After reading on this subject and taking up digital photography to reduce the expense of 35mm developing, have discovered it is possible to produce archival and museum quality prints from digital files. You could purchase a dye sublimation printer, but this is expensive and print size limiting, or quarter of a million dollar laser printer such as a Surst Lambda and Cymbolic Sciences Lightjet, the only limitation is in what we can afford.
The most cost effective printer is inkjet which uses either dye or pigment based ink which are high end yet stable and capable of lasting upwards of 50 to 100 years, or hybrid inks. Not all inkjet printers use all dyes, so it's important when making a printer purchase to inquire into which inks they handle. I understand Epson makes such a printer and high quality ink, but ranges around a $2,000 price tag. You might start looking on http://inkjetmall.com/ or http://inkjetart.com/ for what you are seeking and to learn more.
Paper is another consideration, so choose premium paper in a surface finish of your choice. Premium paper is acid free and made of thicker stock. Some papers are made from rag or cloth which retain whiteness, but the longest lasting is made by Fuji called Crystal Archive. If you combined this with use of a laser printer, I understand results are amazing but range between 8 and 16 dollars per sq. foot. Ask other like minded photographers which papers they get good results with to select a brand you can count on. I either use Kodak or Hewlett Packard being as I use a HP Photosmart 8150 to serve the needs of both my hobby and SOHO.
When by stroke of luck I take a phenomenal image that deserves better, I turn to an online service being as Vivera ink is relatively inexpensive and somewhat water resistant, but not high quality as professional equipment and inks.
Professional artists use a method called Gicle pronounced (zhee-klay) which is a costly method of professional inkjet printing. Essentially it depends on how much the image means to you, and how much you are willing to pay to reproduce it. If you intend to sell product that generates decent income, it could be worth printing on excellent equipment and quality ink with high paying clientele in mind. If for personal use, it is less affordable. When you consider how rapidly digital cameras improved and that their prices dropped, it would not be unreasonable to expect print technology to follow, so there is hope costs will one day become more affordable.
Which option you choose may depend on how many archival photos you intend to make. For the occasional print, it is reasonable to hire a service that offers to produce quality product when needed, and the rest printed by the usual means. After all, a digital file never looses quality unless altered and saved as such, so you can make prints from here to eternity as long as you keep your files stored intact in a safe location on archival quality CD's. Personally, I believe benefits far outweigh drawbacks in digital photography and related issues.
Best of luck with your photography and making the best choices for your needs.
Submitted by: Lynn C.
To answer your question in full, one must analyze how the pictures get to the paper, but first let's address that little myth... Do photos developed in a store actually last longer?
If you develop the pictures the "old-fashioned way", i.e. with chemical bath in a darkroom then perhaps the pictures will be "burned" into the paper, but all modern one-hour photo places do essentially what we do... they "print" the photo on photo paper albeit with professional machines at high speeds. After all, that's how those pharmacies are able to give you a CD of your pictures for just a few additional dollars!
In fact, you can take your digital photo to such places, and they will be glad to print (on professional paper) the pictures you choose and often for cheaper than you can print at home. Most major pharmacies such as Walgreens or even Costco have digital print services for well under 30 cents per print, often ready in minutes.
Back to how long the prints actually last if they came out of a photo printer... It really depends on the quality of the ink and paper. HP's Vivera Ink for its photo printers claims to last over 100 years if used with proper HP photo paper. Other manufacturers make similar claims.
The permanence of ink on inkjet photo paper depends on quality of the ink, and the quality of the paper. Some paper are "swellable", which means it has an air-tight barrier on top of the layer that absorbs the ink. This type of media takes a bit of time to "dry out", but once dry they last for a LONG time. On the other hand, a more "porous" type material lets the air in, thus the drying time is fast and ink doesn't smear, but the exposure to air can cause fading. Finally, heat and humidity can also destroy pictures quickly as well by distorting and discoloring the paper.
Good paper then resists ink fading by absorbing and bonding the ink into the layer, without giving any other substance a chance to react with the ink. Good paper also resist yellowing due to temperature and presence of other chemicals. Good ink resists fading due to exposure to sun, and bonds securely to paper while not spread too much.
All in all, this is one of the few places where paying for name brand can help you get more out of the pictures. Get the brand name paper (their best type too), use brand name ink, and keep the printed photos in albums that are never exposed to direct sunlight and heat, kept at room temperature and low humidity, and nicely protected and your pictures should last for generations, as HP claims.
Submitted by: Kasey C. of San Francisco, CA
Hello, Liz. My hobby is family history, so I've made some study of the durability of both film and digital photographic prints.
So far as film cameras are concerned, the old nineteenth-century silver nitrate and (especially) platinum prints seem almost indestructible, so long as they're kept - which all prints should be - in a dark and acid-free environment. As soon as colour comes on the scene, appearing first during the 1930s and predominating from about 1965 onwards, survival times shorten. Using available film and papers, even professional photographers nowadays put an absolute limit of 50 to 60 years on the life of colour prints. For ordinary commercially processed snapshots the period is much shorter, and most of my own 40-year-old prints are mere shadows of their former selves.
Digital photography broadens the photographer's options, as there's a wider choice of both ink and paper. Colour film prints are made using dyes, and dyes are complex chemicals which sooner or later break down and fade. Digital colour printing however can be done with pigment inks and these, using ground-up stable materials, are permanent in the same way as paintings are. The latest Epson pigment inks are said to last for two centuries at least.
Pigment inks are a little dearer than dye inks, and the printers which use them - always dedicated, printers never seem to be interchangeable in this respect - are a little dearer too (and more liable to clog up, because pigment particles are bigger than dye molecules) but the results are infinitely more satisfactory, because they're to all intents and purposes permanent.
The dye inks used in photo printers have very variable lives. Epson dyes are said to last 25 years, and Canon have begun to claim up to 40 years for theirs (but that is very recent). Many of the cheaper unbranded cartridge dye inks last 10 years or even less before fading noticeably.
If you want long life prints go for a pigment ink printer, using Epson UltraBrite, or something of that kind - and remember, always, that the paper you use is as important as the ink, for the two are usually made by the same manufacturers and are intended to work in combination.
Personally, I use a modified Epson 1290 printer with Generations Four archival pigment inks (made by a U.S firm called MediaStreet) and Epson Archival Matte paper. That's an ad hoc solution cobbled together on grounds of affordability which is serving me well at the moment but, if I could afford it, I'd use Epson Ultrabrite pigment ink in a dedicated printer.
As with everything else in this life, you get what you pay for - but it's worth making some studying of this whole subject of print longevity. I suggest you take a look at the findings of the Henry Wilhelm Research Institute, in the U.S.A.
Hope this helps! Best regards,
Submitted by: Meg L. of Scottland
I have some colour prints in an album from the 1970s that have gone completely red, and some more in front of me from the 1890's which are a little creased but still sharp and clear. Longevity of conventional prints isn't guaranteed either.
How long prints from digital sources will last depends on how they are printed. But one key point is that they can be reprinted in the future from the original file to make an entirely new, perfect print. Film negatives may deteriorate. But digital files may become unreadable too.
Re the prints though: those done in a lab (kiosk, internet printing services etc.) are typically done using a photographic printing type process so can be expected to last much the same time as conventional prints (indeed most commercial prints are now done through exactly the same machines). So where the prints came from is now largely irrelevant.
Ink jet prints left in light *do* fade over time, but no one really knows yet how long except by testing using accelerated processes to make an estimate. I've got ten year old ink jet prints that are still fine, and ink jet technology has moved on since then.
If archival inks and paper are used longevity is likely to be greater. For example Lyson claims over 60 years for their specialised Lysonic inks on particular papers. Which isn't very long in archival terms, but probably means they will be usably distinct, rather than necessarily perfect, in say 200 years time if kept out of the light. But the 60 years is based on test results not real use - no one has had long enough to find out yet.
The big advantage of the digital original is that it can in principle be reprinted perfectly in the future. But while they won't degrade like a negative, they can get lost just as easily and the media on which they are stored can fail. If they're on CD, of course that may degrade or become unsupported by far-future technology, but if moved from computer to computer as time passes, there's a good chance of usability. The file format may become obsolete, but it's unlikely to do so rapidly, especially as so many pictures are in jpeg now, so I'd have thought it unlikely these files won't be readable by some software or its future equivalent even in 100 year's time, and if a collection is maintained it could be converted to the latest standards as they become mainstream.
So for prints done commercially, there's nothing to choose - they *are* the same, but not the same as prints made 100 years ago which may well, ironically, last longer than today's because of colour dyes; and the negative or digital original can both be used for reproduction.
But in the end, it's the care with which all the pieces, on whatever medium, are looked after that is likely to prove the decisive factor.
Submitted by: David E.
Regarding Liz L's question for next week about the longevity of assorted digital media, here's the dope:
The weakest link in that chain is likely to be the media itself. Regular CDs and DVDs start to experience statistically significant data loss after 7-10 years, and have a useful shelf life of about 15 years. You have to remember, this is basically a piece of plastic, and it's just not going to last that long.
To address that issue, there are "archival" media available, which should be good for something in the neighborhood of 60 years. There's no guarantee about that, of course, but no particular reason to doubt it. These use a special coating which slows the degradation of the surface, although I believe the substrate is the same. With all media, digital or otherwise, storage and handling has a lot to do with preservation. Keep it away not only from obvious things like heat and sunlight, but less obvious stuff as well--like cardboard (death to photos), plastics (like a DVD case) and other emitters of reactive chemicals (like computers). Archival, pH-neutral storage is the way to go. Light Impressions, http://www.lightimpressionsdirect.com is my source for this stuff.
That brings up a third problem, compatibility. Suppose you have, say, 15-year-old data. It's going to be on a 3-1/2" floppy...or maybe a 5-1/2". After you track down a machine that can read it, you have no guarantee the OS and file format will be compatible. I can't think that's going to change, either. I certainly can't get at the old data from my 386...or Apple II, let alone something as cutting-edge for the time as my TRS-80, which used cassettes, and were not even back 30 years yet.
As for physical prints, archival inks and papers are available for digital photo printers that should give a 60-year lifespan, about the same as a regular color print (or negatives). A color print from a home printer on plain paper lasts only a couple of years. A regular (analog?) B&W print is good for about 100 years (ditto the negatives), one that's been toned (which removes the acid) has a theoretical lifespan of around 150 years (depending on the paper) and the best of them all, a transparency (slide or microfilm), should be good for about 200 years!
Its a problem with which many working photographers grapple. I think we usually come down on the side of expediency, but well start harvesting the bitter fruits of that effort just a few years down the road.
Submitted by: David A.
The life expectancy of a photo printed on your computers printer depends entirely on the paper and the ink (which, in turn, does depend on the brand and model of printer used). Its not a given that any particular photo will last for centuries, I have some photo prints (chemical real photos) from the mid-20th century that are almost gone, and even one from the 1980s that is now red and white instead of full color (presumably it was processed incorrectly or with bad chemicals). Epson and HP have done some specific work to create paper and ink systems which they claim will have a very long archival life. For example, look at these documents from the Epson web site:
And you will see that Epson has ink and paper systems which they explicitly claim will last for more than a century. HP, similarly, offers ink and chemical systems which they claim have a long archival life (I have not looked at what Canon and Lexmark claim on archival life, and I dont mean to slight them by omission, but Im just more familiar with Epson and HP. Presumably you can find information on the archival life of their products on their web site.). Also note that while a manufacturer may claim to have ink and paper systems for which they claim long archival life, they dont make this claim for every combination of ink and paper. The 1st Epson link, for example, shows a wide range of expected archival life depending on the printer model and the ink and paper consumable system used. Storage conditions and light exposure are also major factors. A photo in a frame continuously exposed to light (and possibly direct sunlight) on a daily basis is a far more difficult situation from an archival perspective than a print in a normally closed album which is only opened and viewed a few hours per year.
But the suggestion to move back to classical photography misses another point entirely, which is that with either system, prints should probably not be the primary method of preserving images. Instead, a better approach is to retain the primary camera media from which the print was produced, so that you can in fact create a new print whenever you want: now, a year from now, a decade from now, a century from now. This, in turn, boils down to preserving either the negative (for a film camera) or the image file (for a digital camera). But in this regard there is no contest: Its far easier to preserve a digital computer file than it is to preserve a negative, which may both deteriorate on its own and which is also subject to physical damage. So, from this perspective, I think that digital photography has a huge advantage over film photography. And, of course, its also worth pointing out that the use of digital cameras and photography doesnt in any way prevent you from still getting a conventional chemical print from your digital file: These days any photo lab or film processor can take your image file (on a CD or on a flash memory card from your camera) and for 20 to 50 cents give you a classical genuine chemical print exactly the same as that which you would have received from having processed a negative on a roll of film. And, similarly, there is nothing to prevent you from scanning either a negative or a print into a digital file for storage and retention, but the quality probably wont be as good as if you had taken the same photo directly with a high-quality digital camera.
Submitted by: Barry W. of North Canton, OH
The move from the photographic process to the digital process carries many benefits; and one of the great benefits is that - surprise! - photographs printed on an inkjet printer are actually much more stable and long lasting than photographs produced through the traditional photographic process. However, these images are still made up of dyes; and all dyes are damaged by UV (ultraviolet) radiation.
In the traditional photographic process, a spot of elemental silver on the film is struck by a photon during the initial exposure. When the film is processed, developer turns the exposed silver spot black; and the byproducts released from that chemical reaction react with another chemical called a color coupler to produce a small spot of organic dye in the film, directly beside the original silver spot. The size of the spot is dependent upon the amount of light that created the original exposure; the color of the spot depends on which of the three dye layers the chemical reaction takes place in. In a later step, called the bleach/fix, the actual silver spot is removed from the film, leaving only the dye; the film is then washed and dried, which results in a color negative. This negative is then used to create photographic prints on paper through a very similar process.
Because the process is so complex, unique demands are placed on the color dyes. They must be able to resist damage from the photographic chemicals; and they must be able to react properly during the photographic process. As a result, the actual stability of the color dyes used in the photographic process ranks rather far down the list; and in fact, they're not very stable at all.
Inkjet printers, by comparison, place none of these requirements on dyes. As a result, dyes can be chosen that are much more stable than those used in the photographic process. Epson markets a range of 'archival' inks for use in their higher end photo quality printers which they claim will last for centuries; but even the common, everyday inks used in inkjet printers will last far longer than their photographic process counterparts.
But even with this wonderful stability advantage that digital printing offers, it's important to remember that even the most stable dyes fade over time. However, there are a few things you can do to delay the process.
The biggest enemy of color dyes in ultraviolet radiation, so anything you can do to keep UV radiation off the surface of the print will enhance its lifespan. Framing shops sell UV resistant glass, which is simply framing glass with a UV filtering layer applied. You can also purchase UV resistant spray-on lacquer at photo specialty stores; it comes in a large aerosol can. Learning to apply it correctly takes some practice and can create a mess, so have some waste prints ready to practice on. (Hint: tape the prints to a piece of cardboard.) Florescent lighting is very high in UV radiation, as is sunlight; so keeping prints out of the sun, and shielding from florescent light, will help your prints to last considerably longer. It's also worth noting that when color prints are not being viewed, they're usually stored in an album; and those albums are almost entirely light tight when closed, which means that the prints are not fading. This is one of the many reasons why the issue of fading is, itself, fading away.
If you want the ultimate in image stability - and you're willing to pay the price - then you'll want to investigate having black and white prints produced through the metallic silver (not dye based) photographic process. Because these images are actually created from dots of elemental silver metal encapsulated in a gelatin, they are impervious to fading; this is why so many wonderful black and white images from a century ago are still with us. However, the process is expensive and time consuming, and offers none of the image manipulation and retouching advantages inherent in the digital process. Specialty photolabs still offer this process in the larger cities; look for someone who specializes in 'archival' printing and processing. But be warned; it's expensive.
Hope this helps shed some light on the issue - hopefully, your images will be around for many years to come!
Submitted by: Charles W.
Color photographic prints don't have a very long life. Old color prints have faded to almost nothing. The colors are not burned into the paper, rather are dyes in layers of gelatin emulsion.
Digital prints also are dyes. All dyes are subject to fading, especially when left exposed to light, most especially sunlight. In a single day sunlight can noticeably fade either a photographic print or a digital print.
Some dyes are more sensitive to light than others. Auto paints are somewhat better now, but fifty years ago a red car would turn pink in a few months of direct sunlight.
Color negative images are also dyes embedded in a gelatin emulsion. Color negatives will generally last longer than prints partly since they are usually kept in the dark
Black and white photographs have a much longer life than color since the image is not a dye but a form of silver imbedded in the emulsion. There are examples of old glass negatives being used as greenhouse glass for decades and are still printable. Even this is no assurance that the image will still be good years later. I have a mess of 35 millimeter Kodak film negatives that I exposed fifty five years ago. The images are still good, but the acetate substrate has become brittle. Another example of this is the nitrate base film used for making movies in the early part of the twentieth century. These films have been stored in canisters in the dark. The nitrate base has turned to dust in many of these and is continuing to do so. There is a major effort to transfer these images to better base stock or convert them to digital form.
Technicolor movie cameras exposed three black and white films simultaneously through prisms and filters. Then the images were combined and printed on color positive film for projection. The prints may fade but the negatives would last a long time it nitrate base stock was not used but not alway. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Film_stock
Silver images can be degraded by exposure to even low levels of some gases such as sulfur dioxide.
Galleries use extreme measures to protect artwork. No sunlight, no ultraviolet in the ambient lighting, no light at all when art is not being displayed Very precious art sometimes is displayed in cases filled with inert gas.
The jury may still be out about the longevity of digital images. If there is a problem with losing information on CD's or DVD's one could recopy at intervals. This might be necessary anyway since media standards change and will change. In later years there may be no equipment that will read present day CD's or DVD's. Today try to find an eight-track tape or Beta video tape player. Twenty years from now it will be difficult to play a VHS tape. If a bit or two is dropped at each digital copy session, a few centuries later the digital image could be degraded.
The best way to keep photographic prints for centuries? Have the prints made onto good, archival grade acid free paper. Make sure the processor washes the prints thoroughty and tests for residual fixer. If you have noticed the tangy smell when opening a package of drugstore processed prints, you are smelling photograpic fixer that is still in the emulsion. The chemical will eventually degrade the images.
Store the prints in the dark in an inert atmosphere such as argon or nitrogen at a constant low temperature. If you want to make drugstore prints last long, wash them yourself in water at room temperature for at least a half hour, changing the water every five minutes, final wash in distilled water. Let them dry completely laying them on towels, then store them. At the very least, store them in a box with a good seal. Keep packages of silica get in the box to absorb ambient moisture.
Nothing last forever, not the pyramids nor DNA.
Submitted by: Bob R.
The best way (that Im aware of) is to get a dye-sublimation printer. In this process, your image is burned into the paper. Dye-sublimation printers allow you to print photo-lab-quality pictures at home. In dye-sublimation printing, colors are not laid down as individual dots, as is done in inkjet printers. Individual dots can be distinguished at a relatively close distance, making digital pictures look less realistic.
If you looked inside a dye-sublimation printer, you would see a long roll of transparent film that resembles sheets of red, blue, yellow, and gray colored cellophane stuck together end to end. Embedded in this film are solid dyes corresponding to the four basic colors used in printing: cyan, magenta, yellow and black. The print head heats up as it passes over the film, causing the dyes to vaporize and permeate the glossy surface of the paper before they return to solid form.
So the main difference between this and other types of printing has to do with heat. The vaporized colors permeate the surface of the paper, creating a gentle gradation at the edges of each pixel, instead of the conspicuous border between dye and paper produced by inkjets. And because the color infuses the paper, it is also less vulnerable to fading and distortion over time. Some dye sublimation papers are also moisture resistant, so that if you spill on them, you can just wipe them off, without damage to your print.
Other than buying a new printer (and there are several on the market for home use), you should use archival (acid-free) quality paper, and protect your photos, just as you would a traditional photo, produced from film. Even traditional photos will fade, or lose color quality (like browning), if exposed to light for an extended period of time. Store your photos in individual UV resistant sleeves, or separate them with a sheet of acid-free paper.
Submitted by: Jac H. of Choctaw, OK
It's a bit early to definitively assess the longevity of digital prints, so I would counsel backing digital photo files up to the best archival media as well as printing them.
Traditional photo printing does not exactly "burn images into layers of the paper." Photographic images permeate a coating applied when the paper is made. For black-and-white paper, that coating is basically an emulsion of gelatin with particles of silver salts dispersed within it. In printing, those particles which are exposed to light from a negative are reduced to metallic silver, which is very stable. Such prints only fade if they've had too little exposure to a "fixer" bath or have not had residual chemicals thoroughly washed away.
The emulsion in traditional color papers has multiple layers, each of which responds to a different color, and the light-struck particles in each layer are replaced by colored dyes. With proper processing, such images can also last a long long time, unless they're exposed to a lot of light (especially ultraviolet), because dyes fade. However, chemical contamination from other sources (including the papers in some photo albums) can also affect the image.
Digital prints made with pigment-based, rather than dye-based, inks should be fade-free, but not all printers can use them; most of those that can are made by Epson. Dye-based "archival" inks, should last longer than normal ones but still not as long as pigment inks. Pigment and archival-dye inks are not usually compatible with as wide a range of papers as conventional dye inks--check with each ink's manufacturer.
However, inkjet inks are water-soluble, so prints must be kept dry. (If conventional photo prints get wet they can be dried again, as long as they don't stick to something while drying.) Laser-printed images are not water soluble. However, the color-laser photo prints I've seen do not match the quality of the best inkjets. Also (at least with older laser printers) if a photo or document is covered with plastic, some of the toner may transfer to the plastic when it is removed.
When you change ink, paper, or both, you are likely to change color rendition as well. You can correct for this somewhat with printer calibration systems such as ColorVision's PrintFix Pro, but there may also be changes in the color gamut, the range of colors that the printer can reproduce.
Submitted by: Ivan B. of Fanwood, NJ
Liz, if you are thinking about the longevity of old black and white photos from the beginning of photography about 150 years ago, this has more to do with the technical process involved, depositing actual metallic silver into the surface of the paper or medium itself. Barring physical damage these processes will last as long as the physical media remains intact - in the case of metallic tintypes or glass plates, potentially 1000's of years.
However colour photographs are a much more recent phenomena, and because they use organic dyes to produce the colours they are subject to fading from UV radiation (sunlight, Flourescents), chemical attack ( pollution, moisture) and so are much less long lived. The National Geographic magazine, one of the earliest adopter of photographic images has spent a great deal of time and research in preserving the images it produces. Some of the colour photos dating from the 1920's and 30's have faded despite all of their efforts.
The good news is current colour printing technology available to you from HP, Epson and Canon, makes it possible to produce images that will be at least as stable as photographic (negative film) images when printed using the archival papers and inks that they make now. Even better is the fact that storing the digital images can be done without fear of gradual degradation, depending on the life span of CD/DVD technology which itself is moving rapidly ahead. Using effective data storage means that in 5 years, 10 years or even 50 years you can reproduce your images on whatever output options you have at that time... Holographic 3-D etched in diamond would be pretty permanent, I should think.
Submitted by: Paul T. of Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada