The Gadgets Page

August 15, 2008

10 Ways to Make Your Digital Photos Last Forever

Filed under: Cameras — Michael Moncur @ 12:20 am

This could happen to you.Photographs taken with film fade with age, and even negatives yellow and become brittle. Digital photos, on the other hand, retain the same brilliant color and clarity every time you pull them up on the computer screen—until your hard disk crashes and you instantly lose every photo you’ve ever taken.

Yes, digital photography has its share of disasters, and that leads some people to distrust it, or even to claim that film lasts longer than digital. But the good news is that your digital pictures can last forever if you take good care of them. Here are 10 rules to follow to make sure you don’t lose pictures to a digital catastrophe:

1. Use a quality memory card.

Start with the “film” your pictures are stored on: the memory card. While the cheap memory cards offer a huge capacity for a small price, it’s best to pay a bit more and get a quality card. A card from a good manufacturer will have less risk of data corruption or other failures. Sandisk, Lexar, and Kingston are good choices.

  • Tip: Buy two smaller cards instead of one larger one: for example, two 1GB cards instead of one 2GB card. This will often save you money, and you’ll also have a hedge against data loss—one corrupt card will only affect half of your photos.

2. Get those photos off that memory card.

You might have a huge memory card in your camera that can store thousands of photos, but you should still consider the memory card temporary storage—a memory card can fail, or can be lost or stolen with the camera. Whenever you finish taking a batch of pictures or return from a trip, use a card reader or USB cable to transfer the pictures to the computer.

3. Don’t delete photos in the camera.

Your camera probably has a convenient “Delete” or “Trash” button. I suggest you never use it. There are three reasons for this:

  • You avoid accidentally deleting the wrong picture, or accidentally using the “delete all” option.
  • I find it helpful to keep all of my photos, since even the “mistakes” could turn out to be the only photo of something important, or a “happy accident” that is good in its own way.
  • Can you really determine which photos are good or bad by looking at your camera’s tiny screen? It’s much better to transfer them all to the computer, then decide what to keep.

4. Don’t delete photos at all.

For that matter, why delete photos at all? I keep every photo I take with my digital cameras: the great shots, the out-of-focus shots, the mistakes, the duplicates, everything. Even the bad ones are useful years later for documenting my vacations and remembering what I saw, for seeing how my photographic technique has improved, or for seeing whether a camera is working as well as it used to. This also ensures that I never delete the wrong photo. If there’s a gap in the numbering on my original photo files, I know something’s missing.

If you don’t have room for all of your photos on your hard drive, remember that hard drives are cheap. You can also archive the old ones to CD or DVD media.

5. Keep a Backup. Or two.

Did I mention that hard drives are cheap? I recommend keeping two copies of all of your original photos at all times. I have a daily backup script that copies the new files to an external drive. Be sure to use a separate drive or another computer as your backup, to avoid losing photos in a drive crash.

If you want to guarantee you won’t lose photos, you should also have an off-site backup—use an online backup service, upload them to a server, or just drop off a few DVD-ROMs at a friend’s house. That way your photos are protected even if you have a house fire or other disaster.

6. Use generic photo formats.

Most cameras store images in the standard JPEG format, which should be easily readable for many years. However, higher-end cameras usually have a RAW format option. While raw images are great for post-processing and often beat JPEG in quality, keep in mind that all raw formats are proprietary, and you may have trouble opening these files 10 years from now. It’s best to save a standard JPEG or TIFF version of each photo, even if you use RAW. Some cameras can save a JPEG file along with the RAW file, giving you the best of both worlds.

  • Tip: If you are serious about your photography and insist on using RAW format, keep a backup copy of the software you use to process the files. You might need to install it on an antique PC 10 years from now to access an old photo.

7. Don’t edit original photos.

If you use a photo, you’ll often resize, crop, or otherwise process it. This is fine, but the first thing you should do when editing a photo is save it to a new file. Keep the original, unprocessed, full-resolution file along with your edited version. This will make it easier to use the photo for a different purpose later, and it also avoids the costly mistake of overwriting a photo with a messed-up version. Back up the edited version too.

  • Tip: Unless you’re very careful and use special software, overwriting a photo will erase the EXIF data that the camera stored with the photo. This is your record of the date and time the picture was taken and the camera settings used.

8. Don’t trust someone else with your photos.

Online photo sharing sites like Flickr are great for sharing photos, but avoid the temptation to use them for storing photos. Don’t trust an online service with the only copy of your photos, or even the backup copy.

Online services might go out of business, and they don’t guarantee that your data will be safe—especially if you forget to pay the bill. They also almost always process the photo (resizing, etc.) when you upload it. Use these services to share pictures, but don’t expect them to last forever there.

9. Test and maintain your backup files.

A backup copy is no good if it doesn’t work, or if you lose access to it. Here are a few tips for making sure your backups will back you up:

  • Take a look at your backup files regularly, and make sure you can load a few photos.
  • If you back up to a hard disk, check the disk for errors regularly.
  • If you back up to CD-R or DVD-R, use quality backup media.
  • Test CD or DVD backups every month or two.
  • Once every year or two, copy CD or DVD backups to brand new discs. Media has a lifespan potentially as low as 5 years.
  • If you get a new computer, be sure to move the photos from your old computer, and make sure you still have two copies.
  • If CD or DVD formats are going away in favor of some kind of new Super Blue-HD discs, copy your files to the new media as soon as it’s practical.

10. Label, organize, and sort your photos.

If you follow the above rules for 20 years, you’ll end up with thousands of great photos—and now you have a different problem. Finding a few pictures of “that one time we went to Yellowstone” could be virtually impossible when you have thousands of photos stored in a disorganized mess of folders.

At the very least, do what I do: store each batch of photos in a separate folder with a descriptive name beginning with the date. Here are some examples:

  • 2006-05-10 Yellowstone Park
  • 2006-08-22 Testing new Camera
  • 2006-09-01 Elvis sighting at Caesar’s Palace
  • 2006-12-26 Opening Christmas presents

I avoid renaming the photo files, since I consider them my “negatives” and want a complete record of the pictures I’ve taken. Instead, I store them in folders like the above, then group those into larger folders for each year. This makes it easy to find particular photos, and the pictures are in convenient groups for archiving to DVD-ROMs every few months.

You may even want to move the best photos (or the ones you’ve chosen to print) into a separate folder within each folder, especially if you’re like me and you have more “misses” than “hits”.

If you want to go one step further, you can catalog your photos with a program like ACDSee, which lets you store a title, description, keywords, and rating for every photo. That would make it even easier to find what you’re looking for, if you can find the time to label and rate each picture.


  1. Sorry, I just found this post. I have to admit that i am highly skeptical that the digital file is going to last longer than an analog photograph. I believe that the technology to view / open / read / archive will become outdated and not a supported format and basically forgotten. I don’t think that we will we know what a .png or .jpg or a raw file is in 10+ years let alone 50 or 100. I love digital, but try to shoot film, get prints made, and produce a cd with digital files on it. I back up those on flickr and my local drive.

    Comment by Sasha — May 24, 2007 @ 5:43 pm

  2. Hi, while doing a search I came across your pages and they are just brilliant especially this one on making your digital photos last forever,

    thank you and kind regards from the emerald isle

    Patrick Duggan

    Comment by Patrick Duggan — July 13, 2007 @ 12:21 am

  3. @ Sasha “… i am highly skeptical that the digital file is going to last longer than an analog photograph. I believe that the technology to view / open / read / archive will become outdated and not a supported format and basically forgotten. I don’t think that we will we know what a .png or .jpg or a raw file is in 10+ years let alone 50 or 100.”

    Dude (or Dudette), JPEG has been around for over a decade. It’s not going anywhere either. File formats change, but big ones, like JPEG will ALWAYS be readable. Consider this: 10 Years from now, heck 50 years from now, insert a number… If you wrote a program to convert old popular file formats to “new”, “better”, and not yet invented formats, you’d be filthy rich. There are WAY too many people using JPEG for it to be forgotten. What you should worry about is the future cost of converting film to digital.

    Don’t worry about not being able to read your image files in the future. Can you name a file format that is no longer readable? I’d be astonished if you could name one format for ANY medium that there is NO possible way to read or convert anymore.

    Stop wasting your money on film. IT is the medium that is going to be obsolete. Soon there will no reason to shoot film, other than ignorance or hobby.

    … sorry for the rude tone … 🙂 I’m really a nice person.

    Comment by Linda Gewater — July 26, 2007 @ 11:20 am

  4. Thanks for your ideas, I have been trying to figure out how to organize and store my images. First I thought a flash drive would be the way to go, but CD-R or DVD-R will be the way I go. Also, thanks for the suggestions on labeling the images, always a little daunting, so I just label the ones I print, and save the others in a folder within a folder.

    Comment by Jill — November 4, 2007 @ 2:53 pm

  5. What is wrong with putting pictures on a flash drive???

    Comment by Phyllis Montgomery — November 13, 2007 @ 12:16 am

  6. How can someone possibly think that analog will last longer than digital? That’s ridiculous if you ask me.

    Comment by jburrtucaz — December 27, 2007 @ 7:15 am

  7. I’m trying to move digital photos off my PC to DVD-R but it’s not working. I guess the drive is not recognizing the DVD. I can save music & videos to CD & DVD-RW. Is there something I need to do in order to save my photos to the DVD-R. I really need help…. I have TOO MANY photos on my PC, my virtual memory is too low and I’m afraid it will crash one of these days then I loose all my precious photos. Please also advise on WD Passports, It’s been recomended to me to get one but I don’t have the money right now. I do have DVD-R disc though Thank You!

    Comment by Racquel — February 5, 2009 @ 8:38 pm

  8. I appreciate your advice, as our Photoshop teacher said much the same; however, I NEVER keep pictures that are useless or blurred. Always delete carefully. When I take the card out of my digital camera I load then on my PC in a temporary album. Then with Photoshop I do the cropping, enhancing, or deleting. I had been deleting the files from the camera disk with my PC, but was told it is better to go through the format section on the camera, so that works great, and I can reuse the disk over and over. I do back up to an external hard drive that is made for my multi-media PC. I also have a 5 Gg Seagate hard drive. On either of those I can go to someone elses computer and bring them up or whatever.

    Comment by Shirley — November 11, 2009 @ 8:44 pm

  9. In support of Sasha, and really, I don’t know what I’m going to do with all of my photo’s…

    I think she was conveying obsolescence of technology. Anybody have a 5 1/4″ floppy disk drive any more?? What’s after USB drives?? Remember Apple Desktop Bus?? Nobody knows what is going to happen.

    Comment by Will — July 14, 2010 @ 10:18 am

  10. “Stop wasting your money on film. IT is the medium that is going to be obsolete. Soon there will no reason to shoot film, other than ignorance or hobby.”

    You have not traveled very far in the world. More people on Earth have no computer than those who do, likewise for cameras of any kind. Travel across central Africa or Asia. The average citizen could never afford a digital camera – let alone a computer to view photos. Film will be around, although most likely in a very sub-professional way for a very long time.

    However, that said, digital media is the best way to store files. They can be reproduced over and over with no loss of data. Film ages, faded and can become damaged quite easily.

    As far as not being able to read files.. how many of you can read paper keypunch cards or 1″ Magnetic tape that I used when I was in high school? That was only 35 years ago. I am not saying we stored JPEGS on keypunch cards, but that was how we stored data back then, and that had been the main method of data storage for the 30 years before. The point is you never know where technology will take us, and CDROMS, camera memory cards, and thumb drives can be just as obsolete in 50 to 100 years.

    There are negatives lying around since the late 1800’s. They can still be used to reproduce the image. Will CDD/DVD be readable in 2130? Who knows. The point here is you not know what will be readable and not in 100 years. 200 years.

    Today I would store on DVD’s and store them in HARD cases and label them well. At some point in the future, when a better storage system become available then someone will have to make copies onto the newer medium. That will be the only way to preserve our treasures for generations to come.

    Comment by Peter — August 23, 2010 @ 6:13 pm

  11. digital just don’t last, after 50 more years are you sure there are computers around? even there is computers, do you think it will have usb ports? or dvd drive? I don’t think so.

    the best is still make hardcopies

    Comment by osxholunman — September 13, 2010 @ 8:45 am

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