Future-Proof Your Digital Photos With Better Archiving Techniques

Future-Proof Your Digital Photos With Better Archiving Techniques

The Smithsonian Institute previously provided tips on preserving old photographs, but your digital photos could use some tending as well. Here’s how you (or your photo-obsessed relatives) can future-proof precious shots with better naming, backups (off-site and USB) and smarter photo picks.

The following is republished with permission from the Behind the Scenes blog at the Smithsonian Institute.
Top image: Kodak Fotomat, 1960’s, by Roadsidepictures, Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic.

Digital photography has made it much easier to capture special moments in our lives. Folks who carry camera phones can always be ready to point and shoot everything from an impromptu family football game to a carefully staged portrait of folks in matching sweaters. There is no longer the need to worry about having only two shots left on a roll of film during the school play or coming back from the drive-through Fotomat or drugstore with fuzzy prints.


Matching Christmas Sweaters, by Matthew Bietz, Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.

The holidays provide great opportunities for lots of picture taking. As the season is winding down, now can be the perfect time to organise recent digital images you’ve made, while events and memories are still fresh in your mind.

Some tips:

Make the time. Set aside an afternoon or evening to focus on your digital images.

Transfer them to your computer from your phone or digital memory card. Quite often you only need to connect your camera to your computer to conduct a step-by-step transfer to it. There also are a variety of image software programs to do this on a PC or Mac. These programs can manage your images by date, location or name, and provide editing functionality such as sharpening, cropping and red-eye removal.

Be aggressive about deleting bad images. Delete blurred, duplicate or unwanted photos. This can be done on the camera before you transfer pictures to the computer or after. If you do this on the camera, you don’t have to worry about the need to delete an image twice.


This image was renamed from DSCN2773 to Max_Alex_102010_1.JPG, Courtesy Lynda Schmitz Fuhrig.

File names. Photos usually import into computers with a string of letters and numbers that is part of the camera’s default naming standard such as DSCN0070.JPG and provide no description about the images themselves. Some newer cameras do allow you to set some of the naming formats.

Consider renaming the set of images to something more meaningful. Some options include the date, the name of the person or event or some combination of all of them. I recommend at least including the date in some manner.




Another option is to group the images into named folders within the ‘My Pictures’ folder on the computer or within the image management program. In some instances you can use batch processes to name the files and/or folders. Be consistent once you adopt a naming standard.

Metadata (data about data). Some programs also provide the option to add keywords and other information about an image. Facial recognition is another feature with some packages that allow you to assign the name to a person and the program will match up other photos of that person in your files (it is not perfect and will select other people in some instances). This additional data can make searching easier.

Multiple copies. Even if you do not plan to print out your images, you can store copies with an online photo sharing service and share them with others.


Printing photos, by Chuck Brown, Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic.

Print out the best ones. I still believe in printed images, and there are a number of physical stores or online photo printing companies that will create prints.

Backup. Don’t rely only on the images stored on your computer or device. While you may have the images on a photo-sharing site mentioned above, also keep copies on CDs, external hard drives or thumbdrives. And don’t forget about these backups either as you change hardware and software.

Investing a little time now to organise this year’s holiday memories will pay off in the future.

Lynda Schmitz Fuhrig is an Electronic Archivist at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, which maintains the Bigger Picture blog on visual archives. This post comes to us via The Atlantic.


  • Since getting a digital camera in 2002 I’ve been using a very simple solution, create a folder called “Camera”, and after each day’s shooting create a new folder called “YYYY-MM-dd Event Description”. It makes it really easy to locate photos:

    2010-01-01 New Years day-Camping at Melbourne
    2010-05-21 Something in may
    2010-12-25-30 Xmas with family in Sydney
    2011-01-01 New Years Day trip to Melbourne Botanical Gardens

    That way you can always find what you’re after, and you don’t need to worry about renaming the files indivually.

    If you prefer renaming files individually it can be a lot easier to edit the list in a text editor. A great tool to help with this is Files2Text. You can find it on Google Code: http://code.google.com/p/files2text/

  • Great article, but it left off two vital things and one point I disagree with:

    1. File format; convert all your files to Tiff, space is no longer a problem, and the Smithsonian uses Tiffs for archiving.

    2. Set the date on your camera! It takes less than a minute to do on any camera and will help you sort them later if you don’t rename your files or if you don’t download your memory card often enough.

    Point of disagreement: deleting unwanted photos on a camera. Do it on your computer. The screen is bigger and better to assess if a photo is worth keeping, and easier to delete multiple.

    • “1. File format; convert all your files to Tiff, space is no longer a problem, and the Smithsonian uses Tiffs for archiving.”

      I disagree if the original file is a common type. i.e. JPG. Future support for this format will not be lost because if it’s high integration in technology. (that being said, how many mobile phones can currently open a tiff file?)

      If you have a RAW format from a SLR or custom camera software, It is a good idea to use Tiff. JPEG format in this instance would loose too much information defeating the point of shooting in RAW format.

      • I don’t disagree B8two, but what I think you have touched on in a round about way is the difference between usability and archiving. Jpg is (usually) compressed, Tiff isn’t, that was the sole reason I agreed with Smithsonian. Tiff useless on a smartphone (for now), but if you want to preserve it with out losing quality, Tiff.

  • I agree to some extent with Jack, though I’d make a few extra points as well.

    File naming.
    1. Don’t put metadata in the filename. This saves from having to make the decision whether these photos are about Max or NYE 2011.
    2. Give the photo a unique id as soon as possible. Never change this. This helps you find duplicates, and match metadata / derivative files to the original. I use –.ext e.g. joshka-20110101-1234.DNG. It’s simple to automate this.
    3. Don’t bother deleting stuff. Storage is too cheap to make it worth your while. Use metadata to mark files as not interesting instead. Who knows you might delete the only pic of you and your nephew as a kid who turns out to be someone influential.
    4. Backup is not a single task, but a strategy. Read a great book on Digital Asset Management called ‘The DAM Book’ by Peter Krogh.

  • “keep copies on CDs,”

    Can I remind everyone that this sounds like a good Idea, but it is not! Burned CD’s degrade (~3 to ~10 years) and are not suitable for a long archive purposes.

    I have had issues with recovering data from discs when I was of the opinion that it was the best method.

    I looked into the facts and all storage solutions degrade over time, just at different rates. The best solution is to always transferring your collection to new media every few years on a schedule. (i.e. a USB hard drive upgrade.)

    USB Hard drive is the cheapest solution for a large amount of data. (Faster and cheaper then CD, DVD, Blue-ray or Internet)

    1TB USB =~$90 (used as an example there are cheaper options, i.e. 2TB drive, XX store sale, etc.)

    1TB =~ 222 DVD’s 222x $0.50 = $111 plus 15 mins each time you want to store ~4.5 GB. This will take 55+ hours to store requiring your input every 15 mins, where the USB drive could complete in 12 hours (over night) without your input.
    Equivalent price for space = $0.4054 per disc

    1TB =~ 1428 CD’s 1428x $0.30 = $428 plus 8 mins each time you want to store ~0.7 GB. Enough said.
    Equivalent price for space = $0.063 per disc

    Blue-ray .. burner costs more then the 1TB drive… enough said. Still would need 40 Blank Discs and I am unsure of their cost.
    Equivalent price for space = $2.25 per disc

    Internet… Will cost more then $90 for 1TB, (storage location, cost of data transfer, etc.)

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