While the numbers are familiar – 1.8 billion images uploaded daily, over a trillion in a year – what they hide is not. A recent study by Kodak Alaris ( unfortunately only limited to the UK) shows that the vast majority of photos taken are never processed and worse, end up being lost forever. While there are many reasons for this, it is interesting to note that the size of the photo universe is probably 5 times bigger than anyone believes, even if most of it going to trash. It begs the questions: is there a much bigger market potential than previously thought?

In its study, Kodak Alaris reveals that an estimated 11 billion images taken via mobile are lost forever. The reason? More than 13% of the population does not take any necessary steps to protect their images and thus lose them forever when they break their devices, upgrade to new ones or simply delete them in need of additional space. While the study goes on to focus on printing as a backup strategy ( true for 12% of the population surveyed), most ignore it mostly because they feel mobile photo quality is not good enough for print ( 31%), it is too difficult to do from a phone (19%) or they just don’t know how (13%). However, there are other factors at play.

An important segment of the population have been previously burned with backup technology that has become obsolete : 30 per cent of people have lost photos through defunct tech like Floppy disks (32%), Mini disks (22%), VHS ( 12%) or Zip disk (11%). They do not wish to repeat their mistakes. With the appearance of free or very affordable cloud storage -supposedly impervious to technology changes – one would have thought this issue resolves. Not so, it seems. Almost half of people surveyed (46%) are worried about being able to access their photos in the future (10 years’ time), with one-third worried that they won’t be able to find their images at all. Clearly, the Flickr’s, Google photo, Apple Photo, Dropbox still have work on their hands to convince users to trust and use their services. Clearly as well, automated tagging, once out of its present infancy, will do a generous job at helping users find images. Finally, formats like jpg do not seem to be heading anywhere soon and if they do, hopefully, cloud services will be able to mass convert archives rather cheaply and efficiently.

However, there is another important reason most images are lost, which was not covered by this survey. According to another study, the second most important usage of the mobile camera, after sharing, is to remember/note. People use their cell camera to photograph a poster advertising an upcoming concert, for example, so that they can later attend. Or they might take a picture of a book cover to either read reviews online or to check prices elsewhere. They might see an ad in the subway for a product they might consider and just need a reminder for later. And so on. Out of the 11 billion images lost, it might not be surprising to find a lot of these “practical” images. Those are neither images people need to share, nor preserve for eternity.

66% of Millenials say they use their camera phones to record things to do later
66% of Millenials say they use their camera phones to record things to do later. Source :


Interestingly enough, instead of analyzing the billions of images shared online, marketers might better understand a consumer via from this dark world of mobile photography. There is much more intent, desire, true personality packed in those images than in any the “brag about” images they actually shared. It is in the images that we do not share that we reveal ourselves the most. In the average 651 images (according to the Kodak Alaris survey) each cell phones contain, it wouldn’t be surprising to find that the vast majority are simple visual notes that users have no intent of sharing or even keeping long-term.

         Google, Dropbox, Microsoft, Amazon and Apple, with their automated cloud backup systems armed with content recognition, are the only companies that could take advantage of this extremely valuable data. They could ( can?) have a much clearer pictures of the consumer world by extracting patterns. In fact, they could even predict trends before they happen, as images start populating the dark photo world, prior to being shared. That would place them, especially Amazon who is the sole full retailer in the list, in an unfair position to predict inventory. Google could not only feed this data back to its search engine – after all, it is also a giant database of intent- but as well better target ads based on users private image database.

Of course, there is the majestic issue of privacy. However, if the information contained in these photos could also be analyzed to enhance  users lives, it would quickly disappear: For example, storing a picture of an upcoming concert poster would bring up a page to purchase tickets or taking a picture of a book cover would automatically bring up reviews and prices each time it is accessed. Better yet, based on your dark photo database, your phone could buzz if you come close to a location who actually sells the item you photographed 2 months ago on a subway as. The convenience would erase the need of privacy, like it has done so many times in the past.

The technology is here for this to be live today and it wouldn’t  be surprising if Google released it tomorrow. With so much more valuable information to gather than from social media photos, it is, in fact, a bit surprising that it is not here already. But then again, because these images remain in the dark confines of people’s flash drives, it is easy to overlook.However, as the saying goes, someone’s trash is another one’s treasure. Between cloud storage, automatic backup and content analysis, there is a treasure hiding in those billions of images otherwise deleted.

Photo by archer10 (Dennis) (55M Views)

Author: Paul Melcher

Paul Melcher is the founder of Kaptur and Managing Director of Melcher System, a consultancy for visual technology firms. He is an entrepreneur, advisor, and consultant with a rich background in visual tech, content licensing, business strategy, and technology with more than 20 years experience in developing world-renowned photo-based companies with already two successful exits.


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