The great digital photo conundrum


View from the Window in Le Gras“, the world’s first photograph. This is a colourised version of the 1826 original by Jonnychiwa – Wikimedia, CC.

It was a long overdue computer overhaul that brought to my attention we had a combined database of images (jpeg files) totaling more than 100,000. Gee willikers as they used to say in the 1950s sit-coms, to express amazement (today expressed as WTF or Holy F*** Batman, etc).

Gee willikers is described in the Urban Dictionary and elsewhere as a ‘minced oath’ – like the perfect gentleman turning a forming curse into Jeepers, Jings or Cripes.

All which has little to do with the discussion we are about to have – except, what the whillikers are we to do with a database of 100,000 digital photos?

The quantity is not so surprising when researchers* estimate that people in the US take on average 20 photos per day (Asia-Pacific 15 per day).

She Who Took Most of Ours (SWTMOO) swears there is a lot of doubling up in there, while sorting photos into years, topics and other identifiers.

We have both had computers, digital phones and cameras for the past 20 years. On that basis, it’s only 5000 photos a year, or 2500 each, on average. As you can see by the research, we came out just below average (14 photos per day).

As we all know, though, only two or three of a set of photographs taken on any one day will be keepers. So why not just delete the other 24 there and then? Those 40 or 50 mobile phone shots of the eclipse, nearly all of which were duds.

I came to this audit of our digital baggage while setting up SWTMOO’s new computer. While reinstalling backups from the old, failed computer, I decided to store only photos from 2018 onwards in the default Pictures folder. Then began the process of locating and moving pre-2018 digital photos from various portable hard drives (including my own collection on another PC).

This is when you run into the folders within folders trap and the occasional folder unhelpfully named ‘Photos’ or ’Folder’.( I plead ‘not guilty’ to that one. Ed) Many of these photos are from our travels around Australia and also overseas, although the latter seems like a long time ago now.

Did I mention we also have a cupboard stacked with photo albums from the pre-digital era? We are children of the WWII era where photos were scarce mementos of hard times, romance and childhood. Just as people today can lose their photo collections to floods, bushfires and other catastrophes, so too our war-era parents lost family photos in the Blitz.

War-time refugees driven out of their homes left everything except what they could carry. Photography was an expensive hobby in those days. If you are going through great-grandma’s things and can only find a handful of creased box brownie snaps, that is fairly typical. Formal portraits from the world wars that survived offer few clues to the people who inherited them. No-one thought to write on the back (in pencil, even) just who is in the photo.

Not that photo hoarding is a new thing – check out the street photographer Vivian Maier, a reclusive character who died unrecognized in 2009. A Wikipedia entry described how Maier took more than 150,000 photographs during her lifetime, most in the 1940s and 1950s. These unbidden images of people and architecture in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles were unpublished until after her death. A collector acquired some of Maier’s photos in 2007, while others found Maier’s prints and undeveloped negatives in boxes and suitcases. Her photographs were first published on the Internet in July 2008, Let that be a lesson to you, SWTMOO.

Most of the equipment Maeir used is the stuff of museums now, as camera sales dwindle and smart phone trade soars.

As Matic Broz writes in, * the proliferation of smart phone cameras and the rapid improvement in technology dominates the digital photo scene. In 2020, 82% of digital photos were taken by smart phones and that is expected to rise to 92.5% in 2023.

If you still have a digital camera (as we both do), you are in a dwindling minority of people who prefer, like professional photographers, to shoot images with digital or analog cameras and interchangeable lenses.

The convenience of the smart phone/camera is that most people have it with them all the time, like a wallet or watch.

Whatever brand of smart phone you can afford will do the trick and then some. The latest Apple Iphone, for example, has a 12 megapixel main camera and a 12mp wide angle camera. All the same, you can buy a digital camera for under $300 which will have a 20mp lense and probably a 30mm zoom as well.

In a world where there are 12 trillion photographs in existence and a myriad of ways to distribute them, who would actually pay staff photographers to take them? Newsrooms across the nation and electronic media in general have pared down their in-house photographic units accordingly. Staffers have been replaced by freelancers, photo sharing sites like, and online agencies which either sell or give away digital images. Not to mention the keen amateurs who send their sunrise/sunset/storm phone snaps to the TV weather people.

According to,* which seems to be the portal that keeps statistics on this topic, 1.81 trillion photos are taken worldwide every year. By 2030, this will have grown to 2.3 trillion photos every year.

The average user has around 2,100 photos on a smartphone in 2023. Apple smartphone users have 2,400, while Android users have 1,900. (My Samsung cheap ‘smart’ phone seemingly refuses to delete photos until it’s damn well good and ready, despite my varous attempts. Ed)

Even though the global pandemic reduced the number of images taken by 25% in 2020 and 20% in 2021, the growth of digital images has continued unabated. And why not? It’s cheap, available and social media makes it easy to share images with friends and family.

The major issue with digital imagery is its ephemeral nature. One of my long-term readers has been keeping a hard copy family photo album for a long while now. All of those Facebook photos of baby’s first steps, toddler’s first tantrum, first day at Kindie etc, all carefully copied to a flash drive. There are places which have DIY photo kiosks where you can select, crop and request images and come back an hour later and collect the still warm prints. The cost is nothing in the scheme of things. The big question is, do the young parents of today’s generation want hard copy photo albums of those precious moments?

“Mum, I shared it on Insta – didn’t you get it?”

The trap for those who accumulate vast numbers of digital photos and videos is the storage space they take up. At a rough guess our 100,000 photos consume close to 500GB of data, video considerably more. If you store data in the ‘cloud,’ be it a cluster of cumulus owned by Apple, Google, Microsoft or competitors like Dropbox, you may be enjoying a ‘free’ account now. Be aware that fees apply once you pass whatever limit has been set by your cloud provider.

The wonder of digital imagery is the ability to scan old photos and keep them on a hard drive (above the 2022 flood level). Here’s a scan of a ‘selfie’ from 1984, just to prove the point. No idea at all where the original colour print is. The sign says (left) swimming allowed (right) swimming prohibited. Kiwis, eh!

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