Degradation of photos stored on servers for a long time?

I was looking at old photos from circa 2005-2006 in my iOS photos collection. I remember many of these pictures as being focused and sharp as a tack. Do digital photos stored on public servers degrade with storage? They were originally stored in a precursor to iCloud knowns as .me, if anyone remembers that.

I am thinking to going to the garage to see if I can find actual paper prints of these pictures to compare with the quality (lack of) I see now after nearly 2 decades of digital server storage. But, maybe others already know if this is a common phenomena?

Although, I know prints of photos degrade, especially those after the 1970s. I have some prints of photos taken by my parents in the 1940s-50s that still look quite good.


Personally, I notice similar effects in old sports footage (even 2000s) and I attribute it to the improved resolution and technology today, making the old visual media appear relatively worse. My smart phone screen and camera are many times better than anything I used to capture images with or watch videos on.


I think it depends on the type of file and resolution at which they were saved? Some may not have been saved at the best resolution available today though it may have been the best available then.

Also I think our “digital eyes” have sharpened (unlike our eyes eyes, which have weakened), because I have printouts of hotels from planning our 1990s honeymoon from the InTeRnEt (I felt cool and high-tech), and I cannot believe we selected hotels based on those meager pixels. And recognized the places when we arrived! (In the same way old TV shows look extremely out of focus to me now because the technology is so much better now.)

You are correct about old photos! My father and his twin, 1925.


The data doesn’t degrade. Newer hardware and software, of vastly higher resolution, just shows the limitations in older tech.

I’m sure it looked sharp as a tack compared to every other image back then, when current tech wasn’t available to compare it to. But that tack has been sharpened even more since, hence the difference.

Also, images from the olden days would in general have fewer pixels. Showing them on a modern screen (which has a ton more pixels) requires some level of upscaling, which can look dreadful.

Machine learning based upscaling is a real game changer, however. Have a try!


More than likely your eye just adjusted to new quality and can see the flaws you missed before.


My understanding is that some of the cloud services (I believe Apple and Google are two) ‘optimized’ photos for storage by degrading image quality under some circumstances. You can google that and find better info than my memory can provide. I think there was some difference between viewing photos on their site vs downloading them, so perhaps all is not lost.


As others have noted, it’s probably just an effect showing how our memory of the past can be skewed by our experience of the present. But it is worth noting that data can be corrupted . There was a warning to Look Out for ‘Water Stained’ Images When Accessing Google Photos recently, however as far as I’m aware the issue did not actually affect the reference copy of the photos on Google’s servers, but rather was more of a “loading error” that could be fixed by clearing the cache.


It’s true today’s video is much sharper than anything available in decades earlier, but I do not know that was true of film photos from before 1970. There was pretty good camera and photo processing ability back then, while video was still very much an emerging technology.

I have prints of pictures from WWII that are sharp as a tack still. I think better photo printing was more common then (though quite expensive). Thank you for the hint about upscaling. I will take a look and see if that’s something I can tackle.

That’s what I wondered. To add clarification these were taken with a Canon camera. Not an early iPhone camera. I remember using them on early webpages they were so life-like and pretty.

But, I just have to wonder if the migration from server-to-server over the years did not result in data loss and picture quality loss.

I may have some of these stored offline on an old storage disks. I should see if I can connect some of those disks and compare. That’s a bit of a long shot, as I may not have the ability to connect those old hard drives anymore.

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Go to Settings > Photos, and you’ll see a box with two options: “Optimize iPhone [or iPad] Storage,” and “Download and Keep Originals.” If you select “optimize,” then only a smaller, lower-resolution file will be kept on your device, with the full-resolution original retained on the server. I’m not sure, but if you don’t have enough space on your device, Apple may make that choice for you without you knowing it. Could this be a possible reason?

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Assuming we’re looking at the old standard of 1024 x 768 screens vs. today’s standard 1920 x 1080 screens, an image would have to contain nearly twice as many pixels horizontally now to occupy the same screen real estate as on an old screen. So if you re-used the exact same file, it would look half-sized, or if you upsized it, it would look blurry. These are my guesses.


Yes, this is the upscaling issue. There are several different image processing algorithms that can be applied to mitigate the ‘blurry’/‘jaggy’ upscaling. Your mileage may vary though. As I mentioned above, machine learning upscaling is a whole different ballgame and can produce amazing results.


It could be that we just got used to better quality now and what was good then is bad now, or maybe over time the servers put it through several compression algorithms that did something?

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I think Google offered to do that a while back when they were changing up their plans. You could choose to have photos use up all your allowed storage space or let Google compress them more. Since I have them all offline as well, I chose to compress. That would degrade the quality even if it says it isn’t noticeable. Depends on who is looking and if they zoom in.

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The vines on the wall behind them appear to be Toxicodendron radicans. Did the family know that?

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Alas I do not have information about the circumstances of the photo, and unfortunately my father has been gone for 16 years and even if he were alive his storytelling grew… embellished as he grew older, hahaha, which is to say he would not be the most reliable narrator, those vines would have become much more exciting, tropical even, photo likely would have become taken in the Amazon basin, with river snakes holding the babies above the raging waters.

(We are just getting everything ready for the upcoming holidays at the end of this month so the photos are at hand.)

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I checked the setting and it had been set to Optimized. I changed it to Download and Keep Originals.

Some of the old pics are looking much better now! thank you! Changing the setting brought at least a goodly number of pictures closer to what I remember as their original quality.

So far, not all of the old images I checked have come back up in quality after changing the iPad settings. Some are Photoshop files and some are JPEG. So, jpeg - that’s a lossy format. I could imagine they got transferred and “saved” to new servers numerous times over the years, losing a little data each time.

I have not sussed this out yet, but I think @lordcaravan idea about learning to upscale the jpegs may help them?

Just copying a jpeg file whole from one location to another won’t result in a loss of quality. The file would need to be opened and recompressed before saving for this to result (multiple times to have a noticeable impact).


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