In today's digital photography age, we're producing gigabytes and gigabytes of photos. Many more than we ever did in the days of film. This makes people who normally wouldn't think about proper backup practices need to learn these things. Suddenly a photographer has a need to be computer literate, if not a computer expert. For many of you, this takes you out of your comfort zone.
Here's a couple of key things you need to understand about long term storage of digital photos so that your grandkids and great-grandkids will have access to the gems of photography (and horrible snapshots) that we all take.
- Storing photos on your hard drive is no solution. How often have you heard 'my computer died'? What would you do if you bought a new computer - how would you get those onto next year's model?
- Storing photos on an external hard drive is no solution. Many people will argue with me on that one, but I was around when the 'Love Bug' virus hit. 'Love Bug' ate images, replacing them with copies of itself. I knew one attorney's office that lost 4 years of scanned records to the Love Bug virus because by the time they realized they'd been infected, they had already cycled through backups so the virus was on all their backups as well. Hard drives are subject to viruses, hackers, crashes and magnetic fields. Don't rely on them for more than a day - when you reboot tomorrow, that hard drive might be dead already.
- Storing photos in print form is almost as bad. Yeah, I said it. Have you pulled out any photos you had printed at Wally-World several years ago and noticed the degradation in image and color quality? There's a reason your grandmother's photos look like crap. It's called time, humidity, light, etc. Sure it's a 'look' and some people like it, but I'd rather have something that looks like it was taken yesterday rather than aged. I'm pretty sure your grandchildren will agree.
- Storing photos on DVD is half way there. First, all DVD drives and media are not equal. Taiyo Yuden makes what is generally accepted as the best quality blank media on the market. I use about 150 of their DVD-R blanks a month, which brings us to our next point:
- The format of blank media is important. DVD-R is better than DVD+R. DVD-R includes a sort of checksum in it that if part of the disc is damaged you can likely still retrieve other parts. With DVD+R you're more likely to lose the entire contents in the event of a problem.
- Light, humidity and use are the enemy of DVD's. Burn two copies of every disc. Use the 'Verify contents' option in your burning software to make sure it burned properly, then store one of them in a fireproof media safe somewhere, or in a safety deposit box at the bank in case your house burns down.
- Don't write on your discs. Please. Don't use stick-on labels either. If you can't afford an inkjet printer that prints on blank media ($120?) and the inkjet printable blanks, then don't label the disc if it's for long term storage. Instead stick it in a case and label the case. The ink from a marker will slowly soak through the disc which is made of a porous plastic and destroy the data. I know from experience. I have CD's burned 6 years ago that someone labeled with a marker and the ink has spread so far you almost can't even read the writing, much less the disc. Stick on labels tend to offbalance the media, I'm sure the glue isn't good for them, and if you ever accidentally peel off part of the label you're definitely going to destroy the data.
- DVD media still doesn't last forever. Taiyo Yuden certifies their top of the line DVD-R media for 50 years under proper conditions (like that safety deposit box) but you'll probably still want to 'refresh' that disc after about 5 years by copying it to another blank, just to be safe.
- Technology changes. Since I started programming, ten inch floppies were replaced by 5 1/4 inch floppies which were replaced by 3 1/2 inch floppies. 3 1/2 inch floppies were replaced by CD's. CD's were replaced by DVD's which are being replaced by HD-DVD discs now. One day they won't make computers that can read DVD's. If you're doing that every 5 year refresh and technology has changed, check into the latest thing used for long-term storage and go with that for the new copy.
I've heard the argument 'That's why I still shoot on film - it doesn't have those problems.' but that's not really the case. Computer technology certainly runs on a faster time schedule than traditional 'technology' has, but film photography is still a technology that will reach the end of it's life. I can imagine in 20 years developing a photo from a negative may be as hard to do as buying a replacement needle for your turntable. And, making perfect copies from a negative that's 40 years old will never happen - but if you still have the digital media you can still get an 'original' just like it was shot yesterday.