How to make true archival copies of digital wedding photos - Updated August 2013

How to make digital photographs last a long, long time

Many digital photo products claim to last a very very long time ("archival.")

But advertising claims can be wrong. Recent history is littered with:

  • 25-year discs that failed in 2 years
    Memory cards that failed
    Hard drives that crashed
    Web-based photo storage companies that went out of business

Fortunately there is a storage strategy that WORKS. I costs several hundred dollars. It is simple to understand and accomplish.

Doug will explain how to do it below.


 Digital technology is new. What if it fails? What happens to our digital wedding photos? 

How can we make or buy true "archival" copies of digital wedding photos?

Today's digital photos stored on DVD or CD disks have an estimated life span similar to that of color negative film, the technology which preceded digital photos. They should last a number of years but not forever.

The information that follows will tell you how to preserve this digital information --- your pictures on digital memory devices --- over the long haul. Theoretically for centuries if you are motivated to "refresh" your digital files by making new duplicate copies every 20 years or so. To keep things simple we NEVER use copy protection on your wedding photos.

We suggest a 20-year refresh cycle.

20 years is simply our best guess. Digital technology is new, so no one really knows the exact storage life. But we do know that if you refresh files by making new digital copies every now and then, the clock gets re-started in your favor.

Here is how:


Store extra copies of digital images or files in 2 or 3 different locations
and on 2 or 3 different kinds of digital storage products.

And every decade or two... Digital files should be refreshed by re-copying them onto new materials.

This process is called the "best practices solution."

It is followed every day by NASA, Big Government, and Big Business to preserve copies of their most important digital files.

Government and industry may forget to provide YOU with the benefits you've been promised, but they'll never lose track of what you owe THEM. That's because records of what you owe them are backed up in three different locations --- the best practices solution.


Examples of why that concept is necessary: 

1. Suppose you have digital files stored on CD & DVD disks, but a manufacturing defect causes them to fail in 2 years instead of 25?  (It's happened.) 

2. Suppose you have your digital photos stored on a hard drive, but the hard drive crashes or gets accidentally erased?  (It's happened.) 

3. Suppose you store your photos on your computer's hard drive AND backup disks. But a burglar steals the computer AND the backup disks. (It's happened.)

4. Suppose you store your photos on a computer, hard drives AND backup disks, but a flood or fire ruins them together? (It's happened.) 

5. Suppose you store your personal photos on your WORK computer's hard drive, but you get laid off without notice and are denied access to your files? (It's happened.) 

6. Suppose you store digital photos on camera memory cards, but the data becomes corrupted and un-readable?  Or the card gets accidentally written over by new photos?  (It's happened.)  

7. Suppose you get smart and store your digital photos offsite, on a website designed for photo storage...but they suddenly go out of business and you lose your photos. (It's happened.) 

8. Suppose you store digital copies offsite on a storage site such as or (an excellent idea) but suppose they get bought out or go out of business? (Hasn't happened yet but you never know, if they do go out of business you'll lose your data.)  

9. Suppose North Korea or Iran explodes an Electromagnetic Pulse nuclear weapon in orbit above California?  That will destroy data on hard drives, will overload local computers, and will shut down the internet. (Hasn't happened yet but this is a MAJOR MAJOR CONCERN among security experts!)  Optical discs (CD & DVD) and photographic prints & albums are not affected by EMP (electromagnetic pulse.) USB & Secure Digital cards in a bank's safety deposit box or in a safe would also be OK. So once again, digital copies made onto several different media types, stored in several different locations, would survive. Ditto for a home safe, such as a gun safe, since they're made of metal and are kept closed.


Revenge of the Nerds

Precautions described on this page may sound nerdy and paranoid, but are actually what governments and industry do every day to safeguard their digital files against floods, fires, theft, earthquakes, electromagnetic pulse attacks, accidental erasure, and mechanical failure of the storage media (i.e. defective discs, etc.)

Over my career I've worked in the Information Technology, Photographic and Hollywood motion picture industries. I've watched photo & data preservation skills become perfected in all three areas. This article arises from what I've learned and is written to help you.


What we charge

For a complete set of three identical archive copies of your digital wedding photos using three different media types we charge several hundred dollars, exact amount by quote. We currently recommend a combination of optical discs plus USB flash memory devices plus USB portable hard drives.

The three-copy plan described here is a very, very good plan.

We have discovered a brand of USB flash memory card which is very, very durable. Our "test" model survived a wash & heated dry cycle in our laundry room so we know it's durable! The photos stored on it totally survived the experience.

Computer-savvy readers can take the above steps themselves for a little less money than we charge. That's fine with us. But you have to get around to it. That's the advantage of just paying us to git 'er done.

There is nothing secret about these "best in class" techniques which experts recommend. I have revealed all the basics in this article. The problem isn't secrecy, but inertia. We get busy and don't really think these things could happen to us. Well, they could.


Media types we suggest, if you do it yourself

Examples of four different media types which can be used:.

1. Optical (CD and DVD) discs, especially better-quality "archival" brands - see photo at top of page for an example.

2. Flash memory cards (either SD Secure Digital cards or USB memory cards or both.) 

3. Portable USB self-powered hard drives (Seagate, Iomega, etc.)

4. Web-based online digital backup storage such as or

The more different kinds of media you use to back up your digital photo files, the safer your data will be. Even if one type has a manufacturing defect and fails early, the other kind will not fail at the same time. And by storing copies in more than one location, you'll protect against loss from burglars, fires, floods, human errors and electromagnetic pulse EMP attacks or solar EMP storms.



Photo above:  USB memory "thumb drives" are perfect for storing in a bank's safety deposit box --- a large capacity thumb drive is only 2 or 3 inches long and can hold a complete set of wedding photos. It's my belief (though I have no way to test it) this would survive an EMP electromagnetic pulse burst if stored in a bank's safety deposit box. In theory the metal box and metal vault lining would short an EMP pulse to ground, acting like a Faraday Shield,and protecti the metal box's contents.


EMP Protection for Digital Wedding Photos

What is EMP and where does it come from? 

An Electro-Magnetic Pulse will some day come from a high energy solar event of natural causes, these are well documented in history.

  • A solar flare EMP pulse burned the hands of telegraph operators in the 19th century, when telegraph wires picked up the high voltage and sent its shock along the network. The EMP pulse was so large it started some fires along railroad tracks (metal wires & tracks overheated from the voltage, working like antennas.) (This is known as the "Carrington Event" in 1859.)
  • In the 20th century solar flare EMP was found to have been the cause of a power grid collapse (Ontario, Canada in 1989.)

Unfortunately, electrical grid components get procured on the cheap --- not designed to survive EMP from a strong solar flare hitting Earth.


Every century or so, a major solar flare EMP does hit Earth. Next time, it will knock out digital memories instead of telegraph operators. The low voltage integrated circuits inside our computers, and in memory chips, are easily damaged by a high voltage EMP spike.

Since major EMP events hit Earth about once per century, the clock is ticking.


A similar EMP pulse would result if a terrorist nation explodes a small nuclear bomb in the upper atmosphere above California (for example.) The bomb itself would actually cause no damage on the ground. But charged particles would hit the ionosphere and send a cascade of high voltage electrons downward towards us. This high voltage electron pulse would fry transistors, integrated circuits, unprotected memory devices, and PC's.

But computer memory, devices, or laptop computers stored inside closed metal enclosures (such as bank vaults or gun safes) should be fine.

Can computers be built to withstand EMP? Absolutely! Just as Japanese nuclear plants could have been built to withstand tsunami damage! It just costs a little more. Manufacturers and consumers have become too cheap to protect against a problem that might not happen right away.



Feel free to reproduce this article if you give author's credit and include a link back to our wedding photography website. Doug would appreciate an e-mail or phone call to let us know.


Doug performs wedding photography based in Northern California, throughout the western states. No travel charge within 125 miles of Sacramento.






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