Digital photography has transformed the photo album from a binder stuffed with plastic pages to a hard-bound photo book that could be displayed proudly on any bookshelf.
But as more of us make photo books – especially with an eye toward preserving these photographic memories for future generations – there’s an obvious question: how long will they last? We know, through lab testing and our own experience, how long photographic prints last – either stored in an album or left in a pile in a shoebox. But a photo book is a relatively new creation. They haven’t been “passed down” by relatives yet. We don’t know how they’ll look after a few decades in the basement.

To get some answers we spoke to Henry Wilhelm, a print permanance expert who runs Wilhelm Imaging Research, a print testing service. Wilhelm wrote the book (literally) on print longevity and is a go-to source in the photo industry for insights into printers, ink, paper and photo chemistry.

There haven’t been any formalized print permanance tests on photo books themselves, Wilhelm said, but many of the components and printers that produce those books have been subjected to testing – and the results are very promising from a longevity standpoint. For instance, earlier this year Wilhelm’s lab performed tests on HP’s Indigo – a printer used by many services to produce photo books (Wilhelm estimated that Indigo printers produce up to 80 percent of all photo books made today). You can check out the full results here.

Suffice it to say that photo prints off of the Indigo score very well on the “album/dark storage” portion of the test, with life-spans of over 200 years for each of the four different paper types tested. That’s good news, since it’s very hard for your average consumer to tell what kind of paper a photo book printer is using. If you’re looking for an Indigo-based photobook, HP tells us that several Indigo users include ShutterflySnapfish and Blurb. You can also search for a local Indigo  printer near you using this online print directory.

“From a light and dark stability standpoint, Indigo prints were very good,” Wilhelm told us. Plus, they have good moisture resistance too. Most photo books are printed on higher-quality paper than your average 4 x 6-inch photo print, which gives them a leg up in the longevity stakes as well, he added.

Wilhelm is enthusiastic about photo books as a way to preserve memories, not just because of their potential  physical longevity but because, done right, they can contain useful information to provide context for your images.

“If you’re just scrolling through a collection of photos without any text, it’s not always easy to know or remember what you’re looking at. A photo book gives you the tools to contextualize those images, which is very important if you’re thinking about passing them down to future generations. You’re making a coherent selection of images, you’re telling a story with them, which is very important.”

In this sense, he said, photo books may be one of the best means of photo preservation there is. They not only keep the photo alive, but the story behind it as well.