Are photos finished?

Digital makes memories easier to capture and share — but harder to hold on to


Science & Technology
March, 24, 2003
By David LaGesse


Snapshooters tend to become evangelists once they’ve gone digital. Renee Reid, for example, abandoned film a couple of years ago for a digital camera and started printing all her pictures at home. She so loved the new ease of capturing her young Mississippi family’s visual history that she bought a camera last Christmas for her mother. Her brother, smitten with his own digicam, also bought one for Mom. Reid’s father, watching the two kids happily shoot without film, was getting ready to buy a third. In the en after some awkward scenes and gift returns digital had made another convert. “Mom got her digital camera and has had a ball,” says Reid. Digital cameras are no longer an exotic toy for early adopters and computer buffs. Already, 1 in every 5 American homes has a digital camera, and the number could approach 1 in 3 by year’s end as sales accelerate–digital models, though more expensive than film cameras, are now outselling them.

The digital revolution goes far beyond capturing images on electronic sensors instead of a film’s chemical emulsion. Digital means entirely new ways of keeping and sharing photos, and that is changing the business of photography and the role of photos in family ties and friendships. By freeing users from having to buy and process Kodak or Fujifilm rolls, digital means consumers take more pictures but print fewer of them, threatening the bread-and-butter income of the nation’s film manufacturers and myriad corner drugstores and one-hour photo labs. Instead of passing around prints and pasting them into albums, digital converts send their pictures by E-mail or even cellphone and display them onscreen, adding throw-away frivolity to the once elevated role of photos in our personal histories.

But this revolution, like most of its kin, has its costs. It has left all too many Americans with hard drives stuffed with family memories in digital form. They may have sent the files to a Web site or to relatives, but there the images remain, locked in the ethereal zeroes and ones of computer code. It’s “digital constipation,” says Douglas Rea, who teaches photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Maybe 14 percent of digital pics get printed, compared with virtually all film frames, says the Photo Marketing Association. Those that make it to paper mostly do so at home, and almost entirely by way of inkjet printers. They produce vivid colors that thrill consumers, but the delight often proves short lived as tones begin fading or discoloring in a few years, or even months.

And there’s the biggest downside of the digital revolution: It threatens the longevity of photos. Taking and sharing digital images can be a snap, but keeping them requires some know-how. Unless digital’s new devotees learn how to organize, preserve, and print their images, photography experts worry, a generation’s worth of memories could be lost.

Fade to black. For a full century, since Eastman Kodak popularized photography in the early 1900s with its $1 Brownie camera, it was film that captured family stories, filling albums with glimpses of cherished moments that were passed lap to lap at reunions and parties. Now there’s a headlong rush to entrust memories to a technology whose purveyors are often new to photography. Sure, photo stalwarts like Kodak and Nikon offer digital cameras, but computers and computer printers shoulder the job of turning the electronic impressions into images. The result is new control and at-home convenience, but at the cost of some old certainties. “We’re squeezing what is a generational change into three or four years,” says Kevin Gilbert, a professional photographer who teaches digital photography. “It’s no wonder people are feeling a little anxious.”

Rightly so–just ask Phil Connor, who developed a sick pit in his stomach when his computer’s hardware started wheezing a few weeks ago. The amateur photographer scrambled to make repairs, but he lost almost half his shots from the past three years. “All I know is that I’d never lost a photo that I’d taken with a film camera,” the Ontario, Canada, resident says with obvious dismay. It’s a reaction familiar to emergency workers, who say that after loved ones or pets, disaster victims usually mourn the loss of their irreplaceable photos the most.
Reality bytes. Few people think about preserving their photos when they buy a digital camera–the immediacy of snapping and sharing is so appealing. Mickie Jobe had two kids home the other day because of inclement weather in North Texas. The grandparents all got shots of 6-year-old Isaac sliding down a neighbor’s driveway in a laundry basket. “He was still outside sliding when I was already inside E-mailing the photos,” Jobe says.

This rapid proliferation of images may be changing the very role of snapshots. Before digital, some researchers argued that the carefully chosen, often posed photos in albums lied, casting a utopian vision of life as nothing but vacations, parties, and smiles. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who studied French families in the 1950s, came to call the home camera the “festive technology.” Anthropologist Richard Chalfen of Tulane University found it played the same role for Americans in the 1980s.

Maybe reality is now creeping in. Some surveys say the typical family shoots three times as many frames with digital as it did with film. That means relatively fewer poses and more candid moments (although delete buttons can keep the least flattering moments from ever leaving the camera). Says Chalfen: “We’ve never seen so much of each other–never been able to hold on to so much visually.”

So how can you keep all those memories from evaporating? One safeguard is to back up your hard drive by burning the images onto a CD. Experts suggest using brand-name, write-once CDs, which could last for a decade or a century– but in any case probably longer than the less-hardy rewritable disks. Yet doubts nag even those who routinely store their digital pictures on disk. Geoff Jackson, a computer consultant in Florida, wants his grandchildren 30 years hence to have CDs of his photo collection. But no one knows for sure how the disks will hold up–and whether players in 2033 will be able to read them. “I do worry that CDs will go the way of the big floppy disk,” Jackson says.
Even if CDs are still around, today’s file formats may not be. Computer and electronics companies aren’t known for ensuring backward compatibility. There’s no guarantee how long they’ll support today’s JPEG, the compression format in which most consumer cameras save images. Industry execs say they feel a personal responsibility to keep current formats alive. “We’re talking people’s memories now,” says Jim Malcolm, a manager of Sony’s photo products. “I’ve got five or six years of my kids’ life in JPEG files, and a strong vested interest in mak- ing sure they can be used decades from now.”
Still, the U.S. Library of Congress is spending $100 million on a search for ways to archive, convert, and otherwise safeguard its prized digital data against technological glitches and obsolescence. For mere consumers, there’s one sure answer, and it’s a familiar one, says Mark Roosa, the library’s preservation director. Make a durable print, and protect it as you would any prized photograph.

With film, that advice is easy to follow–just have your photos preserved on good-quality paper. With digital, it takes some expertise, especially if you print at home. It was around 1994 that affordable home printers were first able to spit out small enough ink drops for realistic photos. Problem was, their inks and papers were meant for corporate graphs or children’s book reports. These days, prints from just about any late-model printer can look as good as a traditional photo. But their durability is less certain. Inkjet prints “were never designed for display, much less for the years that we display our photos,” says Henry Wilhelm, a folksy Iowa researcher who has spearheaded interest in “image permanence.” Wilhelm accelerates the slow ravages of time to test photo durability. With racks of intense lamps and hot ovens, he concocts a harsh version of a photo’s life pinned to a refrigerator door or stored in an attic.

Paper trail. A onetime photo chronicler of civil rights and Vietnam War demonstrations, Wilhelm first gained notoriety, at least among professional photographers, for taking on giant Kodak over what he said were shoddy papers used in 1960s and 1970s color prints. Any family with photos from that era has sad examples of the fading problem. Kodak responded with improved papers and chemicals, and the issue itself faded away. Kodak also helped fund an alternative to Wilhelm’s outfit, the Image Permanence Institute in Rochester, N.Y., another independent lab.

Inkjet print quality has become a new target for Wilhelm and the permanence institute. Traditional prints last well partly because their fragile color dyes are imbedded in gelatin layers that are plastered to good-quality paper, which protects the dyes from sunlight and air. Also, the prints are processed with chemicals that are matched to the paper type. With inkjets, in contrast, the pigments are often exposed, and consumers get to choose their own inks and paper, sometimes mixing varieties not designed to work together.
Prints from early machines faded in months, and the longevity scientists took aim. Their results prodded the manufacturers into action. Wilhelm says Hewlett-Packard and Epson have notably improved how long their prints can last. His tests show that their printers can generate images that actually outlast a traditional print. Unfortunately, he also found that such impressive results require papers and inks recommended by the printer maker rather than cheaper knockoffs. Third-party supplies often are designed to work with any printer, forcing compromises. Makers of third-party papers also struggle to keep pace with changing ink formulas. “It’s tough enough for HP to keep up, and we have armies of chemists,” says Nils Miller, a chemist who helps design supplies for the company.

For archival prints, consider getting one of the newer six-ink printers, which are best at reproducing subtle tones, and print at the highest resolution. Then display the results under glass or store them in acid-free albums at moderate temperatures–“where you sleep,” says one conservator, and certainly not in a hot attic or moist basement. Other tips can be found at Wilhelm’s site,, where he promises to display longevity data on dozens of printer/ink/paper combinations in the coming months.

Alas, even the best advice is no guarantee of a lasting print, because both inkjet technology and the science of accelerated tests are young. “We can’t be sure there won’t be a surprising new mechanism of failure,” says James Reilly, director of the Image Permanence Institute. Wilhelm, for example, was blindsided after Epson, backed by his tests, first touted new, “archival” inkjet systems in 2000. Within weeks, buyers complained of an unsightly orange tone emerging in prints. The culprit turned out to be atmospheric ozone, a problem in some places like Los Angeles, which attacked prints left exposed to the air. “It caught the entire industry off guard,” Wilhelm says. Epson adjusted paper formulas to lessen the problem but still recommends that any prints made with dye-based inks, typical for consumer printers, be displayed under glass.

The safest option by far is the oldest, say Reilly and others: Entrust your favorite digital photos to standard silver-halide printing. So far, that hasn’t been so easy. The labs that produce traditional silver-based prints were set up only to handle film, and techs often look blankly at the memory cards that hold digital photos. But that is starting to change.

Earlier this month, a photo industry show in Las Vegas was packed with equipment designed to draw digital camera users into photo labs to make traditional prints. Store owners were inspecting the displays closely. “Digital is scary,” says Dan Novis, owner of Gaslamp Photo in San Diego. Digital is cutting into processing volumes, and rebuilding them requires new minilabs–those big contraptions behind drugstore counters that process film; digital versions start at around $100,000, several times the cost of a conventional setup.

Novis has bought two digital minilabs, but nationwide, fewer than 20 percent of shops are ready for electronic images. Still, the single largest film processor, Wal-Mart, is rushing digital minilabs to its stores. Prices for printing from computer files tend to be competitive with film–in the range of 25 to 50 cents for a 4-by-6-inch print. And unlike film processing, digital printing services let a user choose which frames to print and edit out flaws like red eye. Often the digital-ready photo labs have a front-end kiosk that lets consumers download their photos and do basic editing themselves.

If the Las Vegas floor was any indication, those kiosks could soon be popping up on cruise ships and at amusement parks and malls–just about anywhere an ATM might go. One outfit, in fact, calls its version the APM, for automated photo machine. Some would spit out photos on the spot; others would send the files over the Internet to a central lab, for prints that would be mailed later.
That kind of online service is already available from your home computer. Sites including,, and make it easy to upload images and order prints, which are delivered to your door–but the process typically takes a week or so. (Note: also available on our own website, with as fast as same day turn-around)

Photos by wire. Worried that the market for their paper and chemicals is drying up, photo companies are offering still other options. Nobody has more at stake than Kodak, where company execs concede that digital could cut sales by 5 percent this year. The firm is pushing a system that would let consumers send images over the Internet–from a kiosk or a home computer–to be printed at a photo shop anywhere in the country. A family visiting, say, Disney World could upload photos to be output at a store near their Tennessee house, or at the drugstore near Grandma’s in Arizona. Fuji is setting up its own Internet system.

So far, only a tiny fraction of digital camera users–4 percent or so–have tapped stores or the Internet for prints. But getting consumers back to the labs may prove easier as digital cameras go more mainstream and women get more involved in what’s been a gadget-driven, male-dominated activity. “A busy mom doesn’t have time to edit and print at home,” says Michelle Slaughter, a market analyst with InfoTrends. “They just want a decent print and aren’t of the mindset to do it themselves.”

That applies to Alisha Pitchford. Although she has gone completely digital in photographing her Tucson family, she still wants prints to paste in scrapbooks, and she is relying on photo labs to make them. Her last order was for 500 prints at the local Sam’s Club, a warehouse store owned by Wal-Mart. “That’s a lot, I know, but if I don’t get them printed now, I may never get it done.

“And I’d hate to lose any of them.”

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