How to print long-lasting photos?
September 28, 2011 11:38 AM   Subscribe

What's the best way make sure my pictures stay around a long, long time?

Now that young Mr. Tootsalot has arrived on the scene, I am taking a billion pictures of him.

I want to create albums of pictures from his youth that will be around not only when he's an adult, but will be around for his great great grandkids.

What do I need to know in terms of both storage and printing to make sure this happens? Are there special services for printing high-quality, long-lasting photos? Or will printing places be all about equal, and the main factor I need to think about is not exposing them to light or heat?
posted by Tooty McTootsalot to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
As long as you have the digital copies does it matter what happens to the printed version? Shoot in the highest quality your camera can support and make sure you store and backup the files somewhere safe. His great great grandkids may shake their heads that you were ever happy with 7.2MP images, but they'll be able to print or display them through whatever medium they choose.
posted by IanMorr at 11:49 AM on September 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If you're concerned about the longevity of print, the best compromise between availability and performance is Fuji Crystal Archive paper. Google "fuji crystal archive longevity" and similar to see the discussion around this topic. The great thing about FCA is that you can have it printed at places like Costco.

You then mount these photographs using archival/non-acid materials (get a Gaylord catalog for a short course in this stuff). Then do yourself a favor, photograph the entire book as it is being scanned so there is an electronic copy to re-print in case the world ends or cereal spills or whatever.

Another principle is generally, LOCKSS. Lots Of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe. Print a bunch of them and distribute them geographically.

Between these few things, you should be able to ensure your photos last a long, long time. Since the overwhelming value of a photo album is the curatorial eye that put the photos together, in context, and wrote comments about them, be sure to move your focus from the print itself to capturing the entire ensemble for posterity.
posted by fake at 11:55 AM on September 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

As long as you have the digital copies does it matter what happens to the printed version?

This is exactly backwards. It'll be way, way harder to keep the digital copies intact than the physical ones. Those bits have to land on a platter, and entropy wins that fight in the long term.

The thing is, odds are good that you'll be unable to do this. People just don't keep old pictures if you physically print them out, but if you elect not to, you need things like multiple redundant backups stored in physically separate locations and verified routinely.

Right now, in truth, your best bet is to put them all on the internet and hope for the best. Second best is, put copies on a few separate hard drives with modern connectors and a very simple, well-understood filesystem like Fat32, do some checksumming and then put those drives in a sealed antistatic bag in three or more different safe deposit boxes. Spin those drives up every few years to verify the contents, and migrate the data to whatever the next decent-looking storage medium is when that opportunity presents itself.

Entropy is not a fight you can win by with money or a day's work. It's a job.
posted by mhoye at 11:55 AM on September 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

There are perfectly good reasons to think about preserving prints.

1. They are directly viewable with the eye. Not true of any digital medium.
2. They require no power to view.
3. They can be shared freely with no restrictions, digital/legal.
4. Once printed, they are no longer dependent on computer technology for survival.
5. We have a hundred or so years of film photography that has survived reasonably well on paper. It's proven.
6. There is a wealth of technology and resources dedicated to preserving prints available now, in catalogs like the one I mentioned above.
posted by fake at 12:01 PM on September 28, 2011 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Although I am interested in a debate on electronic versus hardcopy, fake's answer is spot on what I'm wondering about.

I do intend to keep backup electronic versions of all images stored in the albums, but I'm really just wondering about the printed photographs themselves.
posted by Tooty McTootsalot at 12:09 PM on September 28, 2011

Best answer: The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has a good FAQ on preservation of photos.

Coming from both a personal point of view and the perspective of archivist/historian, printing out photographs as well as a nice digital backup is the way to go. I have a few photo albums from my grandmother, and those images as well as the notes she made about them are very important to me. Also, when I'm researching things, nothing is more helpful than a photograph with the date and the people in it clearly noted.

I'm with fake on this, digital is all fine and good, but print is far more permanent that it gets credit for.
posted by teleri025 at 12:10 PM on September 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Surprised no one mentioned "Carbonite". For $59 a year you can store/backup your data forever, safely I understand, on-line...I'm just reading their website today, and think I will subscribe!
posted by BVB at 12:15 PM on September 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

And beyond degradation, all digital hardware and software formats go obsolete very quickly. Remember Iomega Zip drives? Or 5 and 1/4 inch floppies? Or even VHS? Do you know anybody who can read these anymore? They're dead dead dead.

Same goes for digital file formats, today's RAW and JPEG are yesterday's FLIC and PCX. So DVDs and USB keys are a bad idea. As are any digital format really. Have them printed onto quality Kodak, Fuji, or Afga photo paper and they'll outlive you by a few generations.
posted by Mercaptan at 12:30 PM on September 28, 2011

5. We have a hundred or so years of film photography that has survived reasonably well on paper. It's proven.

True, but I think you're talking about wet print photographs, and not ink or pignment on paper prints (although I just looked up that fuji crystal archive stuff about it sounds really imperssive). Black and white silver gelatin fiber prints that are properly fixed will last easily 50 years without fading (more if they are toned and properly stored) because the image is literally etched into the silver of the paper.

If you want prints that will last 100 years, traditional black and white silver gelatin prints are your best bet--I believe that there are companies that can do them with digital files.
posted by inertia at 12:35 PM on September 28, 2011

Best answer: One other recommendation I can make is simply to not be too precious about some of the prints. Yes, don't buy tape that will corrode/etch them, don't stick them to paper that will rot them, and yes, read the Gaylord catalog and absorb the spectrum of solutions/problems archivists face, but the best defense against their ultimate destruction is to make an awesome album that they can touch, love, and feel a part of. No archival material will survive the toss-it instinct of someone who doesn't care.

You can make a special copy to keep in the fireproof safe and one to keep in the Mother In Law's closet that are not to be handled. When the original is destroyed by fingerprinting and handling, you have another ready. Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe.

Some other basic guidelines: Don't seal anything in plastic (offgassing can cause things to decompose, your paper needs to "breathe"). Not too hot, cold, or humid. Don't store in a way that sunlight can get inside and bleach things. Don't store in a room with waxy air fresheners. Check on the thing every so often.
posted by fake at 12:37 PM on September 28, 2011

At the risk of being obtuse I'm wondering if the OP could drop in and specify whether she is interested in getting advice on good archival principles for digital data as well as physical prints. I happen to agree that the latter is both achievable and a desirable component of this question, but if the OP isn't interested in it (I'm not clear if she's including it in her definition of storage in the question) then it's simply a derail.
posted by nanojath at 1:29 PM on September 28, 2011

(I meant the former is achievable etc., not the latter... can someone recommend a good archival restoration service for my brain?)
posted by nanojath at 1:31 PM on September 28, 2011

Shoot film, get wet prints. B&W if you're cool in grayscale and want tones you'll never see with digital, otherwise there's C41 color. Portra is probably where I'd start. These photos and negatives will outlast your kids. Good luck finding the hardware and software to read the resume you typed and saved 20 years ago. You'll have to constantly format shift, both medium and file, with digital over a lifetime. Ask NASA, they have data on old tapes they can't read, as does my company.

If you're reasonably consistent in nailing your exposure, slide film is beautiful, but you've missed the boat on Kodachrome. I usually use Provia. Getting wet prints from slide film is annoying and often expensive though.
posted by Brian Puccio at 1:32 PM on September 28, 2011

On the subject of digital archiving, one of the most insightful points I've read goes something like this: "a good long-term backup strategy is a series of good short-term backup strategies."

I've got a PhotoCD that has some images that are valuable to me. Now, the physical medium is still good, and my computer can certainly read CDs. But the file format (and, I think, the filesystem) used on PhotoCDs is non-standard, so my Mac today doesn't deal as gracefully with this thing as the Mac I had 10 years ago, and I've only got one program that can actually open the damn files. If I want to do anything with them, I'm going to need to re-save all of them in a modern format.

I do think we have a better handle on what formats are probably long-term survivable, but I don't think we'll ever be 100% free from the problem.
posted by adamrice at 1:34 PM on September 28, 2011

Best answer: Nobody has mentioned tagging and labelling, but it's key. A box of old portrait photos with no names on them is nearly valueless, but if anyone has written the names of the subjects on the backs, suddenly they can be a treasure trove for anyone doing family history. That's why it's important to have elderly relatives identify the subjects of your old family photos before it's too late, because the information's nearly irretrievable once they've died.

The problem in our time is that we will bequeath directories of photos with filenames ike DSCN3755.jpg to the next generations. In your shoes I would rename the best pictures with his full name and put them in the cloud somewhere.

Is there a business to be developed in storing family photos in perpetuity, I wonder?
posted by zadcat at 3:37 PM on September 28, 2011

For long term storage film negatives do much better than prints. A modern black and white negative stored away from water and heat will last a few hundred years.

Negatives also have the advantage that while small, they are still physical "things" I think this makes them less likely to be lost/overlooked than a bunch of files on a hard disc somewhere.
posted by Lanark at 4:47 PM on September 28, 2011

Response by poster: nanojath: It wasn't part of my original question, so it's a tad of a derail, but I think it's a useful part of the discussion.
posted by Tooty McTootsalot at 6:05 PM on September 28, 2011

Just briefly then, on the topic of digital storage, I think a managed system of a local backup to an external hard drive plus an online backup to a trustworthy service is very strong and no longer particularly costly. I have to have solid backup because of work I do from home, and with a combination of Apple's Time Machine plus encrypted online backup to a service (I use Crashplan) I feel like my chance of data loss is very, very small. I was surprised by how inexpensive online backup is now and how little impact it has on me (I'm basically unaware of it happening, though I do have always on broadband and leave my computer on all the time, which is sort of a crappy thing to do from the perspective of wasting energy...)

Nothing against physical archiving here, I think it provides a parallel and valuable line in preserving information, and I'm interested in the advice here about that as well. I'm presuming that you shoot digital and aren't going to switch to film for purely archival reasons.
posted by nanojath at 7:13 PM on September 28, 2011

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