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Wendy Hurrell

Her tweet was distressing. BBC weather forecaster (now turned reporter) Wendy Hurrell reported that her laptop had been stolen. She could get another, of course, but what she had probably lost forever were all the "irreplaceable" and "priceless" photographs stored on it. She had not backed them up. She is far from the only person to suffer such an upsetting loss. It is a relatively common happening and it prompts author and family historian Ian Richardson to wonder how many family photographs will survive the digital age.

"More means less" is a truism that applies to many areas of life - but never more so than with present-day digital photography.

It is safe to estimate that billions of digital photographs are taken around the world each day, but how many will survive to take their place in a family's historical record? Almost none.

There was a time, not that many decades ago, when taking a photograph was an event from which the results were treasured.

The photographs from these sessions were archive quality and became proud possessions to be passed on from generation to generation.

The rot began to set in when cheap cameras, 35mm colour print film and one-hour processing began to dominate the market in the 1970s and 1980s.

Colour photographs became the norm, but because of the instability of the colours, they began to lose their value as a means of permanently recording our lives pictorially.

We must all know friends and family who wildly and indiscriminately fire away with their digital cameras and smartphones.

Some of these photographic efforts end up being emailed to friends and family, or are posted on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr and other social media outlets, but they are very rarely turned into prints that can be held in the hand and admired, or put in a frame or even a photo album.

The irony is that the technical quality of the pictures taken on digital cameras and smart phones is often exceptionally high, but not by the time they are transferred to the social media.

Sometimes I ask for print-quality copies of family photographs that have been emailed to me or posted on Facebook.

I rarely get them, either because they have been deleted, or the photographers can't figure out how to process them in top quality.

A friend of mine fires off the camera in his iPhone at every opportunity, but when I ask him what happens to the pictures, the short answer is that they are mostly lost whenever he upgrades his mobile phone or computer, something that he does quite frequently.

This takes me onto another bugbear: identification of photographs.

Almost since photography was popularised by the likes of Fox Talbot and George Eastman, there has been a reluctance to identify the who, the where and the when on a photograph.

This can be the result of modesty, but it is often out of sheer laziness or a failure to understand that memories soon become blurred.

All my saved photographs are identified, usually with a caption added when I process them through my Photoshop software.

This is something that has often attracted ridicule from my family and friends. I would be told "But we know all that!"

"Well, you know that now," I would respond, "but I bet you won't remember the date in a matter of months, you will be a bit hazy about the location in a few years, and a few years after that you won't be entirely sure who all the people are."

Ten years or so ago, during a visit to my mother in Australia, we found a box of old photographs in the top of a wardrobe.

It was a rich goldmine of family memories, but not without its frustrations.

The colour prints were mostly faded, and while the black-and-white and sepia photos were generally in good condition, almost none bore any identification.

The next few hours were spent working our way through the photographs, using a soft pencil to write names, and where possible, locations and approximate dates on the back of each one.

I was grateful that although my mother was then in her late 80s with severe short-term memory problems, her long-term memories remained vivid, and as far as I could tell, accurate.

Had she not had such a good memory for people and places, the historical value of many of the photographs would have been lost.

As we worked our way through the box, my eye was caught by a family group photograph taken in a studio in Melbourne in 1914 around the time the First World War was getting underway.

I recognised my grandfather and one or two others in the group, but there was a woman I had never seen before.

My mother identified the woman as my Great Aunt Florence "Florrie" Cox, and under my cross-examination, she very reluctantly revealed that Florrie had been an Australian Baptist missionary in East Bengal (now Bangladesh) and had been caught up in a terrible scandal that had shamed the Cox family in Melbourne.

This photograph was to lead to my late-life career change from BBC broadcast journalist to screenwriter and author.

My mother's evasiveness over what had happened to Great Aunt Florrie so intrigued me that I began an investigation that lasted the best part of 10 years.

What I learned, transformed the story from what I had originally thought would be a marginal family history episode into a book, God's Triangle, and a film deal.

The point I am trying to make here is that had my mother not had such a strong long-term memory, that old photograph would never have been identified and the fascinating story of God's Triangle would never have been told.

But to return to the main issue.

While I fear for our family photographic history, all is not lost.

New and cheap printing techniques have emerged in recent years as a benefit of digitisation.

It is now possible with fairly basic computer skills to design a photobook that can be printed by a commercial company for as little as £10, although £40 is a reasonable expectation for larger books with hard covers.

If you can't afford a photobook, a cheaper option is to get a calendar illustrated with your best 12 family photographs.

Photobox, Vista Print and Blissetts are just three photobook companies with good reputations.

Photobooks have an advantage over the old photographic albums in that the photos do not become unstuck and fall out over time.

On the other hand, they can't be added to, once printed.

Never mind, it is at least one positive aspect - and an important one - of an otherwise distressing consequence of today's shoot-from-the hip mass digital photography.

And you will avoid finding yourself in the same sad situation as Wendy Hurrell and many others.

Ian Richardson's book, God's Triangle, is available as a paperback or ebook here: