Where Will Your Digital Images Be 10 Years From Now?

In our parents and grandparents era, if someone wanted to save their photographic prints, they had few options.

Either frame them, put them in an album, or stack them in shoeboxes. Or a combination of these.

Once you’d made your decision on storage, there was little ongoing maintenance for those existing photos.

With digital images the choices are somewhat wider.

You can still make physical prints, then use one of the options above to store those.

But digitally, the task is more complex, and many would say more disaster prone.

Whether you use film or digital, if at some point those images end up on a computer, the options are the same.

Some have a physical hard drive or two as a back up. Others use online or cloud storage. Some rely on a combination of these. Others still use smaller physical media like SD cards or USB drives.

Again these options are often mixed and matched, depending on the photographer’s preferences.

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The trouble with digital though is it doesn’t end there – it’s not liking putting photos in an album, filing it in your bookcase and that’s it. 

It’s quite possible that one of the sites your store your images with online evolve or disappear completely, so you can’t rely on them anymore.

And whilst unlikely, it could be that your files are hacked or corrupted or deleted accidentally.

Hardware fails eventually, even if it lasts a decade. More often it becomes obsolete, so the memory cards and cables and ports compatible with your computer and hard drives from 10 years ago are different to ones being sold today.

In my explorations of old digital cameras recently, I’ve found that whilst SD cards are pretty much the dominant format for memory cards today, 15 years ago we also had xD (eXtreme Digital), CF (Compact Flash) and Smart Media, not to mention four or five variations by Sony of their own Memory Stick. This is not the complete list either.

To continue to use any of these cards as storage (or to use them in older cameras and be able to transfer and save the images) we need to ensure we have compatible readers and cables – or transfer everything to something current.

Then there are digital file formats.

I used to shoot in RAW with a DSLR and export to JPEG in LightRoom. These days I just shoot in JPEG, it’s perfectly fine for my needs, and it means everything I save is in a uniform format.

But who knows how the JPEG file format will evolve?

At some point as technology advances, the file formats will too. How many people who had a vast collection of music on cassette tape and movies on VHS in the 80s still use those formats now?

As is often the case, the modern digital world can be daunting.

Personally I think I’ve got a fairly simple and robust system, but it’s certainly not immune to many of the pitfalls I’ve mentioned, and it needs ongoing attention and maintenance to preserve my images.

So how about you? How do you store your digital photos? How do you see this changing five, 10, 20 years from now?

Please let us know in the comments below, we’d love to hear your take (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

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20 thoughts on “Where Will Your Digital Images Be 10 Years From Now?”

  1. Dan, I store my digital photos on my lap top and two external drives. I live with the knowledge that they could all just disappear in a flash. Friends have lost lots of their photos in various ways from computers and storage devices. As you know I still like physical photos

    1. I think with files on your laptop and two physical drives you’re taking more precautions than most Susan.

      How do you store physical photos, and what proportion of photos that you make end up with a physical print too?

      1. Dan, now I just have a large box of printed photos and the rest are in numerous artist journals. I used to develop a huge number of my photos to use in my art but at the moment I’m not doing that as working in other mediums. I would have made say half a dozen photos in 12 months as a record of family

      2. As per other discussions in this thread Susan, I think those who are more selective in their shots of family are perhaps more likely to preserve them for the next generation, rather than be overwhelmed by thousands of shots and not look at any of them.

  2. With digital, “core”, important (to me, anyhow) photo files are archived as TIFFs (never JPEGs) on two external hard drives.

    With film, prints and bigger enlargements are stored in black binders of photo sleeves with the associated negatives and slides.
    .
    There are a dozen or so acid-free albums of drugstore prints of shots from the 1940s through the late 90s, tacked in with gummed “photo corners”, a charming, sort of old-fashioned thing.

    A few very big enlargements are matted and framed, and nowadays, casual snapshots and, er, “serious” photos are often printed as 4×6 postcards and mailed to family and friends. That’s great fun.

    What do we know or really understand of the people in our personal clans of just two, three generations ago? A recent project to digitize and clean-up an acquaintance’s family tintypes and old prints from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth century raised spectres of mystery and poignant wonder. It became clear that leaving those images and traces for one’s descendants, odd as the thought may strike us in the cold ho-hum of everyday, is important to feel who we are, where we came from, and how great or short the distance was. We can only try to keep pace with change in media, and not chose technical blind alleys.

    1. Thanks William.

      Why do you store as TIFFs? And how do you get TIFFs from a digital compact like the recent Canons you bought – I think they only make JPEGs, do you convert via software afterwards?

      I really like the idea of making prints to send to family as postcards, I think I’ll borrow this idea. I know for many people receiving a few pictures via email isn’t the same as holding the physical prints of the same photos in your hands and being able to browse through them physically.

      What concerns me about future generations is the volume of images being made. I don’t take a huge amount of family shots by any means, and edit quite harshly to los any that are too blurred, out of focus, virtual duplicates etc. But we still have 1000s of photos of our 10 year old. By the time she’s 20 there’ll be double, in theory, and that’s just one child. How would she, say when she has children herself, go through 10,000 photos with her children and make any of them meaningful?

      What I guess I’m trying to say is how do we edit years’ worth of photographs down to a core, meaningful few that people can manage to appreciate without being totally overwhelmed?

      I think physical prints are a great equaliser in many ways. Accessible to all, easy to store, can last generations, technology proof…

      1. Oh, I was among the first adapters of the TIFF-saving habit, having been infected with the early-days hysteria that simply opening-and-closing a JPEG would cause data loss.

        Though editing software soon improved and that was debunked, I kept the practice because I prefer the larger files to work with & my thoughts about a picture will often change over time. I may put in a minor tweak or “fix” long after a shot was made – maybe a catchlight needs to be added to someone’s eye at the pixel level –
        and often preserve different versions.

        Again, with some editors (at least formerly), opening, editing, and “saving-as” *may* cause slight data loss (nowadays I use an old version of PSE, Rawtherapee, and GIMP, & sometimes will give the odd standalone package a whirl; e.g., somebody’s new noise/moire’-reduction process).

        After any photo occasion, I do a ruthless first pass in a simple viewer to discard the rejects, load the shots into PSE and save-as TIFFs. They’re big, but I’m paranoid and storage is cheap; I don’t post photos on the Web, but will re-convert to a JPEG when I need to insert a photo into a letter or document.

        Post cards are great fun – people like them, unique as they are in an age of screen-only viewing. A few years ago, I stumbled across a sale on fat packages of 4×6″ glossy-finish photo paper and bought a few. For a long time, I would paste the print to a card stock backer, but have found that the plain print would go through the mail just fine, so I write a brief message & address on the back, fix a stamp, and off they go.

        I think we’ll see an inevitable mass archive-erosion phenomenon of a family-photographer’s work after the first “capture” generation – one’s kids and grandkids, subjects of it that they are, will preserve lots but lose lots, and the winnowing thereafter through indifference and lack of care will be extreme – until/unless one curious person takes a notion toward family genealogy and begins a search for antique prints, the SD cards of broken phones or dusty hard drives and scratched CDs. My wife and I were once scouts and dealers, in a modest way, of small so-called vintage and antique items, and combed over the household detritus of many an estate sale. We never failed to be struck by the sheer sadness of personal possessions, documents, photographs, and little objects bereft of the family emotional context.

      2. Rats! An unanswered point addendum re: the JPEG-only camera thing, why, that’s the attraction of CHDK quasi-firmware; load it onto the SD, and bang, your Canon P&S can output RAW files. If only I wasn’t so indolent, lazy – and each model of Canon P&S machine didn’t require, as may be, it’s own separate version of CHDK…

        Early days, there were some modest little cameras could do JPEG in two or three grades, TIFFs, and RAW; my own slow-as-molasses and wretched Nikon 5400.

        Dan, stocks of 4×6 photo paper seem to be evaporating, locally, anyways. It may be well to seek out and snag a bunch soons you’re able.

      3. Thanks William as always for your in depth thoughts.

        With file types I’ve never been able to really gather enough enthusiasm to care too much! As long as JPEGs give me good enough files to look at, and make prints from, that’s the end of it for me.

        I’ll have to try sending prints as postcards through the post. Or just put a small selection together in a padded envelop with a stiff back. I don’t have a printer so buying photo paper is no use to me, I’ll use an online service as I usually do.

        I love the idea of discovering old (digital) images on old memory cards and CDs, and even within camera memories. On this subject I just got a new (old, of course!) Canon digital and on the memory card there are a bunch of images of deep snow, carpet tiles and bare mattresses! I plan to write a post on this. With digital of course everything is catalogues, the camera’s settings, but more interestingly in this case the date. The camera is from I think about 2010 and the images are all 2010 and 2011. So I reckon after that they upgraded and never touched the camera again until a couple of weeks ago when they listed it on eBay…

        I think I could probably enjoy what you did in your dealer days… Those keepsakes and photographs can be so poignant, but like you say, just seen in isolation can also seem meaningless and anonymous…

        Lots to ponder, thank you…

  3. That is very interesting question you highlighted mate…

    This is the first generation that is snowed under by the amount of images made of them. My dad made many images of my sister and I growing up. Aunts, uncles and family friends have some as well. I guestimate around 250-500 images have been made of my life up the end of my teenage years (when I moved out on my own)

    I’ve never really had to think of myself in terms of all that ‘feedback’. I think I’ve had a fairly normal upbringing and am pretty well adjusted regarding my self-image (and by extension, others) It must be tough on the generation (for want of a better term) Z… but it is something that they have to deal with. But interesting thinking about how all those images would have affected me, if at all.

    oh, sorry, back to topic! Odd thing about digital images I’ve created. I have no ‘connection’ to them and am pretty ambivalent. I take many, and have some stored on thumb drives, CD/DVD disks, and a few external drives. BUT I have also lost some pretty important images which has probably influenced my attitude towards digital images. I attach much more importance to my physical negatives. I will ‘always’ have them ready to print, anywhere and anytime I’m able to access a darkroom.

    My suggestion to you mate is make some physical photographs of your family while you are still able to access those files because one day they will not be able to be accessed. There is NOTHING like holding an old photograph in your hands. I hope this Gen Z have that privilege to do that as well…

    1. Yeh, as I’ve said in reply to others what’s coming out of this conversation for me is a desire to make more of those physical prints of family, to share and to keep for ourselves.

      Even if they’re not on display, a shoebox of a few dozen photographs feels much more precious than any number of GigaBytes in the ether.

      I recall a few specific photos from my childhood and can picture them very vividly, mostly because they were prints I saw (and still occasionally see) many times over so became embedded in my memories as part of my/our personal history.

      Think I’ll be putting in an order to Photobox in the next few days for a big batch of prints!

      I have no idea how the current generation at primary school will be able to mentally process the vast volumes of images they will make – and that have already been made of them – some 10, 20, 30 years down the line…

      I anticipate a backlash at some point where some revert to devices like Fuji Instax cameras to try to create a smaller yet more precious collection of personal photos.

  4. My mom has been going through the boxes of family photos, throwing away junk. She worries that nobody will care about the photos after she’s gone.

    She’s probably right. I’ll care about some of them, but my kids will likely not care at all about them.

    Much the same for the photos on my hard drive (and my backup hard drive). I assume I’m taking photographs largely for me — even the ones of the family.

    I’ve custom-published two books of photographs that involve my sons and me and gave them to the boys as gifts, as a record of their time growing up. They really loved getting the books.

    1. That’s a great idea with the books Jim, do you plan to do that again?

      I’ve found as I’ve got older – especially in the last three or four years perhaps – I’ve been more interested in my own family’s past heritage. I think one day I’ll explore one of those genealogy sites or services…

      So whilst you think your kids might not care about photos now, they might in 20 or 30 years time, and would regret it if there weren’t any still in existence.

  5. I am under no illusions that anyone but me will ever look at my digital images, except for the very few I post online, and even those only in a cursory manner. That’s why I concentrate on making prints and getting them into the hands of as many friends and relatives as possible.

    1. I like this way of sharing these pictures and spreading the responsibility of preserving them. It increases the likelihood that some will be kept, if not all of them.

      There’s a TV programme over here called Who Do You Think You Are? where celebrities trace their family tree and background. Quite often they’ll visit a parent, say, then an aunty, then a cousin, and all will have a slightly different set of picture of previous generations, so then together they can piece together a broader and deeper pictorial history than any of them could alone.

      1. Dan, we have “Who do you think you are” here as well. I have been giving away photos I have to family as I think all of mine will be trashed as I have no children who would be interested. I still keep some for myself to appreciate

  6. Nice post! I collect vintage snapshots of strangers that I find in antique stores and at garage sales. It always makes me sad knowing that 100 years from now there won’t be boxes and albums of pictures to be discovered because so many people don’t bother to print the images they have accumulating on their phones and computers.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts Brandi. Yes I wonder what a garage sale will look like in even 10 or 20 years time, let alone 100.

      Perhaps though there will be a digital equivalent and we’ll be finding old digital cameras with memory cards full of people’s snaps…

      1. Treasure hunting is one of my favorite pastimes but it’s getting really hard to find a garage sale in my area. It’s shocking how much people just throw away rather than be bothered to donate or sell.

        But yes, perhaps we will be buying memory cards and floppy discs in the future!

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