What Happened to All My Baby Pictures?

Your baby's picture in 30-40 years?  

      Color negatives and ordinary color prints made in the traditional darkroom fade away to nothing-- first the colors change, then almost all the color is gone. Then the image itself vanishes. This happens even if they are kept in the dark.

      These days, some people think that their digital images will last forever. In practice that's probably not going to happen with your family pictures. They will probably be gone sooner than color prints. See the explanation below.

      People are used to the idea of having old family pictures from 50 or 100 years ago or more. There will be VERY FEW surviving family pictures from this decade or 1990's in the year 2100. Many more pictures will survive from 1920 than from 1980. What can be done?

Preserving Photographic Images
Preserving Existing Traditional Color Photos
Preserving Digital Photos
Preserving Videotapes
Making Inkjet Prints That Last

Preserving Photographic Images

      This site is a good place to start: The American Museum of Photography-Preserving & Protecting Photographs. Note that Light Impressions, which sponsors this site, is only one of several companies that make archival photo storage products. At the bottom of that page, note the following address and link:

      The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) and FAIC Conservation Services Referral System, 1717 K Street N.W. Suite 301, Washington, D.C. 20006; Telephone: (202) 452-9545; Fax: (202) 452-9328 The AIC web site is another resource. It's part of COOL (Conservation On-Line). The COOL website is comprehensive. If you are interested in the preservation of anything, you should check it out. It is the basic source for information on all types of conservation.

      If you want a book specifically about the preservation of color images, here's one of the best on the subject: The Permanence and Care of Color Photographs : Traditional and Digital Color Prints, Color Negatives, Slides, and Motion Pictures by Henry Wilhelm and his wife, Carol Brower. His website at http://www.wilhelmresearch.com/ is where he reports on the stability of digital color prints made using various printers and inks. The full text of his book is on the website, too.

      Here are some very brief guidelines for preserving photos & negatives:

      1) Archivally processed black and white prints made in a traditional darkroom, last longer hung on the wall than anything else does. Probably hundreds of years, assuming normal room lighting.

      2) An Ilfochrome Classic Deluxe print (made from a slide), if you keep it in the dark, without letting it get mildewed, lasts FOREVER, or as long as the sheet polyester or paper it's printed on. See http://www.ilford.com/html/us_english/prod_html/ilfoclassic/Iclassic.html
This process was formerly known as Cibachrome. Hang it on the wall, under glass, and that Ilfochrome print starts to fade in 33 years or so. Look at it a few minutes or a few hours a year, and that color print will last hundreds of years (if it's on polyester). Other processes are also marketed as Ilfochrome, The prints are not as long-lasting as Ilfochrome Classic prints.

      3) Some dye-transfer prints are supposed to be good for up to 500 years. The Ilfochrome and dye-transfer processes are expensive, and few photofinishers make these prints. If you actually do color separations and process them archivally, someone could reconstitute a color image from them hundreds of years later. None of these are ideal solutions for photos you want to make fairly inexpensively and keep on display.

      4) Next come Kodachrome slides stored in the dark, with barely perceptible color changes after 100 years-- but make a duplicate on some other slide film if you expect to project a slide more than a few minutes in its whole lifetime, because Kodachrome does fade in the light. Kodachrome home movies work the same way, but a frame of film is on the screen such a short time that fading is less of a problem.

      5) Ordinary color prints and color negatives don't last that well. Fuji claims that Velvia negatives will last up to 100 years-- but at the end of that time, they're GONE. Most color negatives and prints last closer to 40 years, even negatives and prints stored in the dark. Prints made on Fujicolor Crystal Archive paper should last 60 years on the wall under glass before they start to fade.

     6) To extend that time, chill or freeze your negatives and prints, the colder the better. All the figures I've mentioned assume that prints and negatives are kept at ordinary room temperature, (and kept in a dry, acid-free environment, naturally!) Store images that way, and they should last for the times listed in 1) to 5) above.

      Since Ilfochrome and dye-transfer prints are expensive, the advice I always give film photographers is to shoot Kodachrome and keep it in the dark. This is far cheaper than any other way of making long-lasting color images with a film camera, and it's fairly convenient. Most pictures you take you probably won't want to look at very often anyway. Those you DO want to look at can be duplicated to other color slide film, or you can make internegatives and prints. When they fade away, new ones can be made. I recommend Kodachrome over Ilfochrome because it’s much cheaper and there’s no temptation to leave a slide on constant display, the way there might be with an Ilfochrome print. If you just want to hang prints on the wall, you can beat the 33 years before fading that Ilfochrome gives you with several other kinds of print.

Preserving Existing Traditional Color Photos

      Just keeping your photos cold will help, but freezing is really the ONLY way to almost totally prevent further deterioration, and make an existing photo last hundreds of years. If you want to freeze your photos and negatives, the best way to do it is to get a separate freezer for this purpose, turn the temperature as cold as it will go, and put each item in a separate acid-free envelope. Package bundles of these envelopes in Ziplock bags, with no extra air. When you want to look at a print or negative, move it from the special cold freezer to the freezer section of your refrigerator and leave it there for about a day to warm gradually. Then move it to warm in the refrigerator for a day. Then look at it or print from it. Reverse the steps over a period of a couple of days to get it refrozen. Freezing and thawing should be very gradual.

      But most people don’t want to do all that. Even if they ARE willing, they want other copies of their pictures that they can look at without getting the originals out of the freezer. They need to copy their pictures, and look at or display the copies.

      People have been copying photos ever since there have BEEN photos. You take a picture of the picture. You can still do that today, or you can find lots of people who are willing to do that for you. You print out the new image and display that one instead of the original. If the old picture is faded, or the colors have shifted, you can correct for that. If you are doing this all with a digital camera, or a scanner, you can do some correction with computer software that works like the color controls on your TV set. If the image is too far gone, you retouch it manually. You can also do hand coloring or retouching if your copy is a traditional photographic print.

      Of course, the further gone your original is, the less certain you are of what it looked like. And the resulting copy image is really never an EXACT copy of the original picture. Over a period of decades or centuries, if you have to copy that original over and over again, it becomes less and less a “real” photograph.

      These days, the best way to make copies of photos, if you do it right, is to scan them and make digital prints using a computer and a computer printer. This CAN produce prints that last longer than those made on Fujicolor Crystal Archive paper (that is, over 60 years.) But mostly, it won't. See below.

Preserving Digital Photos

      You may be wondering: "Why make prints at all, unless you actually want to display a particular image?" In principle, digital data lasts forever. It's always there to look at on your computer monitor. You can migrate from one storage medium to another, and from one computer system to the next, and never lose any information-- BUT...

      1) If you store your images on your hard drive, it can crash. And, fairly soon, you will be getting a new computer. Over 30 years, you will likely get 10 or more computers. Each time, you must move the images. If you store your images on removable media (CD’s or DVDs), 30 years from now, your new computer won’t be able to read that format. It won’t have a compatible drive that reads CDs and DVDs. You will have to migrate to a new storage medium. That will happen again and again over the next century. When you are 20 or 30 years older than you are now—will those images actually get migrated?

      2) Unless you make a serious effort to organize your digital image files, it will be hard to find a picture later for reprinting. By default, files store in the computer, or on the disc with a long, meaningless number as the file name. Making index prints can help. But only if those prints last. See below.

      3) It ought to go without saying that you can't depend on anyone else to save your images for you. Some people put all their family pictures on a hosting service called PhotoPoint. It's now out of business, and they have no family pictures. That might happen to ANY hosting service.

      4) You don't know WHEN you need to migrate images to new storage media. With ordinary photos, a glance will tell you if the image is fading, and you can do something about replacing it, or changing the storage conditions. With large numbers of stored digital images, it’s a lot harder to look at them all and make sure they're all right. If twenty color prints made at the same time are stored together, look at one of them and you know if they are all OK. With digital images, you'd have to look at all 20.

      5) Image degradation of digital images is less predictable. You may get a little static-- or, if the bit that goes away is in the formatting, you can lose the whole image at once. It won't happen often, but could.

      6) Think about what will happen after you are gone, and some relative is going through your things, deciding what to save. Your digital photo files will look to the uninitiated like a pile of obsolete software. Remember, 50 years from now, CDs will be museum pieces. Yes, it WILL be possible to take them to a service bureau and have them copied to current media, if the original storage media last. But will your grandchildren know that? And will they bother? Or will your photos be thrown out along with your old copy of WordPerfect? And WILL the storage media last? The CD-makers say they will. Others are much less optimistic. If the relative sees real family pictures, printed on paper, those are likelier to be saved.

      For all these reasons, if you are taking family pictures that you would like your grandchildren and THEIR grandchildren to be able to look at, I can't recommend that you store them digitally. Digital is great for anything that doesn't need to last more than a few years. But most pictures are either totally disposable, like eBay ads, or you want them to last as long as possible. Very few people want to make pictures that will last 3 years and no longer.

      If you are a professional, who values his/her images and is willing to keep transferring them to new storage media, you can very successfully use digital cameras for your professional work. But I doubt that anybody will have those images 100 years after you're in your grave.

Preserving Videotapes

      Ordinary VHS videotapes are like audio tape recordings. They’re made up of little magnetic bits on the tape, and those little bits decay, making your video get snowier and snowier. There’s no way to stop that. You can re-record your tape, but the second-generation copy won’t be as sharp as the original, and it will still have the snow in it. This is true of any analog tape format, including 8mm and Hi-8 tapes.

      If you would like to save a little analog video footage, you can use one of those film-to-video transfer devices in reverse, and film some of your old videos onto Super 8 Kodachrome film. It will cost you almost $10 a minute for silent movies (Super 8 sound film is no longer made). But that film will last 100 years before any noticeable fading occurs. Each frame of film will only be projected for a fraction of a second each time you view the film, so you can view it quite often without fading the film. If you have a modern, digital camcorder, you may want to do copy your analog tapes to digital. In principle, digital files last forever. But see above. If you make a copy to digital now, 30 years from now the storage medium may have deteriorated, and you will probably not have any way to play that tape. You will have to keep migrating the footage.

Making Inkjet Prints That Last

      Returning to still pictures-- Why not just print them with an inkjet printer? Then you don't have to worry about those digital files lasting, do you? And your heirs are much less likely to throw prints away, especially if you pencil people’s names and dates on the back of those prints.

      Some digital color prints look very good at first-- but as lots of people have surely already noticed, many color prints made on an inkjet printer (probably still most such prints) have a VERY SHORT lifespan, measured in months rather than in years. That is starting to change. If you have an Epson R800 or Epson 2200 printer, and use it with its own Epson ink, and Epson Watercolor paper, and display any prints that you want to hang on the wall under glass, out of direct sunlight, they will last over 90 years before you notice a color change. Almost as good as Kodachrome kept in the dark! That print life drops to only 30 years with Archival Matte Paper-- the exact paper MATTERS. The discontinued Epson 2000P, used with its own Epson ink and Archival Matte Paper produces 100-year prints by the same standards. The R800 and 2200 have other advantages over the 2000P. Before you buy an R800, consider these facts:

      1) The Epson R800 printer lists for $399. The large-format Epson 2200 is $699. Most other Epson printers, even those marketed as "archival," produce prints that don't last as well as traditional color prints made from color negatives, especially if you use the wrong paper. The Epson C84, C82, and C64 are exceptions, even though they are marketed as office printers. See below.

      2) You will probably also want another printer for your word processing, etc. The R800 and 2200 are very slow, and the ink is expensive.

      3) The special paper and ink will cost you over a dollar for an 8x10 print. If you try to use this with off-brand paper or ink, you will NOT get the same long life! In fact, print life can drop down to only a couple of years, or even only a few months.

      4) Remember, getting professional looking digital prints is not a push button operation. You CAN get “straight” unmanipulated prints easily—but not color-corrected, retouched prints like a pro would give you. You need to learn a little bit in order to do that.     

AND-- There ARE lower-cost alternatives. The Epson C82 was intended as a low-cost office printer. According to Henry Wilhelm, it can produce up to 92-year color images. In the September, 2003 issue of PC World, at http://www.pcworld.com/news/article/0,aid,111767,00.asp is an article title “Cheap Ink Probed” with that information. The $99 Epson C84 has just replaced the C82, and there is an even lower-cost alternative, the Epson C64. Epson themselves are claiming 80-year life for the images these make if you make them on Durabrite paper using Epson Durabrite ink. On plain paper, up to 70-year images are possible. However, none of these Epson printers use true black ink for photos, so b&w photos especially are not as good as with the Epson R800. They only have three-color ink, so colors are not as true as on a printer like the R800 that uses 6-color ink.

    Furthermore, a true alternative to Epson exists. It has true black ink, and 6-color color ink. See an article titled "The Fade Factor" from the Nov. 2002 issue of PC World at http://www.pcworld.com/news/article/0,aid,105461,00.asp

   If you use any HP printer that takes HP 56, HP57, and HP58 ink, and use that factory ink to print on HP Premium Plus Glossy photo paper, your prints ought to last 73 years, which is longer than any color prints made with usual processes in a traditional color darkroom will last. Remember, Wilhelm rates traditional color photos done on Fujicolor Crystal Archive paper at 60 years. Also remember, all these longevity ratings assume a print is hung on the wall, under glass, out of direct sunlight. The less light the better for maximum print life. Prints in an acid-free album should last longer. The best glass to use is probably Tru-Vue Museum Glass, which is both UV absorbing and non-reflective. Window glass or whatever comes in a frame from Walmart won’t work nearly as well.

    Current HP photo printer models are the Photosmart 7260, 7660, 7760, and 7960. The HP 7960 also takes a special HP59 gray-ink cartridge, just for b&w prints, and is supposed to give wonderful b&w quality There are also portable printers and all-in-one products from HP (printer/scanner/copier/fax) that use the same ink as the printers listed above. The psc2210's 1200x2400 dpi scanner should be adequate for scanning in photos to be printed. There are other discontinued printer models that use this ink. Any and all printers that take the HP56, HP57, and HP58 cartridges will give 73 –year prints if you use them with HP Premium Plus Paper.

   The Photosmart 7260 lists for $99.95; cost of supplies is around 80 cents for an 8×10. For the same price, the Deskjet 5550 is an ordinary text printer, which happens to use the same HP 6-color photo ink that (in combination with HP Premium Plus Glossy photo paper) will give you the same 73-year prints as the listed Photosmart printers. Or all these printers give 2-year prints, if you use Staples glossy photo paper! Add cruddy ink, and you can get even lower print life. That change from 73-year prints to 2-year prints is just from changing the paper, leaving the ink the same.

    One minor problem that most of these HP printer models have is that they have only two cartridge slots for the total of four different kinds of HP ink cartridges, two three-color and one black, and (for the latest models only) a gray cartridge. For the best color, you use both the three-color cartridges, giving 6 shades of ink. Or you CAN print photos with just the regular color cartridge, but the color won't be as good. And you print text with the black, of course. If you want to print text inexpensively, you need to swap out the special photo cartridge for the black cartridge. A slight nuisance.

    Note that these HP printers are still not as good as the Epson R800, if you can afford $399. The R800 uses 6 individual ink cartridges, so ink costs may be less—with the HP printers, you are replacing a 3-color cartridge when any one of the three colors is out of ink, even though there is still ink in the other parts of the cartridge. The Epson is higher resolution. Some really careful tests suggest the Epson produces very slightly better color. And theR800 prints DO list longer-- if you use the right paper. For that matter, nobody has yet produced an inkjet printer making prints that last as long as those made with a (discontinued) Epson 2000P and the right paper.

    See the Wilhelm Research website for the latest data on new products and print life of various combinations of ink and paper. He will be modifying his test methods in the near future, to allow for additional factors, like the fact that lots of people display their pictures on their refrigerators rather than in frames. For now, look at the November 2002 PC World article titled "The Fade Factor,” and their September 2003 article “Cheap Ink Probed.” New printers are coming out all the time. Just remember that most of them, with most ink, and most paper, produce prints that will fade in a few years. And don’t count on still having your images on your hard drive to reprint in five years.

    There are a few other people testing the longevity of inkjet prints, using different methodology. Stephen Livick’s site at http://www.livick.com/method/inkjet/pg1.htm is one example. I am inclined to trust Henry Wilhelm’s data more than Livick’s. See also http://www.greatoutput.com/ the website of the Professional Digital Imaging Association (PDIA) and their new magazine Great Output.

If you have any questions or comments, e-mail me at

Christopher G. Mullin
Special Collections,
Mansfield Library
The University of Montana





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