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2/10/06 How long do digital pictures last on paper?

by Lee Koo (ADMIN) CNET staff/forum admin / February 9, 2006 5:44 AM PST

This is along the same lines as the question about the longevity of burned CDs. How long do digital pictures that are printed on paper last? I've always heard that nothing lasts longer than a real photograph printed from a negative because the process burns the print into the layers of the paper as opposed to just putting layers of color lying on top of paper as in digital prints. I have stopped using a negative-producing camera because of the ease of use of the digital camera, but I want to keep my photographs for a long time. Should I revert to the old way of photography for photograph preservation so that future generations can see the past? What is the best way to keep photographs for centuries?

Submitted by: Liz L. of Virginia
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Paul C's winning answer
by Lee Koo (ADMIN) CNET staff/forum admin / February 9, 2006 5:44 AM PST

How long your prints of digital images are going to last depends on the technology used to print them. That includes both ink and paper. Most people use inkjet printers to produce images, and two primary technologies are used. One is based on organic dyes, and the other is based on pigments. Loosely speaking, the first is like coloring your clothes, and the second is like painting your house.

The problem with organic dyes is that they fade. Your clothes fade with washing (and fade really fast if you hang them out in the sun to dry). Chemicals in the environment and ultraviolet radiation are the enemies of organic dyes. This is especially true for red dyes. You may have seen posters that have hung in the window of a store for a long time, and most of the colors other than blue have faded away. Finding a UV-stable red dye is the holy grail of commercial organic chemistry. Canon printers produce glorious output but do so using organic dyes, so they can't be counted on to last unless you keep them in the dark, and then, what's the point?

The paint on your house, however, can stand up to a lot of UV punishment. It tends to lose flexibility, and flakes off, before it loses much color. This is partly because paints use pigments rather than dyes. Epson has several pigment-based printers and estimates that they will produce output lasting for decades to centuries before there is significant loss of color. You might ask why everyone doesn't use pigments and one reason is that it is harder to prevent pigment-based inks from clogging the holes in the print head. Epsons, in fact, have something of a reputation for this problem.

You might also ask how anyone knows that a print will last a century when digital printing technology hasn't even existed for that long. Laboratories do accelerated aging tests -- for example, shine very bright UV light on an image for a short period of time, measure the effect, and extrapolate the results to ordinary situations using some sort of scaling assumptions. In other words, they don't really know. They have an educated guess, based on related data. Accelerated aging tests are something of a dark art, and Wilhelm Imaging Research is the leading wizard ( If you're looking for detailed information that is the place to look. But their tests are expensive and some companies aren't willing to pay the price.

It is also worth noting that ink is not the only factor in the equation. Ink sits on paper, and there is a complex and not fully understood chemical interaction between them. What we do know is that the longest lifetimes are obtained by using both ink and paper produced by the same company that made your printer. That also typically means the most expensive ink and paper, but there you go -- it is an interacting system of parts, not a whole bunch of separate and interchangeable pieces. According to Wilhelm, some of the recent HP's achieve lifetimes on the order of 60-70 years even though they use dye-based technology. But that is only for HP ink on HP paper.

So what do you, as a consumer, do? You can look at cNet's reviews but they will not reliably tell you what type of technology each printer uses (a systemic flaw, in my opinion). For what it is worth, the most frequently used printers among photography enthusiats seem to be Epsons, at least judging from their websites.

And also, for what it is worth, film photography has stability problems too. Fading of silver halide photographs was first studied by the Photographic Society of London, which set up its Fading Committee in 1855. The problems identified then have never been fully solved. Fading, then as now, is associated with the accumulation of sulfur compounds from environmental sources but also from the fixer (sodium thiosulphate) bath in photo processing, and careful, thorough washing is required. After proper archival processing, they can last centuries, but few commercial photolabs have ever taken such care with their processing. This is why your family pictures from the 1950's are probably already pretty badly faded.

Color photography is even worse since it involves the use of (yet again!) photosensitive organic dyes. If you keep color photographs stored in a dry, dark chamber at a constant zero degrees Fahrenheit, you can hope to get about 50 years out of a color photo. If you hope to look at them from time to time, lifetimes will be correspondingly shorter. This is why Kodak prints, in bright Kodak yellow on the side of every box of color film: ?Since color dyes may change over time, this product will not be replaced for, or warranted against, any change in color.? You can see some examples of faded (and restored) color photographs here:

Kodachrome is thought to be the most stable color film, but "burning in (whatever that is)" has little to do with it. It is dye chemistry, pure and simple, and always has been, since the Fading Committee first studied the problem.

Submitted by: Paul C. of Atlanta, GA
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fading colour prints
by masuk39 / February 9, 2006 6:31 PM PST

I suppose our children and grand children will be thankful that they haven't been lumbered with shoe boxes and albums from this era. The digital prints will probably have faded away to nothing, and let's face it, it's not the end of the world if we don't know what great aunt Emma looked like when she was having a bath at age six.

Enjoy our prints now, and pass them around to friends or email them. That's the great thing about digital photography - we can send these around the world, minutes after they were taken.

I've just finished scanning and adjusting almost 4000 old 35mm colour slides. There has been some fading of reds in the forty year-old prints, soon adjusted with Photoshop, and it's been fun (for me at least) sending some of these away to e-pals.


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Saving Photographs of great Aunt Emma
by rover2 / February 11, 2006 2:05 AM PST
In reply to: fading colour prints

Perhaps it isn't really important to know what great Aunt Emma looked like. But ask any number of people who love family history and you will find that they cherish the old photos of great Aunt Emma. So it really does matter that we find a way to store these photos and those of more recent years. Maybe it is because I am 69 years old, that pictures of the past have great meaning and significants to me. So,in my opinion (and I highly regard my opinion) it is very important that we archive and preserve those precious memories, not just for ourselves but for our posterity.

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If archives aren't accessible, they'll be lost..
by MegsL / February 11, 2006 9:51 PM PST

Agreed completely, Rover 2!

I notice many responders on this longevity topic have recommended storing photographs as IT files, not prints, and reprinting them later only when needed using whichever technology is by then available.

This is fine if you're aged twenty or thirty, but it's not such a good suggestion if - like Rover 2, and like me - you have come to digital photography late in life. When you're seventy or eighty, it is not realistic.

I don't expect to be around the place reprinting photographs (or, indeed, doing anything else...) fifteen, twenty or thirty years from now. Nor do I expect surviving descendants to do a research and rescue job on inaccessible archives of mine. They will be much too busy with their own lives, and with images they have created themselves.

No. The photographic records I conserve, edit, process and shortly leave behind me must be accessible to all, that is they must be PRINTED, or they're useless. Hence all this discussion about archival inks and papers.

It's a great discussion, though! My regards to everybody contributing to it -
Meg L.

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Website to preserve, organize, share, and enjoy your photos
by rover2 / February 13, 2006 12:52 AM PST

Hi megsl
Sounds like we are in the same age group and that our photos portray our legacy and that of our ancestors. I hope that you get all your photos archived for your family. I know of a website that is free where they will digitize all your old photos, back them up, send you a CD and they also backup their files daily and archive them in a granite vault. I don't know if I can legally post this site. If you want more info. email me at

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On line storage?
by MegsL / February 16, 2006 8:56 AM PST

Hi again Rover 2, just seen your post there, and thank you for going to the trouble!

I am interested in the website you mention, but (a) how can its providers lay on such a service for free, and (b) how would one get one's pictures into
such a place and be certain of later generations having the ability - or the enthusiasm - to get them out again?

The problem - as I see it - is that most young people aren't yet interested, and their overworked parents have no time to spare. Most family archiving these days is done by us retired people, and we have to leave things in a state to be usefully picked up and continued by the next generation of retired people.

This seems to me a cogent reason for avoiding high-tech storage solutions, with complicated password access and such. High-tech editing and improvement of pictures is fine. I'm all for that, but once the editing is done I feel most comfortable leaving text and pictures in some obvious place where they'll catch the eye of the casual clearer-upper.

Still, every family is different I guess. Thanks again for your interest, and best regards - Meg.

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by Perkaset / February 9, 2006 6:57 PM PST

Just keep good backup's of your pictures and they will last forever

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digital prints
by danniedee1 / February 9, 2006 9:04 PM PST

Good information. Thank you. As I looked around your answer I found a download for a slide show - it's been easy and fun to use. Best regards from Flower Mound, Texas

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How long will they last
by purpled / February 9, 2006 9:08 PM PST

My Dye Sub printer advertises an expected life of 60-70 years or about the same as a photograph.

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laminating digital photos
by moonglough / February 10, 2006 12:46 AM PST

hi everyone
i bought a small laminator (about 9 inches wide) and i laminate the digital photos that i want to display, or pass around, or keep as physical objects. After about a year and a half of doing this, nothing has faded, even things in direct sunlight for a good part of the day. (i have an oldish hp officejet printer and use a variety of paper qualities.)

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laminating color prints
by wileyrg / February 10, 2006 4:28 AM PST

I have had just the opposite experience. We printed a number of full color images using an older Epson color ink jet, and with the same thought in mind that laminating would preserve, we immediately laminated them. About two years later, they were definitely fading and within a year had to be thrown away.

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But beware those plastic sleeves!
by jmbrinck / February 10, 2006 7:07 AM PST

I haven't tried lamination and am glad it's worked for you, but plastic, paper and ink are not always symbiotic friends. I printed a bunch of digital art on an HP inkjet printer using high grade, heavyweight photo paper. Then I slipped the prints into three-ring plastic sleeves for storage. About a year later I noticed a number of the prints had bled--color was darkened and the images blurred--in other words--they were toast. They even left a negative image on the plastic, and I'd stored them in a cool dark closet. I have no idea what chemically transpired, but since lamination didn't degrade your images I offer that perhaps oxygen played a part in ruining mine. Just throwing it out there for what it's worth.

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plastic sleeves=probably polyvinyl chloride
by bimmerpilot / February 10, 2006 11:13 AM PST

About 20 years ago, I started storing Kodachrome and other brands of 35mm slides in plastic (read polyvinyl chloride) sleeves. Fortunately, I read about the probability of damage to the slides and color changes due to the outgassing from the PVC and threw out those sleeves in favor of archival storage sleeves made from polycarbonate. These are available from a number of sources and are one of the best and least costly methods for slide storage. While I have not stored color prints, either silver halide based or digitally printed, I would think that similar materials made into sleeves for prints would be a satisfactory solution. Just as an aside, I have one color print (silver halide) that has been in a metal frame, behind glass, that has been exposed to ambient light (not direct sunlight) in my office for 30 or more years. It shows serious fading which indicates that exposure to light is probably the worst enemy of color prints of any type.

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In a nutshell
by agieryic / February 9, 2006 9:10 PM PST

I stongly believe, if you take your digital prints to a photo-developing store such as Ritz, you're going to get the same good results as you would with prints from negatives. They use the same paper and chemicals to get the print on paper vs using a home printer that uses ink.

Great article!

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Fading Colors
by marc_90292 / February 9, 2006 9:44 PM PST

I had the opportunity to test two ink jet printers, Canon's bubble jet, and HP's 1350 all in one.
I printed the same picture on both. Both were hung onto the fridge.
The HP had strongly faded within 2 weeks, the Canon print was seemingly unaffected within the same time frame.
I am not suggesting to prefer one over the other.
The Canon clogged up after 12 months of usage because I used Best Buy generic replacement ink, and the HP's scanner glas broke when I put a book on top of it.
Anyway, it appears that the organic ink used by Canon is somewhat superior.

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Pointless to compare fading in non-archival printers
by callibeth / February 10, 2006 12:08 AM PST
In reply to: Fading Colors

It's almost pointless to compare the print longevity of two printers who don't even claim to produce non-fading prints.

Only a few of the HP printers claim to use non-fading ink, and I don't believe they make any such claim about their all-in-one printers. And not all of Canon's bubble jet printers claim to use archival inks. But you don't specify model numbers, so it's hard to tell what you're comparing.

And you don't have to spend a lot of money to get an inkjet printer that uses non-fading ink. The Epson C88 is well under $100.

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Great Report
by hawkeye15 / February 9, 2006 10:23 PM PST

Paul's response was very informative and interesting. He should be a chemistry teacher.

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Chemistry teacher?
by pjcamp / February 10, 2006 1:44 AM PST
In reply to: Great Report

Paul is already a physics professor and regards chemistry as beyond the pale.

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Digital camers pics
by jher4794 / February 10, 2006 12:52 AM PST

Paul gives a great report on how long digital pics will last, maybe a bit long but good never the less.

I would suggest you place your photos on a disk for storage, and when you want to reproduce them go to, Costco, Wal-mart or a store like that. Then when they fade go back and reproduce them.

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How long will digital photos last.....?
by Rozann / February 10, 2006 12:55 AM PST

I have had my digital camera since 2000.... I LOVE my digital cameras! Yes, I now own 2 of these babies.
Shortly after receiving my first digital camera, I went to a seminar workshop on how to use my new Olympus Camera. At that workshop, I learned many unusual new techniques, but the one that stuck by me has been the one on archiving my photos.
The gentlemen holding the seminar told us that when archiving our photos either for display in a frame on the table, wall or where ever.. Or as in scrapbooking, archiving is important. They demonstrated using a Krylon Acrylic Clear coat spray..... On the can it even says that it is suggested for documents, photos, artwork, etc.... I have used it ever since that seminar.... I have to admit that my business cards stand up to moisture much better, my photos sittingon the coffee table in the sun seem to be holding up much better....
I felt it was the number 1 reason to use the product to archive my photos. A fantastic secret that I felt it was worth the $25 seminar fee. The second excellent hint at protecting my camera, was to use a sock cuff over the camera, even though I have an excellent camera bag, but it protects the screen on the back of the camera, especially those times I slip it into my purse or pocket for some quick unexpected shots..... Well worth my $25 fee...

Since that seminar, I have heard many people who immediately suggest that same Krylon Acrylic Clear coat for photos. Dampness will not effect them, either....

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Fade characteristics inkjet prints - choose the right paper
by photonels / February 10, 2006 1:30 AM PST

Paul's answer is absolutely correct, but omits one important piece of information, and that is regarding the ink receiving layer of photo base inkjet papers.

Some photo inkjet papers would appear to dry instantaneously, and some inkjet papers take longer to dry, which at first glance would indicate that the instant-dry papers are superior. That is not necessarily the case.

Instant dry photo papers are, in industry language, called "microporous" or "nanoporous", which means that their receiving layers are made up of nanometer sized chunks of ceramic. The gaps in between these ceramic chunks is what both dye and pigment inks fill into, thereby the billions of these pores into which billions of ink droplets rest creates the images we call inkjet prints.

Paul's comment that airborne gases have a direct effect on dye-based inkjet prints is correct, as well as the effects UV light. What happens on a microporous print is that both the dyes (or pigments)are openly exposed to the air, where such gases can do their destructive work. That is why if a dye based inkjet print hung in a hair salon or a newly painted room can fade rather quickly. To minimize the effects of dye destruction, either lamination or putting the image behind glass will help, although UV damage can continue, depending on the UV absorption characteristics of the laminate or glass.

Even though pigment inks on these same microporous papers are subject to the same conditions of gases and UV light, they are as immune to these effects as Paul's example of a painted house.

So, why use dye inks at all? The answer is that dyes still offer the capability of a wider color gamut and better saturation than pigment inks, although the performance gap between pigments and dyes is rapidly closing with the pigment inks available today. Dyes in general are also less expensive.

Thus, we turn back to the inkjet papers which take a longer time to dry. There is a valid reason to choose these papers instead. Typically, those papers are coated with polymers rather than ceramic crystals. When an ink droplet strikes a polymer, it absorbs into the polymer, in a matter not too dissimilar to how a drop of water on Jello mix. It will swell the polymer due to its "wetness", and as it dries, the polymer actually encapsulates the dye in itself, thus rendering the dye immune to the damage of airborne gases. Polymer prints using dye inks will easily will last more than twice as long as microporous dye prints, relative to gas fading. However, the dyes on a polymer print continue to be subject to UV fading. Although polymer prints do not require lamination or being put behind glass to avoid gas fading, doing so can help prevent UV damage, again depending on the kind of laminate or glass used.

Also, dyes are improving in their fade resistance at the same rate as pigment inks are improving in their gamut and saturation. It will only be a matter of time before both technologies come so close in performance that fading "fades" as an issue.

The bottom line is that inkjet prints, even the faded ones are replaceable and can be restored to their original brilliance by simply reprinting them. So relax and enjoy your images. 0's and 1's never fade.

Nelson S.

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Inkjet printers
by alisrelatif / February 10, 2006 6:34 AM PST

All I hear about are Canon, HP, or Epsons printers. I have a simple Brother which uses 4 inkjets. Can anyone give me their opinion on the use and picture quality you can (or have) obtain(ed) witn a Brother setup.
Thank you, Karl

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I had a Brother MFC9100 inkjet...bad experience
by pennypincher / February 13, 2006 10:23 AM PST
In reply to: Inkjet printers

Paid over $400 for this all-in-one. Picture printing quality was quite poor. I had been attracted by the big, refillable ink tanks. But when the first tank was empty, the printhead failed($200 replacement cost).
I figure my cost-per-page was about $2.00 on plain paper. I got about 200 pages out of it.

After suffering through a couple of costly Lexmarks, the Brother had looked like a good solution. Not so.

I then bought a used Canon BJC6000. Separate, reasonably priced printheads with refillable separate inktanks. Worked great, but eventually developed paper-handling woes.

Next purchase was an HP Business Inkjet 1200d. Separate printheads($34 each) and separate ink tanks($34 each, also). Very decent photos, but not ultra-fine print quality. This printer has proven to be a super-reliable workhorse, really pouring out the work. Ink costs were already low because of the generous size of the HP ink tanks.

NOW, my ink costs are Super-SUPER-low due to installation of a "continuous-ink" system. This is a set of custom inktanks that install where the original ink cartridges sat, connected by plastic tubing to large external ink tanks sitting on the desk. Ink is fed to the printer through these tubes, resetting the ink-level reader on the printer everytime I print.

Had this setup for about a year, and it works fantastic! I have since also purchased two HP 1100d's from eBay auctions. These printers are a very good investment.

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Epsons Cloging Wrong
by William Hill / February 10, 2006 1:50 AM PST

"Epsons, in fact, have something of a reputation for this problem."
Make sure when you imply the words IN FACT that you can back that up. I personaly use epson Pigimet on Premium luster and I will put them up against any thing else. For instance lets put a billfold of epson print and a competators print in water and see what happens. If client is going to display print in sunlight uv coatings should be suggested plus frameing.
I will say this, you did give a good answer except for what I feel is your error about epson.

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Epson clogging, HP not
by Agiyo / February 10, 2006 2:12 AM PST
In reply to: Epsons Cloging Wrong

My pigment-printing Epson is sitting in the store room, replaced by ah HP. Reason: Unless it was used almost every day, the Epson clogged, smeared pigment, and found new ways to ruin very expensive 13"x19" prints, every time I used it.

I'm going to fit the Epson with MIS inks for black and white printing, but the HP is far more convenient, reliable, and the prints are absolutely stunning.


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Epson smearing
by davey007 / February 11, 2006 9:00 AM PST
In reply to: Epson clogging, HP not

Funny mine is the opposite!
My HP is for black and white .& my Epson is for stunning photos.

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Not My Epsom!
by rje49 / February 11, 2006 9:12 AM PST
In reply to: Epson clogging, HP not

For what it's worth, my Epsom 777, purchased July 2001, has never clogged, and I rarely use it. I've gone months in between printing without a problem. I've used Epsom cartridges, brand x, and even used a refill kit. I think I ran the "print head cleaner utility" once a few years ago because I had some spots. What problem???

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Epson clogging solution
by pennypincher / February 13, 2006 10:39 AM PST
In reply to: Epson clogging, HP not

Yes, the Epson clogs because it's not being used frequently enough. But, your HP will do the same, with the black ink cartridge. Also a pigment ink.

Why aren't we using the Epson more often? Probably because of the ink costs. I print EVERYTHING. It's FUN. But I couldn't afford to do this until I discovered continuous ink systems. Plenty offered on eBay. Eliminates cartridges and refilling and makes printing seem almost free. Check-out eBay 6849327829. I bought a similar setup for my HP 1200d. Just FANTASTIC..!!

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Epson clogging (or not), continued
by howardlatimer / February 16, 2006 6:36 AM PST

I have two Epsons - an Epson 2200 and an Epson 200 - and although I use the 2200 maybe once a week and the 200 maybe two or three times per month, I've only had perhaps two clogs over the past couple of years (the 2200 is several years old and the 200 is roughly 18 months). Perhaps some of the reasons other folks are having clogging problems may be 1) the type of paper, 2) the PPI/DPI they are printing out at and 3) the heat/humidity in the room where the paper and printers are stored.

Just some thoughts!

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Both my Epsons Clogged / Stopped Working
by rdeza / February 10, 2006 2:48 AM PST
In reply to: Epsons Cloging Wrong

I have had a C64 and a C84. Both started to print faint. Right after I replaced with Brand-New genuine cartridges. they both STOPPED printing. Not even a faint trace of ink!

I have since switched to Canon Pixma 4000 which does not have a killer chip.

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