Selective Focus: The Test of Time—Prints from Digital Files

Selective Focus: The Test of Time—Prints from Digital Files


The industry offers many “venues” for customers to turn binary code (read digital files) into real live photos they can have and hold. They include prints, both snapshot and large; photo books; mugs; T-shirts; and “you name it we can get an image on it” items. (See Jon Sienkiewicz’s very good interview piece in the April DIR for a roundup of options and opportunities.)

My take on all this has to do with keeping the industry’s promise that photos are “memories that last a lifetime” and what that might entail.

The assumption about making photos—of family, friends, vacations, world journeys, creative moments of inspiration—is that they will be around for your customers and future generations of their families to enjoy. This assumption was taken for granted when folks shot film and had prints, negatives or slides.

Some labs were more lax than others about clearing prints of residue that could accelerate fading or discoloration; and some printing papers as well as color negative and slide films were less than stellar in their longevity. However, for the most part, the vast majority of film photographers from those olden times still enjoy images from 30, 40 and in some cases 100 years back. (Good old black and white!)

The “Lost Generation” of Images

Unfortunately, that’s not the case for digital images. We’ve discovered that unless a hard copy is made, chances are that photos of your son or daughter making their first steps will not be around by the time they graduate high school. There are notorious cases of dedicated photo storage sites closing their doors with no notice; of people losing their smartphones or forgetting to back them up; cloud backup corruptions; changing storage formats and how they can no longer be “read”; and of backup desktop drives (and hard drives on host computers) giving up the ghost.

Technology has leapt forward in terms of capture. However, I am afraid it hasn’t kept pace in terms of informing customers about the real pitfalls of relying solely on digital format images; regardless of where they reside. SF719-1 digital filesSo, as most of us agree, there is one way to ensure the most precious photos will be available years from now—making prints. Yes, the industry has been encouraging customers to make prints for years with varying degrees of success. And plenty of labs out there provide good options for prints from every conceivable camera format, including, of course, phones. Yet, with trillions of images captured every year, very few will ever be seen as a hard copy. True, what one had for dinner at Disney World might not hold the test of time. But there’s no denying that generations (even a generation) from now, most will be lost.

Archiving Options for Digital Files

There are many options for backing up digital photos: CDs and “drive” disks of many types; USB sticks and the like; and even some very good local and cloud-based “organizers.”

CD drives, however (not to mention the floppies), and organizers, etc., are dependent on devices that read them. And you know how that’s gone and will go.

As to cautionary tales, a site like MySpace, not a decade back a huge Internet sharing and storage site, recently admitted to losing music uploaded to the site between 2008 and 2015 (note that span of dates). All due to a “botched server migration.” Replace “music” with “images” and you get the picture.

Perhaps the most infamous example is one company that prided itself on storing millions of images. It catered mainly to photojournalists and other pros. It notified customers on a Friday night they had to download all their work by the following Monday; because they were closing shop that morning.

The Kiosk Route

The days of working with a customer over a light box with loupe in hand to pick negatives for enlargements and standard reprints are long gone. Nowadays, it’s the kiosk route, most of them self-service with a store employee standing by for help if needed. This, it would seem, should do the trick. And nearly every drugstore, general goods box store and even large buyer club warehouse stores have a self-service setup. Interfaces are clean, format choices and novelty items are abundant and this “interactive” mode keeps customers happy and kiosks humming.

Another choice is online, where numerous labs compete for the customer’s dollar. These rely on uploads, and while this cuts down the number of customers due to technophobia or lack of hardware, many companies offer a myriad of products. They can range from single prints to enlargements, books, T-shirts, mugs and more.

Pro labs appeal to enthusiasts and pros who want a more custom look (including images on aluminum substrates and whatnot). Box stores like CVS and Walmart add “shop online and store pickup” options.

The Elephant in the Room

There are so many convenient choices that you’d think, well, problem solved; the industry is doing its job of ensuring hard copy prints are saved for generations to come. But there is one elephant in the room—print longevity.

Many years back, Henry Wilhelm, the guru of print permanence (google Wilhelm Imaging Research) did fade tests on ink/paper combinations from a variety of kiosk labs in office supply stores and similar outlets. The results were anything but encouraging, with fades and discoloration occurring in short order.

The permanence issue raised its head in the early days of digital printing. The importance of the paper/ink combination (and of course display environment) became apparent. And prints produced by a wide range of digital printers, from pro to desktop, experienced the big fade and/or color shift nightmare.

Wilhelm’s tests nowadays concentrate on premium papers and inks, and those on kiosk-produced prints were made a few years back. (Henry, if you’re listening, we are in real need of a revisit on this.) However, the culprits remain the same: the media on which the image is placed; the method of printing (inkjet, dye-sublimation, laser); and the method of storage or display all have a profound effect on longevity.

This problem is mostly solved for the pro and enthusiast home and studio printmaker, and by nearly all online labs that cater to this segment. However, the amateur photographer may still face this underlying problem, without even knowing it exists.

Searching for Answers

I searched the Internet to get a sense of how different outlets and labs that serve the amateur customer address the permanence issue. I found a decided lack of clear information. According to the Image Permanence Institute, in a paper published online titled A Consumer Guide to Traditional and Digital Print Stability: “Consumers who are concerned with long-term stability and who wish to better care for their color prints should make an effort to determine the technology of the print system they are using and then look for specific information on image stability.”

Well, good luck. Moreover, when referring to dye diffusion/thermal transfer prints they have this to say. “This process is frequently used for snapshot-size photo printers or in photo kiosks, where customers can print images in a few minutes. The permanence of these images has not been widely studied, and there is very little information available.” SF719-2 digital filesYou have to dig to find the information, and to an extent it’s like digging for water in the desert. A good place to start is googling “print permanence and photo kiosks,” then go deep to search the various sites. While phrases like “memories to last a lifetime” are bandied about, they are vaguely defined if they there at all. Exceptions were finishing labs that tout “hybrid” printing—digital/conventional output—and pro labs, where acid-free papers using pigmented ink are common offerings. Most sites, however, tout their speed and convenience without much, if any, ado about permanence.

Keeping Our Promise

Given that the premise of this article is that, as an industry, our job is to educate the consumer, and that our promise has always been “photos are memories that last forever” (well, at least a lifetime), it just makes sense that we be quite honest about the various printing technologies and their implications on just how long the prints they produce will last.

Industry analyst and insightful reporter Ed Lee was quoted in this journal in last year’s State of the Industry report. “Given how carefree some people are with their photos, and how easy it is to lose or delete a digital photo, there is a great danger that the most important memories shot today will never be seen by future generations. Traditional prints and photo products are tangible memories that stand the test of time—an important message to communicate to today’s consumers.”

All true. Yet, to be blunt, the life expectancy of dogs is considerably shorter than that of people. The same goes for prints made using the different methodologies on offer. We all agree that the first step is a major push to educate the consumer about the ephemeral nature of their most precious digital files; and how getting them made visible (read print) is crucial. The next is clearly stating the implications of the various options offered for output. Hopefully, this will allow the consumer to make an educated decision. We owe it to our customers, and to the promises we make, to ensure that the choices they make will stand the test of time.