It goes without saying that photographers want their work to continue on into an undefined future- to be available almost in perpetuity. But to do that requires establishing an archive containing the photographer’s “important work”. And setting up an archive means looking well into the future – 25, 50 or even 100 years –

Some would argue that the best way to archive photographs is to print everything you want the archive to include. While that may be true in the abstract, the reality of archival printing and storage certainly raises a number of issues.

  • Archival printing gets extremely expensive when you have a large number of prints to make.

  • Archives that contain a significant number of physical prints require a significant allocation of specialized storage space {read: flat files).

  • Archive storage for physical print demands a highly controlled environment (light, temperature, humidity, etc.).

  • Archiving with physical prints severely limits access and portability.

  • While experts in print longevity claim that a properly made archival inkjet print can last ‘a hundred years or more in a controlled environment’, there is also a lot of evidence that it will last just 10 or 15 years.

Some argue the digital approach is fraught with its own set of issues.

  • Hardware used for digital archiving today may not be compatible with future systems.

  • Hardware used to store the archive may fail at some point in the future,

  • Software needed to view the archive may not be available on future systems.

  • File formats used for digital archiving today may not be compatible with future systems.

  • There is more chance of user error with digital archiving systems that may erase the entire archive.

While there are risks and pitfalls with both approaches to archiving, it would certainly seem that the digital system has the advantage especially looking well into the future.

This is really a very simple distinction. An archive is designed for long term preservation of material while a backup file is for disaster recovery or to restore lost or corrupted data.

Deciding what to archive is a very personal decision taking both time and personal review.

Some people avoid the whole decision making process and just archive everything. If you have the space, time and organizational skills, that is certainly one way to do it. Depending on how extensive your collection is, it might take some time to get things organized for an archive.

But if you don’t have the space or the patience to deal with the minutia, identify those places where you have photographs stored – the hard drive in your computer or laptop, on your tablet, your phone, your online accounts, etc. Pull out or copy the photographs you consider the most important. These can be of your family, your vacations, events you attended, etc. And you don’t need to limit the number of photographs. Depending on your storage space you can archive as many or as few as you want.

You should archive a copy of each book you complete. You can archive all of the photographs, research, early drafts, etc., as work product for the book, but the important thing to archive is the finished book. Work product is all of the stuff that led to the final, finished, published draft.

If you have done any commercial work, all of that should be archived in case the client wants access to the material in the future.

When to archive may seem like keen perception of the obvious but an archive in vastly different from a simple backup and should be treated that way. Files you are archiving should be ones that are no longer being actively used.

There are more than a few ways to organize the photographs for archiving but the two that seem to make the most sense are by file structure or by structured tagging.

In the former approach, you would gather all of the photographs relating to a particular subject into a single folder and give that folder an explicit and descriptive name that can’t be mistaken for any other in the archive. These names are not cryptic, ‘cutsey’ or ‘creative’ but very matter-of-fact specific. A folder with photographs of a vacation to the family reunion in Davenport, IA, could be named “2018 vacation to family reunion in July at Uncle Jacob’s farm Davenport IA”. The names of the photographs in the folder would be similar in their specificity. “Molly and Billy Jackson (cousins) winning the three legged race on Saturday”. You don’t need to restate any information from the folder name as we assume the activity was at the 2018 family reunion.

The other approach is to simply tag all of the photographs with as much information as possible. This can take a considerable amount of time and you will need to develop a tagging structure to assure information will be consistent both between photographs in a specific folder and between folders.

Preparing the photographs – and this is where it might get a bit dicey given current photography workflow and consciousness -

There is no way to predict what computer or imaging systems will look like 25 or 50 years in the future. They may be all internet based. Or maybe not. They may be virtual reflective data transmission based (whatever that is). Maybe not. They may be some form of organic artificial-intelligence based technology. Or not.

But one thing is certain, if past is prologue, the file format is not going away. In the very early days of computing some “experts” predicted that those pesky three-letter file extensions used to identify file types ‘would be a thing of the past very soon’.

Uh… didn’t happen.

When considering the file format to use for archiving, the goal is to create as sustainable an archive as possible. Sustainability means that the archive is will be viable/usable/accessable over time.

This demands that the format chosen for archiving be an open standard and optimized for photographic reproduction. It must be well supported and well documented in the public sphere. It must have a long and extremely stable development history. It must be universally accepted.

In reality all of that leaves only two file formats- the JPEG and the TIFF.

Some may argue that camera raw files are the best to archive but these files are proprietary, subject to the whims of the various manufacturers and don’t meet most of the requirements for sustainability. The DNG format (digital negative format) could be used but it does not have wide support.

It is strongly recommended you save your photographs in both JPEG and TIFF formats.

When saving a JPEG for archiving it is recommended that you save it at a quality of 100, with the photometric set to the RGB colorspace and with the Huffman table optimized. This will give you an astonishingly large JPEG file but remember that this file is intended for archival use and not for distribution in a production environment. The goal here is to have as much data as possible in the archive file.

When saving the image as a TIFF file, save it as a 24-bit file. Make sure it is uncompressed and the photometric is set to the RGB colorspace. Again this may not be in your normal workflow but these files are going for archiving and not a production environment.

These files are now considered the ‘original’ files for archiving purposes.

For books you have finished, you can save it as a PDF/X3 format with both color and grayscale image downsampling set to 300DPI and ‘best quality jpeg’ selected with the photometric set to the CMYK colorspace. All of the pre-press options should be set to off save for the overprint black. This will give you a very large PDF file but, as the fonts used in the book are now embedded in the file, the book is completely self-contained. And as with the image files, this PDF is intended for archival use and not for distribution in a production environment.

The preceding is one archival processing, however, this version of PDF is not widely used outside the commercial printing industry or routinely offered in word processing or desktop publishing software.

The recommended archival process is to use either a garden-variety PDF 1.7 or 1.5 format. To make this an archival file you have to make sure that all of the fonts are embedded and that the file is complete and self contained. There should be no javascript or hyperlinks to outside resources.

Many sources hold that an archival PDF needs to be in the CMYK color space. If the file is intended for release to a commercial printer this might be advisable, but if not, it is recommended to keep the color space in RGB.

When saving the archival PDF 1.7 or 1.5 make sure the image compression is set to JPEG with the highest quality selected and that the downsampling or resolution is set to 300dpi.

A note about embedded fonts – most software applications producing PDF files embed the fonts by default. To check that the fonts have been embedded, open the document after it is saved in a dedicated PDF viewer (Adobe Acrobat Reader, Okular, etc.) and select the “Properties” command under the “File” menu. Click on the “Fonts” tab in the dialogue and it will present you with a list of the fonts used and tell you if they are embedded or not.

Once the archive file is completed, it is strongly recommended that you save your it in at least two different places with at least one being a removable USB hard drive. To assure the most compatibility, it is recommended you use the FAT32 file system for this drive. The other location for saving your archive could be another removable hard drive, an online location, etc.

There are concerns voiced about the longevity of a hard drive. Critics have all of the horror stories about a brand new drive failing 17 days after it was purchased, losing all of the irreplaceable family photographs that were put on it.

The usual specification for hard drive longevity is MTBF or Mean Time Between Failure. Some manufacturers claim an mtbf rating of 50,000 hours. Others claim 30,000 hours. Some web hosting companies, where hard drives are running constantly, use a three-year replacement cycle or approximately 26,200 hours.

Lets assume you archive data monthly and the drive you use is in operation for four hours a month. Even at the lowest mtbf rating, assuming you take reasonable care of the drive and don’t use it to drive nails or scoop out dirt to plant your tomatoes, the drive will last more than 500 years in theory.

While we certainly don’t know what the state of computing or imaging will be in 25 or 50 years, it would seem logical to assume that whatever the technology is, it will still be able to read a USB interfaced hard drive. Some may argue that the floppy disk and the zip drive have died but it certainly appears that with the universal acceptance of both USB technology and hard drive technology, they will continue on well into the future.

Internet-based sites may be a good alternative for the second storage location provided they are going to be around into the indeterminate future and you are able to keep the subscription costs covered. Free sites like Google are a viable option as long as you abide by their restrictions. And while considering an online storage site, bear in mind that a number of internet sites limit stored photographs to the JPEG format.

Remember that creating an archive is not a one time effort. You may not make contributions weekly or even monthly but you do have to keep putting important material that you want to preserve into the archive.

Your archive is, after all, a part of your legacy, a part of what you will leave to those who come after you. It is important that your legacy be both as complete as possible and reflect what you feel is important.