full edits to the original camera raw format anyway; even basic edits aren’t viewable without dedicated software – so I’ve always needed a ‘finished’ version as a tiff or jpeg anyway.

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I actually don’t think we need to worry too much about what will happen to significant (read: unusual, important, interesting) images within the lifetime of the original creator. There’s enough secondary life beyond the creator that they will be remembered. What is less certain is what will be left behind after the current generation passes – we are the first generation who will leave behind significant chunks of digital baggage; hard drives whose contents only we know; social media and cloud archives whose logins only we remember; file systems whose structures only we we can navigate. The contents of those may well be lost forever simply through the sheer volume of content that has to be processed to find something of historical significance after the fact, though eventually AI and deep learning algorithms might make this task simpler (to say nothing of privacy and collections that are physically offline).

Maybe this isn’t a bad thing; the last thing the world needs is another shallow depth of field cat photo. As always – we should be raising the bar personally. What we need to do is decide which, if any, images we want to be remembered for – and make sure those are seen, and seen often enough. If it sounds like I’m advocating tighter curation yet again, you’d be right. There’s a reason why so many of the great photographers keep saying that they’d be happy if they create a dozen exceptional, truly unrepeatable photographs over their entire careers – because it’s true. MT


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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved


  1. Excellent article as usual.
    As a working pro I look at the proliferation of images slightly differently.
    For my commercial work I want to make images that are distinctive and memorable but the sad truth is that it is a transient victory at best with the image warehoused when the next ad comes along.
    For my personal work I see so much superb work I often feel that I have nothing to add. Someone already said it and probably better.
    The happy side is that truly enjoy the commercial work as a creative problem solving exercise. The bonus is getting well paid.

    • I feel you – to do a really good job with commercial work, one has to treat it as a personal creative project, but few jobs offer the opportunity to do this. Learning to have an appropriate mental separation is important For one’s own creative health, I think…

  2. Matt Waller says:

    An intelligent article matched by intelligent responses as I read the comments so far. I’m a little surprised no one picked up on your line about our digital generation leaving behind troves of wholly inaccessible records — haunting. I think of the suitcase I found when my Dad passed away, filled with all his childhood photos. What will we leave? Makes me want to add all my logins to my will.

    • Thanks. I’m thinking the same thing – there should probably be a file of logins somewhere, along with a digital asset list (especially for creative types like me, whose inheritance is largely going to be IP rather than financial)…

  3. bill walter says:

    I found this article very interesting. I’ve asked many fellow photographers over the years what percentage of photos they actually keep. Some have responded saying 50% or more, which I find incredible. (This would not include photographs a professional photographer is obliged to keep for clients). Personally, I have a collection of less that 1000 photos I’ve considered keepers since I started shooting digital about 12 years ago. Either I’m not a very good photographer or I’m just particular on what I keep. Either way, It works for me.

    • Of late, I’ve started to define ‘keeper’s as something I’d put into a portfolio that I’d be happy to show to others as representative of my work in those kinds of scenarios – that being the case, and excluding the variants we are obliged to keep for clients, the number is perhaps 15,000 or so. This is about 1% of the total I’ve shot.

  4. I have been a fairly serious photographer for about 45 years. My photo library, (total files in my computer, including scans of slides and negatives), is around 3,800. I have several friends who have been taking pictures for about 15 years, and have libraries of way over 100,000. How much we shoot, how much we keep, how much we look at, or consume, is our own choice. I don’t blame social media.
    There are probably 1,000,000 bottles of wine produced every day. I don’t try to drink them all.

  5. Terence Morrissey says:

    I was recently thinking about what do with all my photographs, decided to print all the important ones as a 6×9 image on 8×10 paper using Epson Premium Luster Photo Paper then put them in archival polyester envelopes and Century Portfolio boxes. According to Wilhelm Imaging Research ( http://www.wilhelm-research.com ) they should be good for >300 years under Album/Dark Storage. No reason not to print except for obviously the high cost, you can still keep the digital files somewhere.

    • I did that, and it got to the point where even printing the month’s portfolio grade images was starting to cost significant amounts of money – I had to stop. Moreso because you tend to do at least one round of proofing before the final print, 13×19″ is better etc…

  6. Great write-up! It really gets you thinking about things — about what we really need day-to-day, and what is important to preserve for the future.

    And it’s not just digital. There are relatives here with boxes upon boxes of slides, negatives, and prints. They sit tucked away, all but forgotten about in musty garages and storage spaces. I’ve seen some and tried to preserve others, but in the end it’s an overwhelming project with thousands of images.

    The lucky ones are in organized scrapbooks, albums, or frames. But most will be like a time capsule, waiting to be discovered by a younger generation in the family, unless the elements get to them first (or they are lost during a move or clean-out).

    *Heading off to backup my backup drive and stare at virtual folders for a while…* 🙂

    • I actually find that I get quite a lot of curation done in the course of putting together material for the site; inevitably you’re looking for an image to illustrate a point, and one of a certain quality level or style. Most of the time you remember the most recent year or so worth of work in detail, and less so as you go further back in history. Occasionally there are forgotten gems, but I admit there’s also a lot of rubbish where one ‘knows better now’…

  7. it reaches a point where the time needed to review and cull is too much of an investment, so you have to limit things at the start by culling in your mind before you release the shutter

  8. I worry about all those captured photons. I mean, sooner or later we’re going to run out. Right?

  9. Spot on, but then the ability to work harder on an image, do more angles, exposures, really helps in getting the shot – especially if it is a shot of people. Even in the old days, the National Geographic photographers brought suitcases of full film rolls to their assigments. So they spent 2 months in a country and out of their many thousand exposuresm 12 really excellent ones made it into the publication. So, digital is a blessing. However, you have to work extra hard not to deliver more than the really good ones to your client (or your family’s photo album). If and when one of our daughters will marry I would be delighted to have people like the Ascoughs to deliver 60-80 great images of the wedding and not some hack delivering 1.200 images.

    • It does, and not having to carry suitcases of film helps, too (not that one would be allowed to do so today anyway!). But this requires the discipline of curation that’s almost never learned or enforced because there is simply no incentive to do so nowadays. Even if your chosen photographer delivers 60-80 images – I bet they’ll have shot the 1200 to get there in the first place. I know I do, even if those are never seen. On a typical documentary assignment I might show/deliver 100-150 images per day, but shoot a couple of thousand.

  10. Great article and as always in depth. Thanks.

  11. Print, print, print!! Then frame it and give to your friends. I printed few thousand pics mostly for friends as gifts.

    • Personally, I’m not sure they’d see such a gesture as anything but presumptuous on the part of the photographer…I know for a fact not everybody likes my work, much less wants to hang it.

  12. Your minimalist decor is very calming. Amazingly tranquil considering you have a young child running around somewhere 🙂

    120 Film: 12 Exposures, 6 are Awesome
    35mm Film: 36 Exposures, 6 are Awesome
    SD Card: 2,000+ Exposures, 6 are Awesome

  14. From the “Kodachrome” movie of a couple of years ago, loved the comment that the photographer (played by Ed Harris) where he referred to today’s photography as “digital dust” which is a pretty fitting statement… And just as mentioned in an earlier comment, there is indeed now simply “too much of everything” – 500 hours of video content are uploaded to YouTube every minute, how in the heck is that remotely sustainable for any meaningful consumption…

    • I think I have an answer to this: if you are a content consumer, you require increasingly more of everything to get the same level of attention-holding stimulation. Attention spans become shorter and shorter. When TV had three channels, there was always something worth watching; now we have Netflix we spend longer trying to decide what to watch than actually watching it – even if the quality of the actual content is much higher than it’s ever been in the past. Being on the other side of the content creation divide, I see it perhaps a bit more acutely than most: the number of demands to do/review XYZ is frankly ridiculous – not to mention physically impossible.

  15. Excellent read, and indeed, “the last thing the world needs is another shallow depth of field cat photo”.
    I think physical pictures is one of our way to slow down’s a photographers’, and may be others, mind. To extend the lifespan of her best pictures, my wife decided to print, her year’s best pictures in a small book. It’s really fun to look at them from time to time, I also think that your picture “wall” is a great idea that I’ll implement home.
    Unlike print “clouds” are free which makes each picture worthless but feed the beast of ‘instantaneous gratification”.

    Your article made me think about the opposite of fast. Do you know Raymond Depardon? (I suspect you do). When watching one of his movies “Journal de France” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dXpUSb3qIQo) I was fascinated by his very slow paced method and his large format camera. It was a joy to watch him take his time and have such a high success rate. His movies are also very slow, filled with silences/wind sounds. I share similar childhood memory which make me relate to him but I think that my pointless nostalgia makes my vision irrelevant. I enjoyed your article because you do have not this nostalgia.

    Keep writing, you contribute to improve the photography world.

    • I’ve also yet to see a good shallow depth of field cat photo, which leads me to think such a thing doesn’t exit (perhaps, subject bias on my part) or the people who are capable of producing one have better things to do.

      Working slow is certainly enforced by hardware that imposes restrictions on the way you work, but should not be necessarily exclusive to it – one’s approach is a mindset. It probably helps if every frame has a tangible cost (money, time, opportunity) associated with it. You can work slow with a phone; it’s a discipline thing. But you’ll get no argument from me that it’s much harder to do when the process is too easy…

  16. Back in the film days there was a significant learning curve to learning to use the camera and learning to use a darkroom. That made cameras, images and prints much scarcer than today and I think this gave them at least a little bit of value and ‘specialness’. I still have some of those tiny stapled together books of black and white prints of family members from the 50s and a studio print of my parents black and white wedding picture and I look at them regularly. Now of course there is no barrier to learning to take still photos or videos and we are inundated with them. I think the huge increase in supply is what has driven their value down to basically nothing. Plus looking at a phone screen is still not the same as holding an nice B&W print. I think there are many things which used to be scarce and precious and now are overproduced to the point of worthlessness. We are just living in a time of massive over consumption and have way too much of everything. In this regard I really like your photos of the minimalist apartment. I wish I could do that to my house.

    • There’s one thing a screen does much better than any print – dynamic range, because you’re effectively staring at a light bulb. However, there’s a lack of permanence or sense of commitment to an image because it requires no effort to produce – as you rightly pointed out.

      There has always been a tradeoff between scarcity and value: produce too few and nobody even knows how to appreciate it because they’ve never encountered it. Too many and you get a disposable commodity. Ironically, given how critical visuals have become for today’s communications – the value keeps dropping. I thought we’d see some recovery at the high end for complex productions, but this has not proven to be the case at all.

  17. There is too much of everything. Too much disposable income, too many new cameras and lenses, too much manipulation software and too many how to YouTube videos. Trillions of photos are being produced and we have become numb and impervious to them and find it hard to see what is really exceptional.

    I’ve recently started to print photos and give them to the subjects in the photos. There is a real joy in their eyes when they get an actual print.

    My goal for the new year is to limit myself and only have one studio camera and one street camera with a few lenses.

    I have a friend who shoots weddings and she told me recently that she takes over 5000 per wedding and edits them down to around 800 deliverable. I find this insane. In order to keep clients and get new ones there is a race to the bottom. I’m not very hopeful that anything will change now. Social media is a very destructive force and perhaps the harm it does outweighs the good.

    • There’s a race to the bottom because of your first paragraph: everybody wants more. Less isn’t seen as more, it’s just seen as less. It’s easier to demand something qualitatively more than educate oneself that fewer, but better, is in reality in everybody’s favour. Good idea on the prints!

  18. Perhaps photo books of significant groups of photos are the answer. They could be subject based, or perhaps time based as a visual record of the past year for example. Pick your best for inclusion.
    Not that I’ve done this, yet. It’s more fun going out and taking more photos to be lost in the mists of time!

    • I’ve done it and found the longevity of the results to be…well, poor. Individual prints are fine, but one runs out of wall space quickly and print folders don’t get opened that much – or if they do, excessive handling can cause issues, too. I suppose we could use plastic pocket folders, but this is the worst of all worlds. Or is there a really high quality print on demand service I don’t know about yet?

  19. Peter Burmann says:

    Dear Ming,
    Very interesting article… People (as myself) should be much more critical, as we used to be back in the “film roll” days… Every capture counted, because we were left with only 36 images in one roll of 35mm film. And that even with a fixed ISO as well. With such approach this would probably prolong the life of the shutter in any DSLR, and build up a much closer relationship between the user and the camera, understanding the essentials about the actual camera settings and use the camera as a proper documentary tool, instead of just a “tech” gadget to chat about. Quite often have I met people during workshops who often falls into “What lens do have…how many mega pixels is you sensor?” …rather than expose ourselves to others with “forget my camera…look, these are the images I take….can I have a look at yours?” To me it’s much more about what inspires us to actual frame a certain moment or situation….and we should individually scroll through all those images once a year, select the 10 very best and get then printed and framed on the wall.

    • I fully agree with you. The ongoing challenge is not one of seeing, but curation: if the standards are continually increased, there actually comes a point where it’s counterproductive and you don’t shoot enough because the source material does not meet expectations. After this, overall quality of work declines. You start shooting again and it picks up…but there is a natural limit impose by opportunity, I feel.

      On the other hand, all equipment these days is so competent that composition really is independent of hardware (and exposure capabilities etc). Pick your most comfortable poison…

  20. Something I’ve often thought about in relation to my own pics of which I have thousands… thanks for your reflections. Trees

    • Close to a million in my case, to which I only add more…at some point it may well be wroth going through and permanently culling, I think. Cheap storage tends to make us all lazy…

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