Michael Caswell Photography

Safeguarding Your Wedding Pictures

A while back a bride whose wedding I had photographed about seven years prior emailed me with the terrible news that her parent's house had burned down. Fortunately, no one was hurt in the blaze, but her wedding images had been stored there and were destroyed, and the couple had not kept any off-site backups.
The good news was that I still had her images in my archives, and was able to send a replacement to her. Though my contractual responsibility for storing your wedding or portrait session does end once you receive the images, I have no intention of deleting these older images. However, once events and portraits have been delivered to clients, I do reduce the number of redundant backups that I maintain, so I cannot guarantee that I will still have your images in the future if the need arises.
With that in mind, here are some guidelines for ensuring your images are preserved and protected for you and for future generations.

Print Your Images!

Are physical prints of photographs an anachronism in today's digital world? Absolutely not! As part of a long-term preservation plan, you should print at least some of your wedding photographs, and this is especially true if you did not purchase an album with your photography package.
First and foremost, though this topic is not the main subject of this article, prints are the best way for you, friends, and family to enjoy your wedding photographs now! A few framed prints on the wall, a beautiful wedding album resting on the coffee table, or even a decorative box of loose prints all have a much greater chance of actually being viewed and appreciated than images that only exist as digital files on a computer. But, getting back on-topic, let's discuss the preservation aspect of printed photographs.

While digital images stored electronically can, if good practices on archiving and backing up are adhered to, literally last indefinitely with absolutely no degradation in quality, it's frighteningly easy to completely lose these precious images forever if proper procedures are not followed and you get hit with a little bad luck. Computer viruses and ransomware, hardware failure, and human error (accidentally trashing a folder of images for instance) are all examples of ways your important files can be lost.

In climate-controlled conditions, professional-quality photographic prints will last over 100 years when displayed in typical home lighting, or over 200 years if carefully stored in darkness, providing a fallback that is completely non-dependent on technology, requiring nothing but a pair of eyes to be able to view.

Another factor falls under the much broader topic of one's "digital legacy" (which is to say, what happens to all your electronically-stored stuff and online accounts when you die?). For instance, imagine that your photos are only stored on your computer, and perhaps even backed up to a cloud service. If no family member knows your computer password, they will not be able to unlock it. And if you don't have appropriate provisions in your will and/or leave clear instructions for how to access files that are stored online, loved ones will likely have no way to retrieve them. Eventually the account will be disabled, and the contents deleted forever.

More and more cloud services are implementing measures to address this, such as the ability to name a "legacy contact" who will be granted access to your files should you pass away.

Of course, the need to preemptively address this eventuality is not limited to wedding photographs, but regardless, even if you make all the appropriate provisions, and your surviving family members can get access to your computer, there's still a chance that some things could slip through the cracks. A shoebox of photographs in a closet, a photo album on a bookshelf, or a framed print on the wall from your wedding is much harder to be overlooked and inadvertently discarded than images that only exist as digital files, which family members might not be able to access, or even know are there at all.

To be fair, photos that only exist as prints have their own vulnerabilities too, as they can easily be destroyed by disasters like floods, fires, tornadoes, etc., and will also gradually fade over time, which leads us to the topic of how to ensure your digital images are protected.

Maintain Multiple Backups, Including Off-Site Copies

I recommend maintaining at a bare minimum, at least three backups of your images (in addition to your readily accessible working copy on your computer), with at least one (clearly labeled) copy stored at a different location, such as at an office, a safety deposit box at a bank, or a relative’s home. For even greater protection against natural disasters, consider storing an off-site backup in a geographically distant location. For instance, my wife stores a copy of our family's personal photographs and videos at her parents house in another state. We typically visit once or twice a year, so each time, she brings a portable hard drive that has been updated with the latest additions, and swaps it out with the one that had been left there previously.
Cloud-based storage (see below) is another option for fulfilling the need for off-site backups.
Optical discs (DVD, or Blu-ray if you need more capacity for additional files) have long been a practical choice for making backups of files that will not be changing frequently (such as photographs). In addition to being inexpensive and compact, they also cannot be erased, whether by accident or maliciously by a virus. Use high-quality write-once media (not rewritable), and make your multiple backups on different brands of discs. While optical media is clearly declining in use in recent years, with most new computers sold now not including built-in drives, external drives and media are still widely available.
USB flash drives are another easy and convenient way to store and transport copies of your images and other important files, as are small portable hard drives.


Be Mindful of Media Longevity & Reliability

Storage devices and media do not last forever, and it's a big mistake to assume that the data will be safe even if just the media is just written to once and set aside in a drawer or closet.
DVDs were for a long time the most common method of backing up and storing images, though their use has been greatly reduced in recent years. For standard DVD data retention, a NIST accelerated aging study conducted for the Library of Congress indicated that data written to high quality DVD media should remain intact for at least 30 years when stored in stable and ideal conditions. However, anecdotal evidence of much shorter lifespans suggests that this estimate may be overly optimistic. The organic dye layer that is used to record the data is subject to degradation over time, which can vary dramatically from brand to brand.
Other storage devices, such as USB flash drives and hard drives also have limited lifespans and are also subject to sudden mechanical or electronic failure at any time. The most commonly cited estimate by manufacturers for data retention on flash memory is 10 years, but again, this may be overly optimistic, particularly if storage conditions are not ideal. Hard drives are typically able to retain data for a much longer period of time, but there have been reports of the lubricant used in these drives breaking down if they sit on a shelf unused for many years, so although the data might still be intact on the platters, the drive might not be able to spin up.
Regardless of how you choose to store and backup your images, I recommend a very conservative and cautious interpretation of media life estimates. While a backup DVD, flash drive, or hard drive stashed away and forgotten about may very well end up being readable decades later if needed, don’t rely on this. Backing up your wedding photographs (and other important and irreplaceable files) to new media at least every 5 years is prudent and can be done inexpensively.
Additionally, there is a special type of recordable disc (DVD and Blu-Ray) available, called M-DISC, which is claimed by the manufacturer to have a lifespan of hundreds of years, and looks to be a promising solution for long-term data archiving. These discs require a special burner that engraves data onto a much more durable and stable recording surface with a more powerful laser than is required for traditional optical media (which utilize organic dyes that are subject to degradation over time), but are still readable on most standard DVD or Blu-ray drives. A Department of Defense study reinforced the manufacturer's own studies about the projected longevity of this media, but even if this type of disc can indeed last centuries, it should merely be one of several components of your archiving and backup plan, as it does not eliminate the need for redundancy, and obsolescence (discussed below) will eventually also be an issue.

In addition to a USB flash drive for conveniently being able to copy your images to your computer, I currently include an M-DISC archival DVD or Blu-Ray as a backup with most of my wedding packages, and encourage couples to simply stash this disc away in a safe, climate-controlled location (preferably off-site) and forget about it (while also maintaining other backups), leaving the M-DISC as a backup of last resort. Even if you don't have, nor ever plan to buy an optical drive for your computer, you should still retain this disc as an emergency backup of last resort!

Cloud Storage

Cloud-based storage is a convenient way to create an off-site backup of your wedding photographs. DropBox, Google Drive, and many other providers offer customers a fairly large chunk of storage space for free, usually sufficient in size for uploading your entire wedding, and there are also numerous online services such as Backblaze and Carbonite which will automatically backup all your computer’s files online on an ongoing basis. Amazon also offers unlimited photo storage for Prime members.
Because these kinds of large-scale operations will generally have a reasonable degree of redundancy built-in, their storage systems are much less susceptible to data loss from equipment failure than a typical individual's home computer. But a major catastrophe could still possibly result in loss, and human error (yours or the company's), the malicious actions of hackers, or the company simply ceasing operations unexpectedly are all distinct possibilities.
Lastly, as mentioned above, images stored online might not be easily accessible (or their existence even known) to loved ones if something were to happen to you and your spouse. Complicated legal issues can also hinder the ability of even a spouse to gain access to the account of their deceased husband or wife. Apple and other companies are starting to recognize this issue, and are implementing ways for users to designate a person to have access to an account upon the account owner's passing.
But regardless, do not rely on cloud storage as your sole or primary long-term archiving solution, but just consider it to be another component of your backup strategy.

Stay Ahead of Obsolescence

Even aside from the data longevity issues discussed above, media and computer interfaces do eventually become obsolete. Just 30-40 years ago, 5.25" floppy discs dominated the computer storage market (and as a fascinating side note, it would hypothetically take THREE of those discs to store just ONE single modern digital image... a stack of over 3500 discs around 20 feet high would be required for an average complete wedding). But just for the sake of discussion, imagine you had files on a magnetic floppy disc that you needed to restore.
Today, even assuming the data was still intact, it would be quite a technical challenge to equip a computer to be able to read these files, probably requiring a scavenger hunt among flea markets, pawn shops, or eBay for an old computer in working order just to access the files, and then some creative wiring to be able to transfer the files to more modern storage. The 3.5" floppy discs that were in widespread use 20-30 years ago would be easier to retrieve data from, though even this could be a difficult.
Will optical media (CDs and DVDs) such suffer the same fate? Undoubtedly this will occur eventually, and the once ubiquitous optical drives are already routinely omitted as a standard internal feature on new computers, especially laptops (though external drives are still readily available). However, the deep market penetration and broad utilization of optical media, fueled by the fact that backward compatibility so far has been maintained as technology has progressed (the drives for the latest incarnation, Blu-Ray, are still able to read CDs from 40+ years ago, as well as DVDs from over 20 years ago) means the ability to readily access optical media on modern computers will likely continue to be around for quite some time.
Similarly, USB ports are ubiquitous now, and technological improvements to this standard over the years have maintained backward compatibility with the original USB standard that was first introduced in the mid-1990s, so the ability to plug in your USB flash drives and hard drives will not go away any time soon. But at some point in the future some other type of interface or completely wireless technology will take over, and USB will eventually fall by the wayside.
However, the timing of this is all largely speculative, as a direct forecast of what the state of computer technology and media usage will be 30-40 years from now, based on the evolution of computers from 30-40 years ago compared to today, is going to be dramatically skewed by the fact that in the 1980's, the home computer industry was still in its infancy, and only around 8% of households had a personal computer, with today that number being near 80%.
And regardless, in reality these concerns are largely irrelevant, at least during your lifetime, since as long as you follow the established best practices by migrating your images to new media and devices periodically, obsolescence will naturally be addressed, as the current state of storage technology at that time will dictate what you choose for these subsequent backups.

Verify the Integrity of your Images

Another good practice is to verify the integrity of your stored wedding images periodically, especially when backing up to new media or transferring to a newly-purchased computer's hard drive. Consider the possibility that a minor glitch on your hard drive results in a corrupt image, which then either will not open at all, or will have a scrambled appearance. This corruption would likely go unnoticed if you don't happen to try to open that particular image. Unless the damage is severe enough for your operating system to alert you that the file is completely unreadable, subsequent backups would contain this corrupt file, and if it continued to go unnoticed, it's possible that your older backups (which may have still contained a good copy of the file) would have been copied over, lost, or discarded by then, leaving you no way to recover the uncorrupted file.
The easiest way to protect against this is with a utility that is specifically designed to detect the visual characteristics of corrupt images (not just one that simply confirms the files can be read, which may not be enough to catch a mangled photo) with one simple drag and drop of the entire batch of files. A great app for Mac OS is called, appropriately, Corrupt JPEG Checker, available on the Mac App Store, and it is relatively inexpensive ($6 at the time of this writing), though it has not been updated in quite some time. Similar utilities are available for Windows systems.

In Summary

It is important to recognize that the preservation of digital files is a perpetually ongoing task that requires a proactive approach, rather than being a one-time thing that can then be forgotten about. Redundancy and diversity are key. A smart and reliable system of storing your digital images should include multiple types of media, such as a combination of active storage on your computer’s hard drive for easy accessibility, a regularly-accessible external hard drive for normal backups, and several completely offline backups consisting of DVDs or portable hard drives, as well as cloud storage. Aways maintain at least one off-site backup.

Provided you periodically create new verified backups to guard against media degradation and obsolescence, this should be sufficient to ensure your images remain safe for you, your descendants, and other family members to enjoy indefinitely.