Have you ever seen your parents’ or grandparents’ wedding photos? Chances are they were printed on photographic paper either as individual prints or presented in a wedding album. They’re priceless family heirlooms and they’ll likely outlast much of today’s wedding photography.
The Digital Revolution Changed Wedding Photography
The digital photography revolution ushered in the decline of the traditional model of wedding photography. In the film era, photographers were providers of both products and services; they were also the sole owners of the negatives, without which additional copies were difficult to reproduce. Couples relied exclusively on wedding photographers for photos, albums, and framed prints. The digital revolution changed things immeasurably, making it possible for some bargain photographers to operate exclusively as service providers without ever having to sell a physical print. Under mounting consumer pressure, the old-schoolers tried, but ultimately failed, to maintaining the old model of doing business. Savvy clients expected digital copies of their wedding photographs in high-resolution and with a license to print them to their hearts’ content. Well, at least, that was the idea.
We find ourselves in a situation where wedding photography print sales have declined. The unfortunate consequence is that wedding photographs – most photographs, actually – are increasingly relegated to an abstract realm of zeroes and ones; they see little hope of being converted into a format that is viewable in the most basic of manners: eyes looking at paper, unaided by the interpretive layers of software operating within a structured electrical storm.
The Consequences of Not Printing Your Wedding Photographs
Sometimes I find myself wondering what my clients do with the digital copies of their wedding photographs. Are the images made physical either as prints, books, or albums? I certainly hope so, for it would be a shame if all that effort was wasted on a Facebook post – and I don’t mean my effort as the wedding photographer, but the much greater effort expended by the couples themselves, spanning the months leading up to the wedding day. Not only does the photographic document deserve better presentation, but it also deserves a greater chance at longevity.
The harsh truth about digital media is that it exists within a state of fragility. An accidental push of a button, spill of a coffee, stray malware, or an unfortunate power surge can spell doom for your precious files. Depending on the nature of the damage, recovery can either be expensive or impossible. This isn’t fear mongering: it is the reality of digital asset management, and the reason why professionals from all walks – wedding photographers included – are keen on data redundancy.
A month ago, Vinton G. Cerf, Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist (yes, that’s his real title), gave a gloomy warning during a speech to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Almost every major news outlet and technology blog was quick to publish scary headlines about the impending “digital Dark Age.” (When the man referred to as one of the “fathers of the Internet” speaks, people listen.) Cerf himself gave a statement to the Guardian:
We are nonchalantly throwing all of our data into what could become an information black hole without realising it. We digitise things because we think we will preserve them, but what we don’t understand is that unless we take other steps, those digital versions may not be any better, and may even be worse, than the artefacts that we digitised. […] If there are photos you really care about, print them out. [Emphasis mine.]
To be clear, Cerf’s primary concern is the big picture stuff: preservation of vital digital information for future generations of historians and ensuring that obsolescence of the software used to create that information does not render it undecipherable. But it is his parting statement, about printing your photographs, that interests me in particular as it inspired this entire article. His proposition takes a Big Idea and brings it home with an effortless jab at modernity’s approach to the long-term preservation of personally significant data.
If you don’t print your photos, for how long will they truly last and be appreciated? Let’s recall your parents’ and grandparents’ wedding photography. They have survived not only because of their inherent sentimental value, but because they exist in a physical form that can be passed down through the generations. It is much more difficult to accidentally toss away a box of photos than it is to delete or lose track of a virtual folder. The former would require thoughtful contemplation, or, at least, some nominal physical exertion, while the latter happens everyday to even the most organized individuals. In the case of digital wedding photos, their personal significance is completely undermined by their physical insignificance.
Physical destruction and careless deletion aside, the greatest threat to digital information is obsolescence. Technologies come and go and with them, the companies behind them. While storing your wedding photos on multiple storage sites (e.g. a cloud service or on multiple hard drives) diminishes the possibility of inadvertently losing them, they don’t protect against company bankruptcy, hacking, or some other form of loss, both avoidable and unforeseen. (Who hasn’t misplaced a USB flash drive before?) Nor do they offer protection against changing industry standards for cables, connectors and communication protocols. And they definitely don’t offer protection against changing standards in software and the way files are rendered (although, admittedly, this is perhaps the most minor worry out of the three; the JPEG is too ubiquitous).
I recognize that this is a list of worst-case scenarios and distant worries. Much like myself, knowledgeable clients will convert and migrate their digital archives and wedding photographs from one format to another as technology progresses. It’s been done before and it will probably continue into the future. (Full days spent digitizing VHS and cassette tapes, anyone?) Nonetheless, digital preservation does require determination on behalf of both yourself and the person to whom you intend to leave your digital memories. In other words, it won’t be a walk in the park.
Printing Your Wedding Photography is the Simplest Method of Preservation
When stored in a cool, dry, and dark place, photographs printed on archival-quality photo-paper, such as Fujifilm Crystal Archive or Kodak Endura, should remain stable for several generations. According to Kodak, “Prints could be kept at least 100 years before noticeable fading occurs” or up to 150 years before the fading becomes “objectionable”. Given the right combination of environmental factors and time, all dyes will fade. Clearly, permanence is not an option. However, you can give your treasured photographic memories a chance to age gracefully and without the vexations associated with long-term digital storage. According to The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration:
Albums are an ideal storage method for photographic prints, especially snapshots and heirloom photographs–the photographs can be safely stored and organized, and safely viewed, without inflicting damage from frequent handling.
Good albums not only protect your wedding photographs, but they are also a beautiful way to store, view, and present them. I personally work with Queensberry, a New Zealand purveyor of bespoke albums. Simply put, they’re the best at what they do, which was the key deciding factor for me at a time when I was growing my business to include expanded services. I liked that they don’t screw around with quality and craftsmanship, and take photographic preservation seriously. (A cursory glance of the site will give you a sense of why I’m such a fan.)
All things considered, it doesn’t matter where photos are printed, provided that they are. It would be a great shame if the very consumers who wrested their right to print from wedding photographers chose not to exercise those rights in appreciable quantities. Although outliers exist – such as my acquaintance, who printed twenty DIY wedding albums for family members in Europe – they’re clearly an exception to the norm. Pallab Ghosh, science correspondent for BBC News, best summarizes my thoughts on the subject:
“Our life, our memories, our most cherished family photographs increasingly exist as bits of information – on our hard drives or in ‘the cloud’. But as technology moves on, they risk being lost in the wake of an accelerating digital revolution.”
As with other pivotal moments in life, all we are left are memories, but photographs take you back to how it was, not how much you paid to be there.