How To Keep Family Photos Alive in a Digital Age
Story and Photo by Helene Anne Fortin
“The worst thing I ever did was buy that digital camera! My hard drive crashed and I lost two years of my son’s life in pictures.”
How many times, as a professional photographer, have I heard words like that from clients? All I can do is listen helplessly as they describe how their visual story was wiped clean in an instant.
Even though billions of photographs are taken each year, few will likely be available for posterity. We take images, save them, and then don’t know what to do with the digital files or how to preserve them if they are on film. Still others will be lost due to hard drive crashes or simply not knowing how to handle today’s complex photographic media.
Our family memories are preserved in photos. They become the visual legacy we want to hand down to the next generation. Photographs remind us of who we were yesterday, of being loved, of loving someone or something, of the fun we had at the beach or trips taken to exotic places. Well done, a portrait can even remind us of who we really are.
My most precious photographs were taken a couple of years ago. It was a four-generation photo session with my mom at 95, my daughter Nicky in her 30s, my granddaughter Livy, then six months old and me, a 60-something slightly overweight photographer. My daughter and granddaughter live in Alberta and were here for a rare visit. I have to admit, I did not fair well during the photo shoot. I cried throughout because I knew that moment would never come again.
The portraits were touching, and my mom died shortly thereafter.
And even though my memory of that day fades, those photographs are here to remind me of how very thrilled my mom was to hold her precious great- granddaughter, and for us to be together as a family, even for a short while. I know you have similar photographs that you want to keep alive. Did you know that it is much simpler and less expensive to keep film and negative images alive than their digital counterparts. Yes, film and processing costs money, but
that is negligible compared to the cost of larger hard drives, external backs ups, and the extra software required to keep your digital photos safe.
Yet there are so many advantages to digital photography. You see what you captured instantly, and for some, digital photography is perceived as being easier than film. The reality is digital photography is a complex realm requiring constant upgrades and new knowledge in order to keep up with the latest and
best software, cameras and storage methods. But this is not an article about the pros and cons of digital versus film. It is about helping you keep your family
Here are eight tips to help you navigate today’s complex photographic media:
For film images
#1 Hands off! Handle negatives and photographs by the edges only. Anything that touches your photographs or negatives can cause deterioration over time. If you put your fingertip on a negative, the trace oils from your skin will eventually eat through the film emulsion, damaging the future image.
#2 Store safe. In my studio, we store precious film negatives in archival sleeves. The sleeves are what are wrapped around your negatives when you get your photographs back from the lab. Most sleeves provided by labs today are not necessarily archival, and, over time, can shorten the lifespan of your negatives. For your most precious photos, buy archival sleeves for your negatives (available from professional photographic stores such as Henry’s or online).
#3 Healthy storage. Negatives need to be stored in healthy environments. They thrive in an archival box, in dry, unlit, even-temperature places. Do not store
them in an unheated attic or damp basement. Label your archival sleeves by date or content or both for easy retrieval. Google the words “archival photo products” to find more about archival suppliers.
#4 Pro print! Have your favourite photographs printed by a professional lab, and then store them in archival albums or boxes. Like your negatives, your photographs need TLC. Keep them from wildly shifting temperatures and humidity, and they will be ready to hand down to the next generation. Should something happen to the photograph, simply reprint from the safely stored negatives.
For digital and film users
#5 Savvy up. Archival quality products simply means buying quality. Every product that holds or touches your photographs contains raw materials that either add to or take away from its lifespan (i.e., albums, boxes, matting, CDs, etc.). Non-archival products contain acid, dyes and/or by-products that will eventually start to destroy the photograph. For example, by using acid-free archival matting around your photograph, you keep your image safe. Less expensive non-archival matting will damage the photograph over time.
And not all CDs are created equal. In fact, there is only one archival-quality CD that guarantees to protect your photographs for lengthy periods. It is a Gold
CD (available through archival product distributors).
For digital images
#6 Move it or lose it! Get your photographs off your camera, memory cards and computer hard drives as soon as possible. As crashes, viruses and computers with lifespans of three to four years are today’s reality, back up digital images externally (and preferably offsite), either on a separate external hard
drive or on a cloud. You can purchase an external hard drive called, Click-free that costs about $100 and instantly backs up all data whenever changes are made to any file. If you store your digital images on public domain sites such as Facebook or Flickr, your images can be used by others. In spite of restrictions, very little is safe on the Internet. Also, whenever you upload your images to these sites, the resolution quality is usually very low, so the photographs are of poorer quality.
#7 Go pro. To keep your images for a long time, a simple and inexpensive way is to have your photos printed by a photographic lab, not on your home printer. Why? Because of image stability. Even though the printer manufacturer and digital paper boxes claim to be long lasting, the art of digital printing and permanence is a shifting labyrinth.
#8 Digital savvy! Like any medium, learning how to take digital photographs takes time. Do you save in RAW, JPEG or TIFF? Did you know that if you save your digital photos as JPEGs (as most people do) every time you open, edit and save the image, it loses information. Why? Because JPEGs are known as “lossy” (from the word “loss”). How you save an image will dictate the quality of the final image or its usability. Enjoy the learning curve so that when you come to take that perfect family photo, it can be stored safe and printed well for posterity.
Helene Anne Fortin is a portrait photographer with a passion for people, who has received a Governor General’s Medal for her work as a photographer and writer celebrating the heritage of Canada and the Grand Prize from Canadian Geographic Magazine. To view Helene Anne’s award-winning images go to portraitsofyourlife.com.
View a great article by the Canadian Conservation Institute on the use of CDs at www.preservation.gc.ca/info/faq1-eng.asp.
Check out informative articles about digital printing in Shutterbug Magazine at www.shutterbug.net/features/1103sb_thearchival/index.html.