Archiving your personal photos: protecting your photos from a digital Dark Age

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I’ve always been worried about a digital Dark Age, but whenever I talked to people about it, they looked at me like I was slightly crazy. But now that Vint Cerf, one of the “Father’s of the Internet” and Google’s VP, has voiced his concerns about future generations having little to no record of the 21st Century, people are taking me seriously. Well, not really. They still look at me like I am crazy. But archiving your personal photos is so important, trust me!

The ironic part is that so many of us are so caught up in taking photos that we drive our kids crazy and miss out on being part of the memory. And then later we do nothing to preserve those photos.

I have very few photos of my parents growing up because it was expensive to take pictures. I don’t even have a baby picture of my mom. The photos that I do have are still around because they were something that people valued and preserved. I am a family history junkie and some of my prized possessions are photos of my ancestors.

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My grandma with her beloved father.

But I am afraid that kids today will have even fewer photos to show their kids. The sheer volume of photos that we take makes them very hard to preserve. Plus, it is so easy to take a photo that we give very little thought to saving them. Instead our photos sit on our phones, our cameras, and our hard drives. And at some point every electronic device fails or becomes obsolete, and when it does, those images are all gone. Even photos that are backed up on disk are doomed. Most CD’s have a shelf life of about 10 years before they start to degrade. I don’t know about you, but I want my photos to last longer than 10 years.

Once my kids were born I became more concerned about preserving their photos. I would love to know what my mom looked like as a baby and I didn’t want my kids’ kids missing out on that either. While working for the Information Systems department at BYU after graduation I learned about this wonderful thing called the Backup Rule of Three. It basically means that for anything to be truly backed up, you need three different copies, in two different formats, with one copy offsite. This way you are protected against everything from your house burning down, to a CD fail, to a company going out of business, to your computer crashing.

Nobody thinks about it happening to them, but it does ALL THE TIME. So I came up with a system based on the Backup Rule of Three that would take very little time and that I could make into a habit. I was looking for something simple. I know that there is a lot more you could do to better archive your images, but I am not a museum. I am not going to store photo prints in a refrigerator or invest heavily in archival-quality materials. I have done a lot of research on this because it is important to me, but at some point it gets to be a little unrealistic.

So in a nutshell, here is my process. Below I will explain things in more depth.

Backing Up Your Personal Photos (Every Week)

  1. Pull together your photos from all your devices every week.
  2. Delete any bad photos or photos that almost look identical. Keep only the very best.
  3. Share copies with grandparents and other loved ones.
  4. Back up your desktop using either an external hard drive or the cloud.

Archiving Your Personal Photos (Every January)

  1. Pick some of your best photos from last year to have processed into prints.
  2. Save the photos and any videos you kept to a flash drive or a gold, archival DVD. Make two copies.
  3. Store one copy at home and another copy at work or a relative’s house.

By doing the above you will have more than:

  • Three different copies (one on your desktop, one on your external hard drive, one in your photo album, and two on your flash drive or DVD)
  • Two different formats (hard drive, DVD or flash drive, and print)
  • One copy offsite (one copy in family’s email and one copy at work or at a relative’s house)

In-Depth: Archiving your personal photos

Don’t get overwhelmed. I go into a lot of detail, but it is actually not that hard to do and it doesn’t take that long to do it. You just have to get your process in place and make it a habit. If you have time to post to Instagram, you totally have time for this.

Backing Up Your Personal Photos (Every Week)


Pull together your photos from the week

Every week on Sunday night I pull together all the photos I have taken that week on my camera, phone, iPod, etc. If hubby has taken any, I get those too. I am religious about this. I don’t ever miss a week. Doing this once a week keeps my phone from getting bogged down and I can rest easy knowing that if I ever lose it, that I haven’t lost my kids’ childhood too. I download them onto my computer where I use iPhoto to organize them, but there are a lot of other good programs out there too. You will want to organize them or you won’t be able to find anything later.

The first thing I do is delete any bad photos or photos that almost look identical. I only want the very best. If you do this once a week, it only takes a few minutes and you don’t get bogged down with it later.

I know how heartbreaking it can feel to delete a photo of your baby, but trust me you will be glad you did. At first I didn’t do this and I now have tens of thousands of photos of the first five years of our lives with kids. I am not sure how that happened, but those photos add up fast. So now I am paying the price and having to mindlessly weed through thousands and thousands of photos. I so wish I had been bolder with the delete button earlier.

Saving too many photos stinks because:

  1. It is very hard to find the good ones when you want to. If you ever want to do a collage for your child’s high school graduation, be prepared to do A LOT of scrolling.
  2. Neither you or your kids want to flip through tens of thousands of photos. We don’t ever look through them because seriously, who has time to scroll through tens of thousands of photos? It is much better to have a well curated collection of photos to look through.
  3. It is very hard to back up tens of thousands of photos. I used to use archival gold DVDs and it would take a ridiculous amount of DVDs and time to just back up one year.
  4. Someday you will die and somebody else will either need to worry about keeping all those photos archived or weeding through them. You wouldn’t want your grandma to do that to you, don’t do it to your grand kids.

Stick them in our family yearbook

Once I have my photos together, I lay them out in our family yearbook. It’s like digital scrap booking, but I do a lot more writing and a lot less fussing over the aesthetics of it. Ours is pretty simple and I don’t add a lot of other graphic “prettiness.” You can skip this part, but I have a terrible memory and will forget everything that ever happened in my life if I don’t write it down. If anything, it is fun to write down the cute things your kids say. But this part isn’t necessary for archiving your photos, it just helps to give your photos context and gives you another back up copy.
(Read more about how I do my yearbook and why I LOVE it)

Share those photos!

Share all those photos with your loved ones, whether it is by emailing the photos or pages from your yearbook, creating a shared photo stream, or posting them in a blog. It has been a fun way for grandparents and great grandparents to get to know our kids better and it means that if something happens, at least I have copies saved in other people’s emails or on an online service. This helps satisfy the offsite back up requirement. I used to just use a private blog to do this, but laying it out directly in a yearbook as saved me the extra step of doing it later.

Backing Things Up

Now that I have everything together, I have my desktop set up to automatically back up to an external hard drive. I actually use two hard drives. They are cheap and eventually every hard drive will fail, so I like having the extra security. I love that it is automatic so I don’t have to think about it. There are also cloud services you can use that also help you meet the offsite back up requirement, but keep in mind that companies go out of business all the time. I wouldn’t ever trust somebody else to be the only person backing up my photos.

If you don’t count the time I spend on the yearbook, this process only takes me about 30-45 minutes a week. And I can rest easy knowing that on any given week, for me to lose everything, Google and other email providers would have to crash, my computer would have to tank, and my external hard drives would have to give up the ghost. If there was a house fire or I had to evacuate, I have copies of my photos in other people’s emails. So I feel pretty comfortable with backing things up, but now it is time to archive things so that I can be sure these photos are around for my grand kids.

Archiving Your Personal Photos (Every January)


Get your photos processed

What?!? Print your photos! Who does that anymore? Me, I do. And I do it because I know that data is corruptible. It is so easy for a file to become corrupted and poof! That photo is gone. Uploading your photos to an online site for processing also gives you another offsite back up. So every January I buy a photo album that has space for 300 photos and I pick my favorite 300 photos from that year to print off. I like keeping it to 300 because it forces me to behave and it means that each photo album represents a year. However, as the kids get older and they don’t change so much from day to day, I may switch it to 150 photos a year. All my photo albums are matching, so they look cute all lined up on my bookshelf. Make sure to get ones that are acid free and that you slide your photo into, instead of sticking it to the page. I also write the date and names of the people in the photo on the back lightly in pencil. I use pencil because it is the least likely to hurt your photo.

It is important to have your photos actually processed and not to just print them off on your desktop printer. Even if you use photo paper, that photo is only going to last a few years before it fades. When processing your photos, do a little homework to see what kind of paper and chemicals they use. For example, Shutterfly uses Fuji Crystal Archive paper.

Because my photos are in an album, they aren’t exposed to a lot of direct sunlight, so that will help them last longer. It is also important not to store photos in the garage or attic where they will be exposed to a lot of heat or humidity. However, it is good to know that color photos fade even in the best of conditions, so keeping the back up digital file is a nice safe guard. One of the most frustrating things is that now days it is ridiculously hard to get a photo to last as long as they did a 100 years ago.

That is why the family history buff in me likes to narrow the photos done even further to identify just a few key photos that I can focus on preserving. It would be impossible to spend that kind of effort on them all, but I can give a handful of photos some extra attention over the years to make sure they last.

Family Yearbook

Another copy of my photos is in my family yearbook. Every January I do the final edit on this and print out a copy using Blurb. If you do a family blog or post images on Facebook, Blurb makes it easy to create a book out of those too. I like to make two copies so that each of my kids has one. Then I store one copy at home and another copy at my parent’s house. You can even make extra as gifts.

While it is hard to pin down exactly how long things will last, Blurb uses Hewlett Packard’s Indigo printing presses and here is what Hewlett Packard has to say:
“The study gives pages printed with HP Indigo presses a Wilhelm Digital Imaging Research (WIR) Display Permanence Rating of approximately 45 years, which is longer than the best-rated silver-halide photo paper, Fuji Crystal Archive. The HP Indigo rating is also more than twice as long as the WIR Display Permanence Rating for prints on Kodak silver-halide photo paper. The study also shows that HP Indigo photo book prints received a WIR Album/Dark Storage Rating of greater than 100 years.”

If you are intimated by doing a yearbook, it is actually not that hard and you can make it as simple as you want to. And to me they are priceless. (Read more about family yearbooks)

Create an archival back up

Doing a back up that lasts more than ten years takes a little more work and money, so I only archive my prized files. So this includes the photos that have made it through the vetting process and a pdf of my yearbook. By keeping it light, I can do it right. (I’m a poet!)

There are two ways you can do this, either using archival DVDs or a flash drive. I started out using archival DVDs, but switched over to the flash drive because it was faster, cheaper, and easier. I also liked that I could add files to it in case I forgot something. Plus it makes it easy to move the files to something new as technology evolves. For example, right now I have a whole stack of floppy drives that I can’t read unless I buy an external floppy drive. We are already seeing computers being built without DVD drives, so I think it is just a matter of time.

If you use DVDs, be sure to use archival ones. The best are supposed to be the MAM-A gold DVDs and they are guaranteed to last at least 100 years and may last up to 300 years. Not too shabby considering that other disks last only 10 years. But they can get expensive, that is why I only use them to back up my favorite photos.

The other option is to use a flash drive. I use the SanDisk Memory Vault, which is supposed to last 100 years. You can buy them in 8GB or 16GB. If you need more space than that, then an external hard drive would work well too.

Technically you want to migrate all your data over to the newest medium every 50 to 7 years, so the focus really shouldn’t be on it being archival, but on how good you are at migrating everything over. I picked the SanDisk Memory Vault and the gold DVDs because I know that I won’t always be good at switching something over and so it is nice to know that it is supposed to last for a while.

Offsite Back up

When making my annual back ups, I make two copies and then I store one offsite. Safe deposit boxes, at work, or at a relative’s house are all really good options. That way I am well covered in case of a house fire or if one of the back ups gets corrupted.

Don’t worry, it isn’t as much work as it sounds. The hardest part will be weeding through old photos. I am still going through mine!

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