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How should I store scans of old photographs?

Question: I’m in charge of scanning old family photo albums (dating back to the 1800s), and an saving them on CDs. After reading many articles, I am confused as to what I should use to save them on. CDs, USBs, external hard drives…. Do you have a suggestion? I don’t want a future generation to go to look or print from them, and find that they no longer are accessible.

Well, the short answer is that I would wave you off of CDs right away. For something that important, I think other solutions are called for.

As I’ve discussed before, the continual progress of storage technologies is an ongoing issue. What we choose today might not be appropriate in a few years or a few decades.

Rather than tell you what you should do, let me tell you what I do in case my photographs are ever of interest to future generations.

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I used to use CDs

Lest you think using CDs was always a problem, I can assure you it wasn’t. In fact, for years it really was the storage medium of choice for all kinds of digital archives, photographs the most common.

CDs are what I used. In fact, I have a large storage bin in my basement full of CDs and a few DVDs onto which I burned backups of images, files, machines and all manner of other digital data that I cared about.

As I said, at the time, it was the long term, offline storage medium of choice.

No longer.

Hard drives

In recent years, I’ve begun to migrate all of my backups and images to hard drives of various flavors.

Mom with Dog
Mom with Dog

My general recommendation is that you:

The reason I specify a USB external hard drive is that I believe the USB interface will be with us for a long time. The drive you have inside the external box may be an old drive that will some day no longer be supported (as is now often the case with IDE drives), but the USB interface hides all that. Yes, someday USB will also be obsolete, but it’s the approach with the longest lasting future that I can see.

And of course, I recommend copying to a second drive as a backup. If there’s only one copy, then it’s not backed up. If that first drive ever dies unexpectedly, you want there to be a backup copy that you can then replicate.


All of my new photographs go immediately to a hard drive on one of my computers. From there they also get automatically backed up to another hard drive on another computer.

However I still have all those old CDs. CDs that, in some cases, are upwards of 20 years old. I’m in the process of copying those to hard drives as well. As we’ve seen, machines are coming without optical drives these days. We also now know that CDs and DVDs have a limited shelf-life.

I recommend migrating everything stored on CDs or DVDs to a hard drive-based solution before the optical discs are no longer readable. I’ve been lucky – so far the only issues I’ve had are with 10 year old DVD-RAM discs. Those 20 year old burned CD-Rs, even though discolored, have been reading just fine.

File formats

One of the important additional things to consider when capturing or archiving any digital data is file format. Will the file format you save as today be something that is reasonably easy for future generations to decode and view?

When it comes to most pictures I recommend the following:

  • When scanning, scan at a higher resolution than you need today. You can always create lower resolution versions from higher, but not the other way around.
  • Always save the highest resolution un-edited original photo. You can’t re-create the original from a photograph that’s been cropped or otherwise altered.
  • Save in .jpg format, with the highest quality setting.

Much like the USB interface, I think that .jpg is going to be around for a long time – perhaps someday not as a photograph creation format, but I’m convinced that .jpg images will be viewable for decades, if not hundreds of years from now.

Now, here I violate one of my own rules: I save all of my photos taken with my Nikon camera in .nef format. This format, often called “camera raw” actually includes more information about the image than does .jpg. The problem is that this information is often camera-specific, or at least manufacturer specific. Here I’m placing a bet that Nikon, or software that can read Nikon formats, will be around long enough.

One more word about backing up

One of the things I realized when I took a multi-week trip some years ago is that next to my life and the experiences I would have on the trip, the only truly irreplaceable items with me would be the photographs I took. As a result I took extra steps to make sure that they were backed up in case of both digital failure (like a hard drive failure) or loss. In addition to copying them to a USB drive that accompanied me on the trip (which traveled separately from my computer – for safety), I also mailed flash memory cards with photos back home periodically.

That extra level of caution when it comes to irreplaceable photographs has me taking an extra step as well: I back them all up to the cloud.

In my case, I go all geeky and have a batch file that once a week updates a copy of my entire digital photo collection stored on Amazon’s S3 data storage service. It could just as easily be stored elsewhere, however, using any of a variety of online backup and storage services.

And that’s what I also recommend you seriously consider.

It could be as simple as uploading everything to Dropbox, or Flickr, or Picasa, or it could involve using a specific cloud backup service. But the important thing to consider is the value of those photographs – even if only to you – and whether or not an additional backup copy stored off-site, in the cloud, is an extra layer of safety you want to invest in.

Obviously, for me, the answer was clear.


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51 comments on “How should I store scans of old photographs?”

  1. I remember Leo’s article on mailing SD cards, and I did this until Cloud storage became ubiquitous. Now I copy them to my DropBox and OneDrive folders.

    I also take a lot of photos with my Droid. All of my photos are automatically backed up to DropBox, FaceBook and Google Plus. DropBox then places a copy on all three of my computers one of which is backed up nightly. Overkill? Definitely, but it’s completely effortless. When it comes to backup, there’s no such thing as overkill.

    • I actually investigated cloud storage back when I took that trip. My problem was that my photos are large (.nef) and internet connectivity wasn’t guaranteed everywhere, and where it was wasn’t guaranteed to be fast enough to upload those photos in a reasonable amount of time. Like you I now have my phone photos automatically uploaded to dropbox. VERY handy to have them appear on the desktop moments after taking them. Kinda wish my Nikon could do that.

      • I’ve often wondered why if PictBridge cameras could access a network printer, why can’t they take it a step further and make something like a CloudBridge to automatically upload from a camera to a cloud server. (anybody want to take my copyrighted idea and work with me on it? :-) )

        • Mark Jacobs, you mean something like this, I think: I haven’t tried it, and I assume there are other options. A friend mentioned that he actually used a CompactFlash-SD adapter and the SD-wifi card worked fine in his CF slot. On top of that, I think (but I’m not certain) that he has two slots and the photos are recorded to both a regular SD card and to his computer via the eyefi card simultaneously.

  2. I use a “double file” standard when shooting (RAW+jpg) and the RAW format is one developed by Adobe and -known as DNG (Digital Negative)- which is an open source format :)

  3. Preservation is a big issue with librarians and libraries. We wonder if today’s media will be readable in the future. For example my library has archival tapes, but no one saved a tape player to view them. The advice that Leo gives is good, but so far the only media that has stood the test of time is an archival quality print. It can be viewed without special equipment. Even the best digital preservation is only as good as the meta data that is used to retrieve it. Imagine you have all you photographs on USB drives; you are long dead and no one knows what is on the drive. Will the drives be lost in a drawer?

    The only answer is to not rely on one way to preserve the photos. Store in multiple formats, create meta data, and leave instructions.

  4. I use CrashPlan for all of my backup; I like it because it not only will back up to my external USB drive (free) and to CrashPlan’s cloud (paid) but also to an external USB drive at my father-in-law’s house (also free). I have him backing up to my drive and my computer backing up to his. I initially created the backup on his drive by bringing it home and doing a full backup to it (I have about 200 times as much stuff backed up, so doing it locally at first was important) and then taking it to him and getting it hooked up.

  5. When I take a trip I may take 300-500 pictures. I change memory cards for each major location of the trip if traveling to several places . When editing the pictures, I create a different file for each location. The final step is to print only the best of the best pictures. I try to print no more than 30-50 highlights of the trip. The highlights are the pictures I show to friends and family. I do have a few friends who will ask to see all the pictures. I open my computer file and let those friends view the pictures as slowly or quickly as they choose while I make dinner.

    You have convinced me to buy an extra external drive for all my pictures. My backup in the past has been, first, older trips–CDs and DVDs. In more recent years I used flash drives. Time to put it all together, using one medium. Thanks for the good advice!!

  6. I was told lthat static or a magnet – forget which it was – could erase a USB drive. Is that true? If so, it doesn’t seem like a reliable way to store photos.

  7. 1. I suggest that scans are stored in .tiff format – uncompressed. You can always convert them to .jpeg (or whatever) later.
    2. Make sure the photos are dated (do not rely on the automatic ‘creation date”) and properly described (“Auntie Flo, her dog Winnie
    and son Frank at their home in Upper Hollow, Arizona”)

  8. My 2TB external hard drive went cold on me two years ago with less than 700 gigs of space remaining. Cost of retrieving the information was $500, but with no guarantee that it would be successful. We were traveling in our RV throughout North America with no permanent residence at the time. However, I had a second external backup on two 1 TB external, which I kept in the back of our truck; and I had another external backup, this on hidden in the travel trailer. I updated all 3 drives at the beginning of each month, plus I kept important photos on a flash drive. When the 2TB went out, I bought a new one and began the arduous process of transferring from one of the externals and realized that in the disorganization of traveling, some of the files weren’t backed up on that drive. That’s when the second external came to the rescue. I saved myself $500. With all the photos I take and retain in RAW and .jpeg, it’s expensive to send them to an online storage site.

    • I agree – online storage can add up. I currently have 180gig of photos – it’s only through my business setup that I can back them up online cost-effectively. The good news is that often alternatives – like backing up to a friend’s hard drive in another location, or multiple hard drives as you have – can often mitigate the most common risks.

  9. I’m really old fashioned. I transferred all of our home movies and 35mm slides starting with my father’s Kodak 16mm film dating back to circa 1910 on VCR tape, pre-CD availability. Problem is, I can’t find a good way to transfer from the tapes. Being, we are talking about 8 hours of tape recording commercial transfers to CDs is price prohibited. Any suggestions?

    • Find a hard drive recorder and play the tapes back into it. You then have video you can edit as necessary.
      There are also all sorts of video to computer packages out there.
      Another method is a video camera with mini-DV tape that has A/V inputs (most fully digital won’t take the input from a VCR) and then transfer it to your computer via firewire.

      You are lucky. Some of my tapes are on Super Beta format so I will have to get a running player to transfer them.
      I am looking for somewhere that can transfer about twelve 400 foot reels of 8mm and Super 8 film to HD AVCHD files. That should capture all the resolution of the film.

      • I have about 2,000 ft of 16mm dating back to 1936 (in Central Africa). One place will do it – at £1 a foot ! Unfortunately, the old “nitrate” film stock is very flammable…

  10. Mitsui Gold CD-R have a storage life of 300+ years. They’re pricey compared to standard CD-R’s but if you want future generations to see what great, great, great, etc grandpa did in his wild and crazy days they look like a good option.

    • Not much use, as Leo says, if you can’t get a machine to play them. I still have some punched paper tapes ! Luckily, *I* can (just about) read them….

  11. Leo, these are all good suggestions. However, they don’t address the more daunting issue of organizing the digital photos and making them user-friendly. After all, they really aren’t of much use just saved, they should be shared and viewed.

    • You might use a picture manager, but then you’re at the mercy of their design and continuity.
      A simple and safe procedure is this: edit the name of each picture from e.g. img00034567 to a format of your choice that describes the properties of the image. I use yyyy-mm-dd-location-subject-label1-label2-label3-… A label can be the name of a person, or anything else. I organize the photos in folders (1 folder for each date).
      This approach is simple, flexible, easy to use and future proof. With the search function of any file manager you can retrieve any photos you have given the labels that are relevant for you. And you can find the photos that were not labeled for an aspect that you later find relevant, if you know the date. The labelling may seem to be a lot of work, but date and subject can be copy-pasted for groups of images, and some file managers (like my favorite, xplorer2) can do a mass rename (with F2, in this manager) to prepare the ground, after which you add the detail labels by hand.
      It works for me!

      • Thank you, Hans. That does seem like a lot of work, not necessarily for ongoing but to do this for all of my existing photos. But you are absolutely right about being at the mercy of the photo managers. I didn’t want to go into a lot of detail (okay, whining) on my original post but one huge problem I’ve encountered with both Picasa and Dropbox is that despite my uploading them in the order I want (typically chronological) and/or being able to reorder them as I want once uploaded, neither of these services stores them in that same order for those I grant viewing rights and also doesn’t allow the viewers to reorder them chronologically. (Whew, long sentence!) It seems pretty dumb to me that photo managers wouldn’t recognize that a lot, if not most, people don’t want their photos looked at in alphabetical order but rather in chronological order or some order intended by the person posting them! Okay, I’m going to believe, or pretend to believe, that there is a good reason they do this but I don’t really care to know what it is. I also don’t like the limited free storage as I am plagued by limited funds. I was all set to start using Amazon Cloud as the free storage is significantly larger but then they took away the file sharing capability. Sooooo…., looks like I’ll be implementing your suggestion so that I can keep the photos in chronological order via alphanumeric ordering by title. The reason I didn’t do this to begin with was I thought I would be clever and kill two birds with one stone (i.e. save time) by labeling them with the captions I desired so I wouldn’t have to go through a separate captioning process and risk that the caption I create on my file copy may not be compatible with the process of the photo manager (i.e. I would have to type in all the captions AGAIN). In a nutshell, I think what I’m trying to say is that being at the mercy of the photo manager means I have to put information in the way they want it but my backups are not automatically going to have that same information because they will by necessity be in a different format.

        Okay, I feel better getting that off of my chest! If anyone has any other ideas, I’m all ears … err … eyes. Thanks.

        • I agree – I use the same file-naming system. I have written a routine in Excel that enables me to rename files easily. It loads up the existing file names into Column A, then you can use a formula to generate the filenames you require into Column B, and then “press the button” and it renames every file in column A with the corresponding names you have put into Column B. My folders also follow the same naming system:- yyyymmdd subject, with each year’s pix in a single folder bearing the year’s number.

  12. Use TIFF format rather than JPG as it is lossless.

    “Lossless means there is no quality loss due to compression. Lossless guarantees that you can always read back exactly what you thought you saved, bit-for-bit identical, without data corruption. This is a critical factor for archiving master copies of important images. Most image compression formats are lossless, with JPG and Kodak PhotoCD PCD files being the main exceptions.”

    • [Sorry, re. .TIF files – which I think are a lot bigger than .PNGs, &c. – I should have hit ‘Reply’ to this specific message rather than go to the foot of the page and reply to the whole lot. Red-faced apologies. Anyway, please see below.]

  13. It is unfortunately the rule that when difficult, social or technical issues are discussed, the underlying cultural assumptions are not questioned. In this case, long-term or forever storage is clearly assumed to be the holy grail.
    What about the view that long term maintenance of data is not a technical issue but a human attention issue? In other words, maybe
    the answer is to recopy and reevaluate all valuable data every ten or twenty years as formats and assumptions change. This requires a program of going back on a schedule and thinking about the storage. In 100 years, I would guess that 99% of all this careful storage will be junk of no interest to anyone. There will be many standard pictures of every place you visited on your trip and no one will want to see strangers standing in front of Ayers Rock. Your great great progeny only need a few pictures of their great grandfather, not 500 in every location on earth. How many pictures will capture that one detail in the background that no one realized was important at the time. Damned few. Historical images may have interest but not fifty billion of them. What gives importance to old data is human attention. When that fades, will robot attention substitute? Who knows, but you could argue it I suppose. Data retention does not equal life extension.

  14. A nice question is whether your great-great-grandchildren will be interested in a whole lot of pictures starring you, your wife, your dog etc. etc. I guess they look at a few pictures, yawn and start doing something else. I have some pictures starring my great-great-grandfather (died 1894) and yes, it’s interesting, but I am glad I don’t have to go through thousands of pictures of his trips (which he probably didn’t make) to find something worth my time. The pictures I made myself are interesting for me, but I am sure that most of them will not move the offspring of my children. We are not that important. And you folks aren’t either.

    • Everything is relative ( – oops was that a pun?) I meant that, yes, I would like it if hundreds of photos of my Dad had survived. I am also greatly disappointed that nobody took photos of my great-grandparents’ early life (who were born in the 1870s) but sadly not everyone had a camera in those days. It wouldn’t matter to me if nobody else, e.g. my children, cared to see them, maybe their children’s children would gain from it – a very individual, and I would say often momentary, personal opinion decides each time whether any thing is valuable / worthwhile or not.

  15. Yes, there’s .TIF . . . and, Leo, isn’t .PNG better than ..JPG? Anything that’s not ”lossless” is surely not good enough.

    Also, can anyone give me the spec. I would need to copy (too many) VHS tapes to computer?

    Many thanks.

  16. I started with 3.5″ floppies and since after 22 years I have over 90 GB of all kinds of media files, still find stuff from 10-15 years ago where somebody finally dropped the long dormant website yet I still have a link saved and since I practically live on used computers I’ve amassed a TONNE of all kinds of music (but gangsta and baby songs of the same drive?) and I am always editing the archives and saving it again, to disc and hard drive.

    My cameras are ALL old Sony Mavicas that use floppies so I always have one PC up with at least a USB floppy drive…only a couple of them take an SD card.

    From all of this you can probably tell that people are still pretty lax about what they leave on drives around here. I had to locate the previous owner of an old HP once and retrieve images for them once, and that only happened because I knew who the owner was by the content and it was a local find.

    I dread dealing with CD-Rs I can see through but I also use lower burn speeds those with backup and for my annual Christmas music albums. It’s easy to rip and burn a new copy for most people anyhow…not so much around 1999 when I got my first CD-RW drive.

  17. I think this was an excellent article & comments; thank you all. I have a Nikon 5100 so will look at the benefit of the Nikon raw format or maybe TIFF. I have no complaints with JPG so far and less storage is a benefit to me. I doubt my photography will ever warrant the high res of RAW type format.

    Again, thank you all!

  18. When did this become a social issue? The article is about HOW to store photos on a long term basis…not WHY. To those that feel that future generations will not be interested in our photos I ask you this…Why are genealogy websites so popular? I for one have thousands of family photos going back almost 100 years that I am forever thankful for. Photography is the only true time machine there is. Therefore perhaps it is in a way an extension of life…Just a thought…

  19. I have a USB thumb Drive, put out by Lexor, that has a program called “Echo” on it. It is always plugged into my computer and whenever I add something to my laptop, a picture, a document, basically anything, it is automatically updated onto the thumb drive in the same format that the item is added to the laptop. Then, at the end of the day, I use GoodSync and backup my hard drive to an external USB hard drive. I also backup any important photos to the cloud.

  20. I suggest adding the date and a description of the photo to the metadata /within/ each JPEG image, so that this information will be available with the photo wherever it goes. GPS data can also be added, and this is done automatically by some cameras. Some software can display the description and date automatically when the image is viewed. See discussion and screenshots at
    I recommend the ‘Flat view’ of the thread. Also, note ‘View: original size’ to get a better view of the screenshots.

    • “I suggest adding the date and a description of the photo to the metadata /within/ each JPEG image”
      I have not been able to add partial dates to metadata, and most old photos dont have complete dates.
      Does anyone know of a way to add a partial date?

  21. @Daniel Stuhlman: (and others)…
    IMHO it really is a big loss that we have nearly completely eradicated pre-digital (analogue) photography.
    What I would consider doing with very old photographs (apart from restaurating and protecting from further decay) is (you guesed it) photographing them using high quality analogue equipement (camera, lenses, lamps,..), high grade film (two or three different ISO-values depending on future use – e.g. for projection, long term conservation) and a really good setup (constant temperature and humidity, no vibrations, no flahlights(!)). I know: a costintensive and timeconsuming job. And by then you haven’t even made a paper ‘print’ yet :-( But no other medium will give you the same long lasting, secure archive for many future generations to consult.
    I really do not trust digital storage… The hardware itself is purposefully programmed to break down beyond repair.


    • The one thing that digital makes trivial, however, is making copies – perfect copies. That’s why I prefer it. Make several copies on several different types of storage media and the likelihood of them all going obsolete or breaking at the same time is virtually zero. Backing up is something that you can do with exactly zero loss of fidelity and so much more trivially with digital than you can with film and paper.

    • Alas! You are perhaps mis-informed. I friend has been in battle with the Archive Department of Burton-on-Trent, who have boxes and BOXES of ancient photographs that anyone may look at. But they refuse to allow any copies – ANY copies – for fear of “copyright”. The photographs are gradually deteriorating; soon, they will be just black pieces of paper with no detail at all….

  22. One way to keep from saving so many pictures is to not take so many pictures. Digital doesn’t make it any easier, but the rule should be, as it usually was in film days, “first find the picture, then take it,” not take many pictures, hoping to find one worth saving. The lady who takes hundreds of pictures while on vacation and keeps them all won’t find many very good ones. Ansel Adams used to hike in Yosemite with 12 plates and was disappointed if he didn’t come back with 11 good photos.

  23. Thank you all SO very much for the inputs!!!! I’ll be saving this to read and digest several times! It has given me much to think about, but initially I have decided to use not only my CD back-ups, but buy an external hard drive, and large storaged USBs! I do like the thoughts on scaling down present-day pictures, and weeding out duplicate and not-so-great photos. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I guess retirement won’t be so boring! Barry

  24. I’ve been using Cd’s, but I’m thinking about switching to flash drives with small amounts of memory so I can store one year of photos at a time. That way if I lose some I’ve only lost a year. I can store them in a wallet-type case made for DS games, and then when I’m gone my kids can decide what to keep. I also do still print photos for a photo album once a year, but not everything. Just a sampling of the year, though sometimes my “sampling” is more like 400 photos for the album. Oh, well. We like to look at them and it’s easy in print. I think I would fear losing too much with an external hard drive, though it does sound like a good idea to have everything in one place. So I have three storage devices — computer hard drive, then CD which will soon become flash drive, and then print as well. I guess that’s plenty.

    • Flash drives are a risky method of storage. They tend to eventually wear out from repeated use. CDs and DVDs can wear out over time. If you do use flash drives (or any storage method for that matter), you should have multiple backup copies (minimum 3 in my opinion). Possibly having copies on removable hard drives which so far seem to have the longest shelf lives, other flash drives and online storage web sites like Flickr, Dropbox, MS OneDrive and Google Drive. The more copies the safer they’ll be.

  25. I am having great difficulty getting pictures included in a Christmas family letter to print out at the receiver s end.
    The result is unpredictable. Sometimes the illustration appears sometimes there is a lank space.


    illustrationszl [ pmes come out, sometimes there is a blank.


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