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How to Extend the Life of Your Photos
Posted: 21st November 2006

Ever had the misfortune of losing your photos? It's not a good thing to happen. I recently received an email from a publishing company in New York who were asking about one of my photos - this one. The message said they were willing to pay up to two hundred dollars for a high resolution copy of the image. After much searching around I eventually found the original picture, although I couldn't access it. It was on an old CD which had gotten scratched and become unreadable. That was the day I learned that hitting your head repeatedly against a wall won't bring your lost photos back.

We'd all like to think that our digital photos will last a lifetime (or more) but the sad truth is some won't make it. From the second you press that shutter release button on your camera the image life clock starts ticking. Some pictures will be lost, some will get damaged and others might be accidentally deleted. Nothing in the physical universe stays the same for very long, and your digital photos are just as vulnerable as anything else. So if your photos have any value to you - and I'm sure they do - then here are a few things you can do to protect them.

1) Keep backups on different types of media.

This may seem obvious but when I speak to people about it I'm amazed at how few people bother to do it.

Keep at least one backup on magnetic media (Hard Drive, portable hard drive, USB flash drive) and another on optical media media (CD or DVD).

Each has its advantages and disadvantages:

• Magnetic
Hard drives can hold a lot more data, but they contain moving parts which can break. They can also be affected by nearby magnetic fields.

• Optical
These are more reliable, but make sure you buy good quality blank disks. Despite early claims by manufacturers of 100 year shelf lives on CD's, we've already discovered that cheap disks are prone to 'CD-rot' - a condition where the aluminium layer which holds the information becomes oxidised. When choosing CD's for backup look for "Archival Gold CD-R". They seem to be one of the most reliable.

Remember CD's can also become unreadable if they get scratched, and too many CD's can also become a storage problem in their own right. Organise your disks in a good storage album - preferably one which is PVC-free to help prevent CD rot as well as scratches.

2) Keep a Separate Backup at Another Address

If this isn't possible at least keep a separate backup in the boot of your car, or upload your photos to one of the internet sites offering online albums or photo storage. This may seem a bit paranoid but if you've ever had a house fire... enough said.

By the way, those little 'fire-proof' boxes you can buy at most stationers might help your CD's survive a fire, but they'll still be either melted or unreadable.

3) Photographic Prints

It could be that we don't have too much faith in technology, but most people still believe printed photos can outlast other forms of storage. Everyone likes to see their photos in printed form, and once again, manufacturers of photo paper have been quick to tell us that prints on their paper can last for a hundred years. This is yet to be proven, and it's totally dependant on the conditions where the prints are stored.

Temperature and humidity play a major role here. They're the silent destroyers of photographic prints. The best conditions for prints are below 70 degrees F with a humidity of under 50%. High humidity is most harmful, and high temperatures accelerate the deterioration process. A cupboard in your house (not against an outside wall) is usually the best place to store your albums when temperatures or humidity are at their most extreme.

In order for your photos to stay looking good, they need to be surrounded by materials that won't damage them. The materials used in some photo albums can actually accelerate their aging. One of the more confusing terms used by album manufacturers is "Photo Safe". This varies in meaning from company to company and is subject to abuse. 

When choosing a good album look for materials which are PVC-free or chemically inert. Although it's not a standard, products which are labelled "Archival Quality" are normally chemically stable.

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