How To Save Family Photos, Movies, And Memories

Because that pic of your kid covered in peanut butter should be in a museum.

by Jonathan Stern
Originally Published: 
family photos

Losing all of the photos from your son’s third birthday sucks. How will future generations ever know if the tail was successfully pinned on the donkey? Ricc Ferrante, Director of Digital Services at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, has some practical advice on how to keep those terabytes of baby‘s first moments organized, updated, and accessible — because he does it for more than 3 million that basically document the entire history of the U.S.

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Ferrante has the enormous task of not only making sure the country’s most famous museum’s people, events, places, and research is preserved, and but also formatting and tagging media that our forefathers didn’t have the wherewithal to bring to Ye Olde Kinkos. Because, if his methods are entrusted with photos like this, they’ll probably work for last summer’s trip to the beach.

What Photos To Keep And What To Toss


“At work our job is to collect documentary evidence of history: Persons and who they interacted with. How they behaved. What was their surrounding like? Where did the material come from? Was it photoshopped or right off the camera? Can I trust it to be an authentic record that captures a part of history?” says Ferrante

You can look at your personal ephemera the same way. If you’re looking at a photo and don’t know whether to save it or trash it, ask if it tells a story about that time in history. A grandparent playing with your kid? Keep. Some weirdo at his birthday party picking her nose? Trash.

“One thing that I’d recommend for people who feel nervous about choosing, create a folder called “Delete Later.” You can always come back and really put it in the trash,” says Ferrante.

How To Choose a Photo File Format


Remember when you thought that the MiniDisc was about to replace the CD? Now you have a whole Ace of Bases whole discography that you can’t access. If you need to keep that slide carousel or home movie projector for sentimental reasons, just run it once ever so often to make sure the belts don’t dry out.

Otherwise, stick with file formats that have been universally accepted. Ferrante says consider how many different devices or programs can give you access to that file, and which ones are most likely to last the longest. Also, smaller compressed files are easier to store and access, but if you’re looking to get the truest quality out of your media.

Smithsonian Institution Archives are all about lossless formats. They’re trying to make sure everything they safe is as close to the original artifact as possible. Here are the types of solutions they’ve figured out:

  • TIFF: “We use the color format which gives us 8-bits per channel. We’re not a photo lab, so we’re not going in to tweak the color arrangement or play with the histogram, We want the history the way it appears at that point in time,” says Ferrante. “In terms of resolution, we want to make sure that there are enough of those pixels to enlarge it and get some good detail, 600 dpi at 8″ x 10″.”
  • WAV: “It’s professional quality and you can find free open source programs to play them. It’s standards based. That means one company’s wav file is the same as another company’s.”
  • Video: “Just copying the files doesn’t capture DVD. It has to be captured as disc images.” And if you’re preserving digital home movies, the Smithsonian records them in your standard MPEG-2 or MPEG-4.
  • HD: “We don’t have preservation solutions for HD video yet. All we do is keep it in the format that we get it.

Be Redundant


Even if you’re sending your backup to the spirit in the sky, you’re going to want some Earth-based storage solutions. Ferrante says that your CDs and DVD are going to warp over time, so they’re out. Your older hard drives (HDD) are out, because while the magnetic drive may last, the whirring gizmos inside won’t. For now, invest in some solid state technology. It doesn’t have any moving parts and should be good until Skynet comes online.

Choose Cloud Storage Wisely

People Dropbox, Google Drive, Flickr, Amazon Cloud Drive — all decent cloud solutions, but also not in your control.”You have to be thoughtful about how long those things are going to be around,” says Ferrante. “I harken back to a poetry site that was up years ago where people would publish online. Then it went out of business and didn’t communicate with authors. People lost a lot of creative material”

So probably offers a great rate, but if you’re trusting your family memories to a third party, don’t skimp on longevity. Google is going to be here when your grandkids arrive — Flickr is owned by Yahoo. Remember that.

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