Digital Photos for the Next Hundred Years?

If you're like nearly everyone else, you've got shoeboxes filled with old family snapshots and photos under the bed or in the garage. Hey, it's what we do. Or rather, did. Lots of people have not really thought about whether their digital photos will be around in the next decade, let alone 100 years from now. The photography film paradigm has shifted and nobody is left to fill the void with digital shoeboxes. Can't we just stuff all the memory cards in a bottom drawer or something? Ironically enough, it's one of the things I've heard that some people are doing with their digital photos. Other people are uploading their photos online somewhere; that's good enough, right?

So what is the best way to archive your digital photos? Your hard drive? Nope. Online storage companies? Definitely NO. Memory cards? Nope. A shoe box? The bottom drawer in the spare bedroom? The storage shed? Your camera? No, no, no and NO.

Yes, Optical Media is the answer. It's the only digital media that is guaranteed to last decades. This means either CD-R, DVD-R or Blu-Ray recordable discs.

What makes me a Mr. Smarty Pants about this? I've been teaching digital photography since 1997, which was also before most photography schools had a digital photography curriculum, and before most of them realized that a digital transformation was soon to take place with photography. My own photography, research and art as both a scholar and artist was and is about transformation, so it all morphed from a cosmic digital enigma to something that made a bit more sense. I had my first digital photography curriculum approved by an art school in 1993. This makes me a bona fide authority on digital photography, and my core intent here is to simply help you make your digital photographs last as long as possible, and hopefully to have a bit of fun along the way.

Scientists have coined the term "Digital Amnesia" to note the reality of lost digital information that is already going on, especially with outdated digital technologies, such as floppy discs (remember those?) and the former pro media such as Zip, Jaz, Bernouli, etc. In my opinion, hard drives fit in this category because they lose so much information, especially as people get new computers, or hard drives corrupt data. There is a booming business out there with hard drive data recovery, which should be an indicator of their overall reliability. I've lost entire folders of photos over the years, and luckily got most of them back with software hard drive recovery programs.

Hard Drives: I never imagined that hard drives would incite some photographers to be such impassioned digital zealots. You'd think that I was disparaging their mother's honor or something. I've had photographers literally get red-faced angry when I told them that hard drives are not any good for long-term photo archiving. One even emailed me what amounted to a long, tedious hard drive manifesto. Daang. Ok, this is not personal, step back, take a deep breath and repeat this digital mantra soothingly after me:

Hard drives are the fastest way to upload your memory cards, and some people confuse this convenience for them being the supreme digital media of the universe. Well, (ahem) they're not. Hard drives have an appalling habit of crashing and losing data, it's a part of their mechanical persona. They are only designed to last a half a decade at best, especially if you give them hard use. When you think of it, hard drives are at their essence kind of a crude 20th Century phenomenon. I think they'll be replaced by some other media by the end of the decade.

How old is your oldest hard drive? Be honest. I'm willing to bet that it isn't older than five years. I can guarantee that your hard drive won't last twenty years, let alone over a hundred. Take my word for it. Hard drives are convenient temporary storage, nothing more. People have lost millions, if not billions of their precious photographs to hard drives. Don't join them.

Same with back-up hard drives. So what? It's still a hard drive. On the other hand, using a backup hard drive is a sound archiving protocol. Just remember it's still temporary and not expected to last long, so is not suited for long-term archiving.

Online storage companies use hard drives, so forget them too. A couple of years ago, one of the professional storage industry leaders went out of business unexpectedly. Thousands of professional photographers lost millions of their best digital photos that they thought were safely archived. Can you imagine that? All the company could say was, "Oops! Sorry, they're all gone! By the way, we're not liable for the loss and we're also broke." Photographers had zero recourse and could do little more than whimper about a tough lesson, which was DO NOT USE HARD DRIVES FOR PHOTO ARCHIVING. PERIOD! This goes double for online photo sharing sites, like Facebook and Flickr. Websites in general have a very short shelf life and disappear startlingly fast. Disappearing websites could be the subject for not only a blog entry, but an entire book.

Back to Optical Media. What makes them better than hard drives? The easy answer is simple longevity. They are the longest lasting digital media out there. Nothing else even comes close. What makes them last longer is how they store digital information. First of all, they're non-magnetic (hard drives are sensitive to anything magnetic) and the digital information is literally burned into the dye substrate with a laser, which makes tiny physical pits within the disc.

Not all discs are created equally, and the cheaper run of the mill DVD-R's and CD-R's are made with aluminum and an inexpensive dye material sandwiched into polycarbonate. These are the name-brand discs that you typically get from an office supply store. They're high quality, but are not the best. The top-of the line discs that photographers should be using are called Gold discs, such as the ones made by Mitsui. Instead of an aluminum layer, they use 24 karat gold, which more than triples their life, and they also use a special Phthalocyanine (try to say that fast three times) dye, which has been rated to last over 100 years. They cost substantially more than regular DVD-R's or CD-R discs, but on the other hand, this is your photo archive we're talking about.


Part 2

The nitty gritty stuff

Burning discs is easy these days. It just takes a bit of patience. If you've got a Mac, Toast Lite is a great program to use for burning discs. You essentially just drag and drop folders, name your disc and burn away. It does take patience though. I find that it's easier to use DVD-R discs because they hold 4.7 Gigabytes of storage, which is nice. Name your disc with your last name and whatever your subject matter happens to be.

Organizing your photos prior to burning them

I like to organize my photos via the heirarchical database order, just because it's easiest to remember. For an example, the starting point is a single folder on my desktop named something easy to remember, like "Digital Cameras."

I'm a big believer in simplicity and ease of use. Things should be fast and easy. Since I've got a bunch of digital cameras, I find it's easiest to navigate using the above folder system. Use whichever one is most logical for you though. Sometimes if I have specific subjects, I'll make a folder specifically for that; for an example, when I went home to Juneau last summer, I made a folder called "Juneau" within the June of 2010 folder. Just use whatever folder system makes the most sense to you.

Digital Cameras (a step back for a moment)

Set your camera to it's highest resolution. We're aiming for getting the highest quality photos here, and if we're going through the trouble of making photos in the first place, you may as well make the best ones you can. Get the largest memory cards you can afford. They're pretty cheap these days and it'll make you grow horns out of your head to have a full memory card while in the midst of shooting something cool.

Mobile phone cameras are becoming very common, and some people use them more than a regular digital camera, just because it's always right there in their pocket. You still need to organize and archive these photos. If you're like me, you have thousands of them and lots of them are very, very good. Both your regular digital camera and cell phone camera shoots high quality video now too. You'll find that they make very large files, and it is important to archive all of these too. Just use the existing "Movie folder," on your computer and make subfolders within it and organize them in much the same way as your photographs and burn them to DVD-R discs too. You may want to dedicate an external hard drive to just photos and videos since they take up so much drive space and archive them to DVD-R's as you go along.

Many digital cameras have what is known as the RAW file format. It's the best file format out there, and if your camera has this capability, I'd strongly advise using it at all times. You can also shoot a RAW file and jpeg simultaneously, which is a cool option if you mostly do things like uploading your photos to online sharing sites. If you don't want to mess with RAW files, you can still shoot them and archive them for later editing. RAW files are great for low light and tricky lighting situations. It can render good quality photos from poorly exposed images, especially using a program like Lightroom.

Archiving Programs & RAW Converters

You don't necessarily need a photo archiving database program. In theory, you can just make all your folders and burn them directly as you go along. Easy as pie, no fuss, no mess, no interface to muck things up. On the other hand, photo archiving programs do additional things like perfecting a photo (color corrections, sharpening, resizing, reduce noise, making slideshows, galleries, etc.) and doing RAW photo conversions.

Most pros use some kind of photo editing and database program for their archiving, and on the professional end it's dominated by Adobe's Lightroom, and Apple's Aperture programs. They're really database programs that are optimized to view, edit, organize and render RAW and other image files. Some people really like Apple's iPhoto program, but it's an amateur lightweight program and limited with how it organizes photos. It's also arbitrary and heavy-handed with how it limits your ability to control your archive. My advice is to avoid it and cough up the money for Lightroom when you can afford it.

When you use these programs, you still end up with folders to burn to your optical media. If you can do all this editing stuff prior to burning your discs, consider yourself a professional calibre photographer, and can also call yourself a Smarty Pants Photographer. Congratulations. However, like mentioned above, if you're an amateur who just wants to ensure that your precious family snapshots are going to last as long as possible, just do the organizing and burning to discs. That's more than enough.

After the Burn

After you've burned your discs, you can write on them with a sharpie pen. There is some debate about getting ink on the discs themselves, so try writing the information on the tiny blank area next to the center hole. It's pretty small, but you can write some basic information there with a fine-tipped sharpie. Don't use labels, it just takes up lots of time to print and likely isn't good for the discs anyway. Always handle the discs by the outside edges, making sure you don't get any fingerprints on the surface areas.

The last step has to do with more of a professional archive. Pros make two of each disc, one to store off site and the other to use on a regular basis as working discs. The theory is that just in case anything disastrous happens to your house or office, you always have a duplicate set somewhere else. I definitely do this, because my livelihood depends on digital photographs and images. Not only that, my images are very valuable and represents nearly all of my work since the mid-1990's and it would indeed be a catastrophe to lose any of them (the sound of knocking on wood here).

Another solid archiving protocol for pros is to make prints of the images you want to last the longest. Kodachrome was rated as being the longest lasting color film, but they're discontinued now. If it's a black & white print, make a platinum or palladium hand-coated photo emulsion; they last much longer than silver prints. Many of the newer digital printers, such as Espon, use inks that are rated for decades of life, much longer than regular color darkroom prints. Wilhelm Research does scientific research on the stability and preservation of digital photographs and films and makes their findings freely available to the pubic via their most excellent website.

My last bit of advice is to approach this as a long-term endeavor and to start your archive a few discs at a time, especially if you feel overwhelmed. Start with your most recent photos and go backwards, one disc at a time. You may want to wait until you have a few months worth of photos to archive, and look at this as something you do three times a year or something like that. If you're a pro, you do this archive the moment you're done shooting, or the next day.

Have fun, and here's to having your great-granddaughter enjoying your photos in the year 2031 and beyond.

All text and photos Copyright Larry McNeil, 2011, All rights reserved. Please get permission from McNeil prior to using any of it. Thanks.

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