Aug 4, 2021

Your Photos May Disappear

Many genealogists scan old photographs, touch them up in a photo editing program, and then print the photos on high quality ink-jet printers. Many of us also take new photographs with our digital cameras and often print some of them on paper. There is but one problem: those printed pictures may disappear within a few years.

To be sure, this isn’t a problem just with digital photographs. If your family used Polaroid cameras or the Anscochrome or early versions of Kodak’s Ektachrome slide films for their photographs in the 1960s, you probably already know that conventional color photography has not always been a model of image longevity. Anscochrome and early Ektachrome color pictures have already faded significantly. Polaroid color photos are even worse. The reds probably are already gone, and the other colors have also faded significantly. Later color photos were better, however. Color photos and slides taken in the 1980s and 1990s probably will last longer. Of course, conventional black-and-white prints, which are made up of tiny grains of silver, remain the undisputed longevity champions. They probably will last for 100 years or more. 

The question arises: how to preserve the photographs of your family so they will be available to family members 100 years from now?

Many people print pictures on ink-jet printers. Sometimes they use “generic” printers deigned for office use. Others will use ink-jet printers that are designed to print on photo paper. Photo inkjet paper is generally coated to prevent the printer ink from soaking into its base, which would create a blurry and discolored photo; but, that coating usually leaves the ink sprayed by the printer directly on top of the print, where it is vulnerable to light, humidity, pollution, and scratches. The images on photo paper will look great when printed and probably will last longer than those printed on typical printer paper but still will not last for many years before they fade.

For several years dye-based printing was believed to be the best method of high-speed printing of color photographs with the expectation the printed photos would last for decades. After all, dye-based inks are generally much stronger than pigment-based inks and can produce much more color of a given density per unit of mass. Such inks are not affected by water, alcohol, and other solvents. However, they still fade, especially if exposed to light for a long period of time.

In testing, pictures printed on Epson’s Stylus Photo 870 and 1270 dye-based printers were expected to last ten years. When these products went to market, users found that the colors in prints were changing drastically in as little as two months. The Hewlett-Packard Photosmart 475, a dye printer that produces snapshot-size photos, will produce photographs that last longer. Hewlett-Packard estimates the printed photos will last up to 82 years.  However, if unframed and exposed to fluorescent light, that estimate drops to 42 years. 

Of course, we may have to wait 82 years to see if the Hewlett-Packard claim is true. Keep in mind the estimate is only true if the picture is kept inside a dark box, stored under ideal temperature and humidity controls, where no one can see it. If you prefer to display the picture in frame and hang it on the wall in your home, the expected lifetime drops quickly. 

The predictions are based upon torture tests using bright light, high heat, and varying humidity to estimate how the prints will fare over time. These tests do not produce precise results but do give an idea of what will happen eventually. All of the predictions are also based on the use of ideal photo-quality paper. However, the higher quality paper is usually the type that requires a longer time for the inks or dyes to dry on the surface. Shuffling the paper before the ink is dry creates smudges. 

Due to customer demand, most paper manufacturers have switched to quick-drying photo paper. The result is pictures that don’t smudge when first created but also don’t last as many years. If framed and placed on the wall (exposed to normal in-home lighting), photos printed on quick-drying paper will start to fade within a few years.

Regardless of the predictions, all engineers and scientists involved in color printing will tell you that no ink-jet printer will ever create “permanent” pictures.

A newer technology involves color laser printing. While there is hope that these printers may someday produce output that lasts for centuries, that hope has not yet been realized. Color laser printing is still in its infancy, and early tests have shown the output from today’s color laser printers don’t last as long as dye-based ink-jet printers. Today’s color laser printers also are not very good at producing photographic-quality images.

Henry Wilhelm, an American researcher on photographic preservation with offices in Grinnell, Iowa, is an expert on the preservation of printed images. His web site at contains a wealth of information on the subject. In fact, I’d describe the amount of information available there as “overwhelming.” Take a look at to see what I mean. Henry Wilhelm has written numerous reports and white papers about many topics that discuss the longevity of printed images. Most of those reports may be downloaded from his web site free of charge as PDF files.

One report that I downloaded is “Long-Term Preservation of Photographic Originals and Digital Image Files in the Corbis/Sygma Collection in France.” It is available at along with many other reports.

So how is the private individual supposed to make sure his or her photographs are available to future generations of the family? I have a suggestion: don’t worry about it! 

Instead, make sure you preserve the digital files of those pictures, and then create new printed pictures whenever you wish. Print on any printer that is available at the time, and don’t worry about preservation. When the picture you print starts to fade, throw it away, retrieve the file and print a new picture. In other words, all photographs should be considered to be disposable and also easy to re-print at any future date. 

Of course, this brings up a second issue: preservation of digital files. Luckily, that is an easier problem to solve.

The one thing about preserving digital files is that you cannot create them one time and then put them away someplace for long-term storage, expecting them to be readable 25 or 50 or 100 years from now. You will encounter all sorts of issues with the selection of file format (will anyone be using .JPG files 100 years from now?) and with the media of choice. We can expect that today’s hard drives, flash drives, and CD-ROM disks will all be obsolete within a decade or so.

Data processing professionals will tell you that they still maintain data entered 40 or even 50 years ago by simply making multiple copies, storing them on different media, and then (most important of all) “refreshing” that information every few years by copying it to modern file formats on modern media available at that time. You can do the same.

Whenever a new file format becomes popular or a new storage media (disks, floppies, CDs, flash drives, or future media) replaces older media, those forms of media tend to be available simultaneously for five or ten years. During that “window,” copying from old media and formats to modern media is easy. Problems arise only when the owners (caretakers) of those files ignore the technology changes and let ten or more years pass without making copies to updated media and formats.

Yes, if the entire world stops using .JPG files tomorrow and replaces them with something new (I’ll call the new format “.XYZ files”), you will have about a ten-year window in which you can use a conversion program to copy your digital images from .JPG files on old media to .XYZ files on whatever new media is popular at that time. Roughly ten years later, you or someone else will have to do the same thing again: copy the .XYZ files to the newest technology available at that time.

In addition, you should never save a single copy of anything that is valuable. Instead, save multiple copies in multiple formats, and place them in different locations. Just for insurance, I would suggest saving files in .JPG, .TIFF, .PNG, and other formats. Place copies on your computer’s hard drive as well as on an external hard drive, on your cousins’ computers, in the cloud, on flash drives, and on any other storage media available. If you make enough copies and store them in enough places, at least one of those copies should survive for a decade or more.

Perhaps the biggest problem of all is the same as it always has been: people. Sure, you will make copies every decade or so for as long as you are around and are able to do so. However, what happens after you are gone? This may be the most difficult issue of all: finding caretakers for your files and images. 

Ideally, you should find more than one or two caretakers. They will be the ones to keep your work “alive.” Perhaps the simplest plan is to saturate your family with copies. Give copies to every cousin, niece, nephew, or descendant who owns a computer. To be sure, some of these people won’t care and will eventually throw their copies away. However, if you have entrusted enough people with copies, SOME of the recipients will care and will keep them and preserve them. If instructed in advance, they will even periodically copy your files to new file formats and save them on new media that is popular at that time.

Twenty or thirty years ago, you would have to find computer experts to perform this preservation since the computers of those times required expertise. Today, this isn’t much of a problem as computers are becoming easier and easier to use. In the not-too-distant future, expertise will be even less of an issue as everyone will use the super simple computers of that time. Most futurists will tell you that families will not own a single computer ten years from now. Instead, they will have multiple computers, each tasked with a single function. Amazon’s Echo (also known as “Alexa”) and Google Home are two excellent examples of a family having multiple special-purpose computers. 

Storing of old family photographs, home movies and videos, or audio recordings of all sorts will be trivial in the future, even for non-technical family members. 

These future family members also will be able to make printouts of family photographs and place them on the wall at any time although I suspect the “printouts” won’t be printed on paper. Have you seen the digital photo frames we already have available today? That technology undoubtedly will expand.

The time to preserve your family photographs is now! Yes, print them on paper–all sorts of paper–and store them in all sorts of places. Also keep the digital files containing those images, and make lots of copies of those files. Give those files to anyone who cares, and make sure additional copies are stored in every place you can think of. 

If you take steps today, you can make sure that family information of past generations is still available to future generations for many more years.