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Will the photos saved in my computer lose quality over time?

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    Can you clarify your idea(s) about lost quality? – Romeo Ninov Oct 29 '17 at 4:40
  • for me it seems like a simple photo prints vs digital files question. your photos fade, your files don't. sure, if something damages your computer, your digital files are gone. similarly, when your house is burned, you lose your prints. but neither of these events is "losing quality over time". – szulat Oct 29 '17 at 20:21
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    Trent, please clarify what do you mean by "quality" and "over time", what time frame is interesting to you? 1 year, 10 years, or 1000 years? – aaaaa says reinstate Monica Oct 29 '17 at 22:09
  • I started shooting digital around year 2000 or so. My photos from that time are bitwise exactly the same as when I shot them almost two decades ago. But compared to photos taken with current camera models the quality is not so good - resolution and dynamic range are completely different league now. Does this qualify as an answer to your question? – Jindra Lacko Nov 4 '17 at 8:53
  • Does you JPG loose its flavor on the bed post overnight? – Alaska Man Dec 26 '20 at 21:28

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No. This is a defining quality of digital storage — every value is discretely rendered to a number, and those numbers are recorded. This means that digital files can be copied an infinite number of times without introducing error, and that as long as nothing happens to the underlying storage, the file itself will always be the same.

It is possible for the media (like hard drives or DVD) to develop errors, which render numbers unreadable (or occasionally flipped from one to another) — but this can actually be checked for and verified. Make sure that you have backups, and verify those backups periodically.

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Unlike printed media, digital photos will always remain exactly as they were when saved, unless the media holding them becomes corrupted for some reason. However it's easy to store a large number of copies at various datacenters in order to alleviate the problem.

That being said, digital photos do tend to lose quality in terms of our subjective perception. As camera tech develops our idea of what a "good photo" is will change as well. Perhaps in 100 years all pictures will work as interactive Harry Potter-like 360-degree panoramas and modern day shots will look the same to our descendants as photos from 1917 look to us. Or maybe the very idea of taking pictures will become obsolete as we'll all be able to relive a moment by plugging ourselves into a Matrix-like simulator. So while your photo might win you a Pulitzer today, it might as well be an archaic museum relic to future generations.

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  • I don't think this is a very good answer. If they did degrade over time, it would be a huge blow to future civilizations. Many old silent films now days are extremely low-quality due to degradation of the film. It's always impressive to see one which is preserved very well. In fact, I'd say that they do not really lose quality in terms of subjective perception. Old photos and films are often so crappy looking because they degraded. If you were to go back to 1917 and looked at a fresh photograph, it would really look quite good. – forest Jun 10 '18 at 2:46
  • @forest at the very least a photo from 1917 would generally lack color, which I would say is a big improvement over black-and-white. And nowadays we have things like 360-degrees video, which was completely impossible back then. – JonathanReez Apr 25 '19 at 19:09
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No, they do not loose quality.

But you could consider the following points, besides the fact that any storage medium may fail in doing its job (becoming corrupt, defect or any thing likes this):

  • While copying files from one medium to another errors can occur and destroy some bits or bytes. But it is possible to prevent this error.
  • Computer technology changes. A computer in 20 years may not be able to read your hard drive.
  • Display technology changes. Example: a display with high pixel density makes a picture looking sharper than on an older display with less pixel density.
  • People change their way they look at an image and what they think is good quality or not.
  • File formats of today may not be supported in the future. I don't expect to have a RAW converter available for todays camera in 30 or so years on the operating system and the photo software compatible of this time.

... list may be extended to some more points.

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    They mdo not loose quality, but their storage does. Look up "Bit Rot". Standard for storing things long term. – TomTom Oct 29 '17 at 21:57
  • @TomTom: this is what I mean with a storage medium becoming corrupt. – this.myself Oct 30 '17 at 10:24
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Technically yes.

While not that common nowadays, a hard drive may fail, a data disk can get degraded or scratched, plus, there are some infrequent occasions when file may be subject to bit rot.

This is typically circumvented by keeping several copies of data, as well as implementing error correction processes on hardware level

The main issue is uncaught data degradation -- if you do not touch a file for a long time, you have no idea if it is still valid.

My personal approach is to keep everything on a RAID-1 or mirrored hard drives, but if I were earning my living by photography, I would invest in a way of storing more copies and checking them frequently.

Really, if you downvote based on the idea of digital being perfect, you forget that nothing exists without medium.

Even film negatives tend to detoriate with time. So does whatever medium you store your digital photos on.

And possibly you haven't had the old CD-Rs die on you by having their outer layer come off in flakes.

However, the OP specifically said that he was asking about photos saved on his computer -- which is currently either a magnetic hard drive or a solid state disk. Both of which can and will detoriate.

And I speak from experience of doing digital preservation for a national library, so we had this question discussed and researched for quite some time before selecting the tools.

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    You mention RAID-1, which is simple mirroring. Fine, but what if you're doing the typical two-way mirroring, and one copy develops an error and the other doesn't (or even develops a different error)? How do you decide which copy is correct? – user Jun 10 '18 at 11:19
  • To solve this with a simple mirroring setup you'd typically need at least three-way mirroring so that you'd have two out of three copies which hopefully agree, or you need some kind of checksumming in place to determine which copy is undamaged. (ZFS, Btrfs and I believe ReFS does checksumming to validate data on read. At least ZFS can be configured to do arbitrary n-way mirroring.) Outright storage failure, even partial failure (some sectors simply unreadable) is the easy case to handle. – user Jun 10 '18 at 11:19
  • @MichaelKjörling there are several things which you can do, depending on the hardware and software you are using, I listed some minimal kind of setup,which definitely can be improved depending on how much time, money and /or effort you are willing to spend to increase the chances of your backup integrity. – Gnudiff Jun 10 '18 at 11:21
  • @MichaelKjörling agreed. As I wrote in my answer, this is the setup I have at home for my private photos, which I do not earn living with. For either professional photography or the national library, there exist much more robust possibilities. – Gnudiff Jun 10 '18 at 11:25
  • Sure, but I think you missed my point. It's not hard to set up redundant storage; and it's certainly not harder than non-redundant storage to manage, if done properly. The issue crops up when you have specifically two-way mirroring (such as two-way RAID-1) without any further integrity checks, and when asked for the same block, drive 1 in the array says X and drive 2 in the array says X', with some large or small difference such that X≠X'. Without additional data, this is an unresolvable situation; the computer cannot know which copy, if either, is correct; it can only know that they differ. – user Jun 10 '18 at 11:29
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I may have read past it, but I did not see anyone issue the caveat that if you repeatedly open compressed images and re-save them, you will incrementally degrade the image. Lossless image formats – raw, psd, tiff – will not degrade with repeated saves/overwrites.

CDs are not an archival media and can definitely degrade over time as is happening with some collections.

The biggest risk in long term digital storage is drive failure or obsolescence of the media type. For example, it would be quite a project to retrieve images from an old Syquest disk, Iomega Zip disk or Jazz cartridge!

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No. As stated above, that's the whole point of 'digital storage and photography'.

As long as the image is kept on good devices and in good conditions, the file will remain the same. However, over time, files might get corrupted or get errors which will result in rendering problems. But that's not something you should think about since almost all media storages nowadays will not develop this kind of issues.

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  • Files, as such, do not get corrupted or get errors over time. – Zenit Oct 28 '17 at 21:40
  • As far as I was concerned, storage devices such as hard drives can develop errors (for example from a magnet) if not held in good conditions. Same for DVDs and scratches. If I'm wrong, I will edit my answer. – TudorPanait.ro Oct 28 '17 at 21:44
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    There's no such thing as a perfect storage medium. The most secure way to preserve a file is redundancy combined with error checking/correction. But even then, statistically over time there will eventually occur even a most improbable occurrence of simultaneous multiple errors to redundant data stored on discrete storage systems that can render the resulting data as only having a high probability of being identical to the original data. – Michael C Oct 29 '17 at 7:13
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    Every form of storage media can degrade over time. This is just basic physics. In fact servers are typically equipped with redundant ,memory and storage systems precisely for this reason. For photos consider archival quality CD and DVD+R (note the "+"). – StephenG Oct 29 '17 at 14:34
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    >almost all media storages nowadays will not develop this kind of issues. -- on the contrary -- all of them will, given sufficient time or even faster under favourable conditions. Also note that OP asked about photos saved on his computer -- not typically the safest location for average user – Gnudiff Oct 29 '17 at 19:18
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Will the photos saved in my computer lose quality over time?

Digital storage means that either you can access it or you can't. There is no quality degradation. Storage medias tend to fail catastrophically so that if you can't access a single pixel (or read an incorrect value for it), most likely you can't access the true data of the neighboring pixels, and actually the rest of the image! Additionally, images are often stored in compressed form, which means even a single very small error can have large effects on the image.

So, if the image in storage has been damaged, you would see it.

However, there are two effects that can cause the data to lose usefulness over time:

  • Firstly, if the digital images are stored in RAW format, every camera brand has its own format. Not only that, but camera brands switch to a newer variant of the format all the time, adding features and breaking backwards-compatibility. If you have a less popular camera from a small brand purchased in 2010, will you able to access its raw images on 2050 in a computer, operating system and software purchased in 2050? We don't know. Storing both JPG and RAW helps, but note that JPG is less useful than the RAW, so if you do this, having to use JPG means the image has already lost usefulness.

  • Secondly, if you "develop" an image using non-destructive editing software, it stores the instructions for processing the image to a metadata file. Almost certainly, in 2050 you cannot read the instructions that you stored in 2020 with software purchased in 2050. So you need to re-develop the image, and the image will look a bit different therefore.

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I’m not sure if it’s correct but the only way digital files could lose quality is if it’s converted to a lower quality file type or an image is uploaded onto some sort of website where compression would cause it to lose some of the data.

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I have a Codak cd its been in a safe for ten years now. I tried to see what was on it as one forgets over time what's on CDs. I am disappointed to see that the photos are so faded that I can use them. there useless.

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    "Faded"? I'm surprised to hear that. What is the file format of the images on the CD? – scottbb Jan 2 at 1:44
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    @scottbb: Charitably, I wonder if what people mean by “faded” or “degraded” on this post might actually relate to color profiles? Obviously, file corruption aside, there shouldn’t be any degradation of the image itself. But there might be degradation in support for current software to render old color profiles, and especially for RAW images, thus giving the perception of degradation. – Jeremy Caney Jan 2 at 18:56
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I have digital images from 30 years ago and I can tell you with 100% certainty. They have degraded. In fact they degraded to a point that I almost don't want to keep them, but I do for sentimental reasons. I wish I could somehow restore them back to how they were when they were taken but I don't think that would be possible.

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    While your sense of quality improved, the files should be exactly the same unless you had some serious storage corruption going on. While data storage my become corrupt, and jpgs will be robust enough to be displayable with flipped bits, files do not degrade by themselves in the sense as emulsion or paper ages. – Kai Mattern Dec 23 '20 at 8:23
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    Plus I am not sure which photos you might have taken 30 years ago in digital format, as jpg is just 28 years old as a format. The first consumer digital still cameras that were in widespread use became popular in the mid 90ies. Of course there were digital cams before, but on a more rudimentary side. – Kai Mattern Dec 23 '20 at 8:29
  • @KaiMattern: There were a lot of formats around before jpg. I won a digital camera in a photographic competition in the late 1980s, it stored its pictures in a TIGA format. Although, as you say, they won't have degraded without serious corruption which would probably render them unreadable. – Chenmunka Dec 23 '20 at 11:13
  • @Chenmunka Of course there was digital imaging before. GIF for example dates back into 1987. TGA even a few years more. Simple bitmaps even longer. However, widespread use started around the early 90ies. I still remember the times when I used a handheld scanner to convert a photo that would then fill a floppy disc. One whole disk. Woaaaah! ;o) – Kai Mattern Dec 23 '20 at 12:27
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    I have digital images from an early Sony Mavica (late 90's fixed lens) that saved jpegs on a floppy. I copied them to a hard drive and then multiple times as I've upgraded computers. They are still exactly the same. – doug Dec 25 '20 at 2:35

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