Saving your Snapshots: Tips for Preserving Digital Photographs

This post is the second in a series where University Archives’ digital archivist, Meg Tuomala, will explore practical tips for archiving your own personal digital materials. Find earlier posts here.

Does this scene look familiar?


Photo credit: Microsoft Office

These days we all seem to love taking, seeing, and sharing digital photographs. With our cameras and smart phones in hand, we are constantly creating documentary evidence of the places we visit, the people we love, and the lives we live. It’s up to you to ensure that these precious memories are kept safe for future generations. I hope that the four steps outlined here will help you get started preserving your own digital photographs.


The first step is to identify the digital photographs that you’ve taken and where they are located. Cameras, computers, and removable media such as flash drives and those little camera memory cards are a good place to start. And don’t forget about photos you’ve posted to sharing sites on the Web, such as Picasa, Flickr, Snapfish, and even Facebook.


Next you’ll need to decide which photos you want to keep. You can pick a few really great or important photos to keep, or you can pick a lot. This all depends on your own personal preference, but keep in mind the time and storage needed to manage your personal photo collection. If you do happen to have multiple copies of the same photograph keep only the highest quality image.


Now comes the most difficult part: organizing the photos you’ve selected.

You’ll want to give each of the photos a descriptive file name. It’s up to you to decide on a file naming convention, but whatever you decide BE CONSISTENT. Personally, I like to use a file name that briefly describes the content of the image, with the date the photo was taken. For example: 20120704_fourth-of-july_fireworks.JPEG

If you have a large bulk of photos taken at the same event, use variations of the same file name, so it’s easy to sort these later. Do not put any special characters or spaces in the file name, and if you plan on putting photos on the internet don’t use underscores, which will make the Web address very hard to read.

If you’re using an application that allows you to do so, tag the photos with people, places, names, events, and subjects.

Next you’ll need to create a directory or folder structure on your computer to put the photos in. There is no right or wrong way to do this, so just use a scheme that makes sense to you and stick with it. Organizing the photos by date or event works well for most people.

And the final step in organizing your photos is to create a brief description of the directory structure you just came up. You might also want to take this opportunity to document the file naming convention you’re using, and if you’re really adventurous, create an inventory of the digital photographs you have that includes the file name, a brief description of, and  the location of each photo.

Make Copies

The last step is to make copies of your photos. The more copies you can make, the better, but you’ll want to have at least two. One copy should stay on your computer; put the other copy on separate media such as DVDs, CDs, portable hard drives, flash drives, or Internet storage. Store the copies in different physical locations that are as far apart as possible. You could send a portable drive to a relative in another city or state for safe keeping. This may seem extreme, but if disaster strikes one location, your photos in the other place will still be safe! And it doesn’t hurt to print out a copy of the inventory you made and keep it in a safe location too.

And we’re not done yet, try to remember to check the photos once a year to make sure you can open and read them. If you notice any sort of degradation, take action to convert the photos to an updated format. Once every five years you’ll want to create new media copies of the photographs to prevent data loss. If you’re using optical storage media such as CDs or DVDs buy the highest quality discs you can, and store them in a cool, dark, and dry location. Remember that these discs only have a shelf life of about 10-50 years before they begin to degrade.

All of this might seem like a lot of work when you can just download the photos from your camera, save them on your computer, and email them to friends and family, post online, or print them out and forget about them. But what if your hard drive crashes? Your cherished memories would literally be erased. Taking the time to preserve your digital photographs is a small price to pay to be able to keep your own personal memories and history alive and safe now, and for future generations.

For more practical advice we invite you to watch this video of Phil Michel, digital conversion coordinator at the Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Division, speak on “Archiving Digital Photographs.”


Follow along as we post more tips on personal digital archiving here on our blog. Future topics include email, websites, digital records, and audiovisual materials.


Source: Library of Congress. “Keeping Personal Digital Photographs

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