Pictures tell a story that words simply cannot. Images are able to convey emotion and expression in a manner which words cannot begin to approach.
Not many people would disagree with these statements. Given that we live in a digital age, the real question is, how should our pictures exist? Should our pictures be rendered in the digital realm or captured on some type of physical medium?
There are several reasons why leading internet and data experts recommend that you preserve your important images in print format. Printed images have physical advantages over digital images in terms of permanence and archivability. Printed images also offer an aesthetic value which cannot be matched by a pixel (digital) image. We will look at each of these considerations in detail.
First of all, what is a printed image? For the purposes of this discussion, photographic printing is the process of producing a final image on paper or some other physical medium for viewing. Traditionally, a light-sensitive paper is exposed to a photographic negative which is then developed through a chemical reaction to form a visible image. In a more recent advancement of this technology, photographic paper coated with a light-sensitive formula can be exposed to a digital image file using a digital enlarger to produce an image. Finally, giclée printing (inkjet or pigment-based printing), whereby fade-resistant, archival ink is sprayed onto an archival substrate to produce a picture, represents the current state-of-the-art in archival image preservation. Printed images may exist as individual prints on photographic paper, wall art (using either canvas, metal, or some other stable substrate), or as a collection of printed images in an album or book.
Permanence, Archiveablity and Protection Against Obsolescence
Prints have more inherent archivability – they have the potential to live longer than a digital image. A print made on the proper paper with the right ink can easily last 100 years or more under the right conditions, whereas anything digital in nature runs the risk of becoming obsolete in the span of less than a decade. The most recent ink sets have projected lifespans approaching 250 years. Contrast that longevity to numerous computer storage device formats which have come and gone over the last 20 years, from floppy disks, Zip drives, CDs, then DVDs, hard drives to solid-states drives, all in the span of less than 2 decades. Computer storage compatibility is a real problem which can prevent you from being able to access your images, at which time your pictures are effectively lost to you forever.
Then there is the issue of file compatibility. Consider this. If today’s computers are unable to read storage devices from as little as 10 to 20 years ago, how do we know with any degree of certainty that, in 30, 50 or 100 years from now, we will still be able to access and read our JPEG pictures, the files on our hard drives, our raw file formats and their developmental metadata that were processed with today’s version of Lightroom or Photoshop? By contrast, printed images provide you with physical protection against obsolescence. You know the saying, “What you see is what you get.” Well in this case, it’s “What you see is what you have.”
On top of storage or file compatibility issues, there is also a real risk of file corruption or data loss, which can happen without any warning. With respect to magnetic hard disk drives, there is an old saying, “it’s not a question if a hard disk drive will fail, but more a question of when it will fail.” Even optical storage media such as CDs or DVDs can fail within a period of years, also without warning. Cloud storage, despite its fancy name, is still a collection of physical servers at some real location which remain subject to failure and catastrophe. That doesn’t even take into consideration the business dynamics and longevity of cloud storage companies. Backing up photos on multiple drives and discs may be a good option for the short term, but these digital storage methods all suffer from the same flaw in the long run: the gradual decay of data over many years, something known as data rot.
If you think that I am fear-mongering about the above , then please consider what Vint Cerf, Google Vice President and one of the founding fathers of the Internet had to say at a recent American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in San Jose, California on February 13, 2015. He believes that our lives, our memories, our most cherished family photographs increasingly exist as bits of information – on our hard drives or in “the cloud.” But as technology moves on, they risk being lost in the wake of an accelerating digital revolution. Cerf says that by using digital storage for all of our books, documents and photos, we could be setting up a big problem for future historians who want to study the 21st century. He actually said:
“If we’re thinking 1,000 years, 3,000 years ahead in the future, we have to ask ourselves, how do we preserve all the bits that we need in order to correctly interpret the digital objects we create? We are nonchalantly throwing all of our data into what could become an information black hole without realizing it.”
Cerf warned specifically about the loss of precious personal photos that may not be readable in the future:
“We have various formats for digital photographs and movies and those formats need software to correctly render those objects. Sometimes the standards we use to produce those objects fade away and are replaced by other alternatives and then software that is supposed to render images can’t render older formats, so the images are no longer visible.
This is starting to happen to people who are saving a lot of their digital photographs because they are just files of bits. The file system doesn’t know how to interpret them, you need software to do that. Now you’ve lost the photograph in effect.
If there are pictures that you really really care about, then creating a physical instance is probably a good idea. Print them out, literally.”
Cerf’s recommendation: Print out the pictures that you really really care about.
Next week we will continue our article by discussing the aesthetic and emotional value of prints.