Mementos might fade with memories

Despite paper promises, the future of digital photo prints is unknown

Despite paper promises, the future of digital photo prints is unknown

August 07, 2005|By JULIE E. GREENE

Almost everyone enjoys looking at old memories captured on film, except for the embarrassing ones parents bring out when a date arrives.

But, will you be able to embarrass children with such photos?

According to a November 2004 digital photo survey by Lyra Research Inc. near Boston, 84 percent of U.S. consumers with personal computers print photos at home, but it's unknown how long printed digital photos will last.

Some companies claim that if you use their photo paper and printer ink, the photo will last 100 years. But who wants to wait 100 years for your great-grandchildren to see if they were right?


Back it up

The first thing people should do to preserve their digital photographs is have backup copies, said Ed Lee, digital photography analyst with InfoTrends. InfoTrends is a market research company south of Boston that studies the digital imaging market.

Most people store their digital photos on their hard drive or optical media such as a CD or DVD, while a number of people back up their photos with printed versions, Lee said.

Lee recommends backing photos up in more than one location because it's not a matter of whether your hard drive will fail, but when.

It's also a good practice to back up your backup.

CDs and DVDs can be scratched, which means the content on them can be damaged.

Some CD brands will last longer. The price is usually a small indicator of the quality of the blank CDs, Lee said.

Store CDs and DVDs vertically in a cool, dry place. Keeping them vertical prevents a lot of pressure from being put on the disc, he said.

Using CDs for storage is more popular than DVDs because more people have equipment to burn CDs, Lee said.

However, DVDs have more storage capability. A CD holds 700 megabytes to 800 megabytes of information. A DVD can hold six to seven times that much, about 4.7 gigabytes, Lee said.

The storage capacity becomes more significant when the memory size of the picture is taken into consideration.

A 6-megapixel camera creates a picture file that is 2 megabytes to 3 megabytes in size. An 8-megapixel camera's photo file is bigger, 3 megabytes to 4 megabytes per picture, Lee said.

There also are companies that offer online photo storage.

A problem that hasn't cropped up yet, but is sure to, is changing technology, Lee said.

Digital files are stored in a JPG format - recognized by the .jpg extension on the end of the photo file name.

"Down the road, as everything changes in the computer world, that standard will probably change as well," Lee said. "So, someday down the road, everyone will have to transmit images to a new format."

Think of the 5 1/4-inch floppy disk. There are not many disk drives around anymore to read the data on those disks.

When a new technology emerges, Lee said people should transfer their photos into that new format, and again when that format changes due to technological advances.

If you skip a format, you're in danger of ending up with the equivalent of a 5 1/4-inch floppy disk and no floppy disk drive to read it, Lee said.

"Just keeping up with what's going on in the computer world is going to be a requirement," Lee said.

If you miss a format and have the printed photos, scan the images to create a new digital backup. Depending on the scanner, the scanned images could be OK, Lee said.

Print quality

During about seven years of printing digital photos, Mike O'Grady has seen printed memories fade and seen them smear when water came in contact with the ink.

Some combinations of ink and paper degraded a photo in a matter of weeks, said O'Grady, who teaches digital photography courses for Hagerstown Community College's adult education program.

"It'll just break your heart," he said.

Today some printer manufacturers claim photos will last 100 or even 200 years if their ink is used on their paper, and the photo is mounted and displayed properly, O'Grady said.

To give digital photos printed at home the most longevity, O'Grady said consumers must do their homework when shopping for printers, inks and paper.

People can check online sites such as Steve's DigiCams ( for printer ratings and check out a study by Wilhelm

Imaging Research

( concerning the print quality of various ink-paper combinations, O'Grady said.

While Lee suggests sticking with the printer manufacturer's paper and ink, O'Grady said there could be good alternatives to the manufacturer's paper. Some specialty inkjet papers claim the picture won't smear if it comes into contact with water, he said.

Other paper alternatives are archival or acid-free paper, experts said.

In addition to the popular inkjet printers, photos can be printed on dye sublimation printers that use a ribbon to transfer color onto the paper, O'Grady said.

These tend to be more expensive than inkjet printers but could be cheaper in the long run because of the high cost of buying ink cartridges for inkjet printers, he said.

Care also needs to be taken in displaying the photos so they don't degrade.

"Sunlight will fade most any print much faster than if they weren't in the sunlight," said Jim Van Evera, general manager of FirstLook Photo on Professional Court.

Nonacidic mounting board will help preserve a framed photo, whereas acid-based mounting board could degrade it, O'Grady said.

Roz Eiler, who teaches heritage photo preservation for ScrapMania! off Pennsylvania Avenue, suggests scrapbookers include a CD of all their scrapbook pictures in the front of the scrapbook.

That way it's there if they need to print another photo and it can be used to transfer the photos into newer technology.

"I don't know if (the paper) will last 200 years, but that's why you will have the CD. If it doesn't last 200 years, you print another puppy," Eiler said.

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