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What a tangled web… (Part I)

November 26, 2010

© jmillerphoto.com - Spider

…we weave when in backups we do not believe.  Protecting our images from being lost has never been easier, nor has it ever been tougher.  Let me explain…

A week or so ago I discussed digital asset management.  Or in short, knowing where to find your images when you need to find them.  This is a tough task made tougher by the ability to shoot hundreds of images at a time without worrying about paying to have them developed or reloading film as we go.

If we’re going to go to the trouble of making all of these images and trying to keep track of all of these images, we should also make sure that we have the images when we actually go back to try to find them.

In the world of film, slides, and prints, most of us just put the images into a shoe box for posterity.  Negatives may or may not have been saved, though the more serious would protect the negatives and/or slides.

In theory, if we kept the negatives and slides we could make new prints of those images.  Time was the enemy of those transparencies, especially the color ones.  Fade & shift happened.  Black and white negatives held up better, but even black and white images could degrade over time unless kept in ideal conditions.

Even when we did all the right things, we couldn’t guard against everything.  Natural disasters could wipe out years of memories.  Fires were especially dangerous to our memories as well.  And even when you thought you had every possible angle covered in terms of protecting your images, the unexpected happened.

The famous Kennedy photographer Jacques Lowe took incredible precautions to keep his negatives and transparencies safe.  They were kept in a safe in a vault in a bank.  Protected against fire, theft, and just about every other conceivable danger.  Extraordinary care for extraordinary images.  Protected perfectly, except from 9/11 and looters. Stuff happens.

Digital makes things easier and more difficult.  Easier because a digital image, unmodified, will remain as it is without succumbing to the grains of time.  You can make hundreds of copies of the file and there is zero difference between the original and copy #100.

But far more difficult because we trust technology.  A lot.  And that trust is misplaced.

Most people rely on the internal hard drives on their computers to keep their images safe.  This is a poor decision.  Hard drives fail.  Often.  Usually without warning.  Retrieving data from a failed hard drive is possible, but it is expensive.  External hard drives are also used often, but are just as susceptible for failure.  A fellow photographer had a 1 Gig external hard drive fail on him.  Cost to retrieve the data if it were super important?  $2,000.  And likely with no guarantee of 100% retrieval of everything.

Most photographers who make backups use external storage media such as CD-R’s and DVD-R’s.  But storage media change.  I started in the world of 8″ floppy disks.  How many of those are still around?  We progressed to 5 1/4″ to 3 1/2″ disks.  Does your primary computer have a 3  1/2″ disk drive?  Probably not.  How many people owned the original Sony Mavica’s  (which used floppy disks as the storage media) still  have their original images on those disks?  Can they read them today?

I was asked a few years ago when I gave a talk on this basic topic if I thought that CD-R’s were going to be around forever (in terms of a medium rather than the actual disks).  And I replied confidently and without hesitation, “No.”  Slowly but surely CD-R’s are starting to disappear from store shelves, being replaced by DVD-R’s and Blu-ray blanks.  Because the form factor and reading process has stayed the same, CD-R’s are safe from reading obsolescence for the foreseeable future.  But there will come a time where those disks will not be easily read, and I fear that it will be quicker than any of us expect.

These disks will fail over time, too.  The dye that allows us to write to disk has a shelf life.  How long of a shelf life is tough to say, but I have lost parts of CD-R’s that were less than 10 years old.

So how do you preserve images in this era of digital photography?  That’s an answer for the next post…

About the image:

This is a spider that I made a few images of at Spring Valley Wildlife Area near Xenia, Ohio.  This is an image on my “To be identified” list.

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