I often wonder about the life of photographs when file formats and containers change, computers degenerate and fail over time, external hard drives crash, and memory cards fail — it makes me want to discover the best way to store photos so they’re safe for the future. Digital photographs to me seem like vaporware that exist in a vacuum that can easily be lost, and it makes me wonder how we will handle keeping digital photographs from important photographers, important events, and even our own digital images, safe over time.
Luckily there are many ways of keeping digital images safe by backing them up to a cloud-based data storage service, RAID servers for data redundancy, high-quality photographic prints for archiving, high-end writable digital media optical devices like CD’s and DVDs (although they are becoming less in-vogue these days), and thumb drives. The truth is, even with old film negatives, if they were to be put in harsh environmental conditions they can easily be destroyed and lost forever.
Yesterday, researchers at the University of Southampton from the Optoeletronics Research Centre (ORC) in England developed a five dimensional (5D) nanostructured optical glass that can save data for 13.8 billion years. Yes, you read that correctly, a shelf life of over 13 billion years…
According to the ORC: The storage allows unprecedented properties including 360 TB/disc data capacity, thermal stability up to 1,000°C and virtually unlimited lifetime at room temperature (13.8 billion years at 190°C) opening a new era of eternal data archiving. As a very stable and safe form of portable memory, the technology could be highly useful for organisations with big archives, such as national archives, museums, and libraries, to preserve their information and records.
The new 5D technology has already been used to record important documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), Newton’s Opticks, the Magna Carta, and Kings James bible. The researchers are looking for industry partners to help commercialize the technology, but who knows if this will actually become a viable, or affordable, technology for computer manufacturers, the tech industry, and even camera and photography manufacturers.
This may only be a way for archives, museums, and collections to be stored for billion of years for posterity, but luckily among most of these prized collections are important photographs that will be saved for billions of years.
Here’s a video of the femtosecond laser writing to 5D optical storage:
While we don’t see the immediate effect of this technology today, I thought it would be a great intro into talking about how to properly save your images, including a pipeline that extends from pressing the shutter to backing up everything, so that we can keep our images safe for years to come.
Memory Card Woes
The most recent problem I have had was with one of my new SDXC cards. My card had some sort of failure that corrupted a few images on my memory card (not really sure why), and when I tried to upload them to my computer the files weren’t recoverable.
To get the images back I used Photorec a free data recovery software to uncover the broken images (but you can donate if you’d like). The Photorec software found my images quickly and let me save my images to my computer. I’m an Apple user, but for people who want to try another free data recovery service for PCs, Recuva is supposed to be another great option.
Unfortunately my card was a relatively brand new SDXC with 64GB of available memory that failed to save 11 images properly, so you can never truly rely on cards to always work. So how do ensure that you have enough irons in the fire to prevent data loss?
How Do We Keep Them Safe?
There are many methods in saving images, including saving to Solid State Drives, external hard drives, archival optical discs (CDs and DVDs), RAID servers, cloud storage, archival-quality photographic prints, thumb drives, and offsite storage of multiple hard drives and prints in case of a fire, flood, etc.
These methods allow you to have your images in many different places in case one fails. Knowing how to create a pipeline for organizing your photos, editing them, cataloging them, and saving them, will ensure that you are doing the most modern techniques of saving digital images. It’s what you do with the images later that truly matters for safe keeping. Here’s a more detailed story on the impermanence of digital photography.
Once they’re on the computer I always save the RAW files to hard drives first, including cloud storage, and a thumb drive. I also save my edited images separated in folders on the same drives and saving methods.
You can use Lightroom to catalog and rate your images and put them in specific folders so that they can be found quickly. Cataloging your images makes your life easier when you are trying to find a specific photo. By using the right meta tags and folders, you will make finding images easier to manage across backup methods.
Once you have them cataloged and backed up, having your photos printed is the next step I do to keep my images safe. I don’t personally print them on my own, but use MpixPro and AdoramaPix to print my images. I don’t print out every photo I use but will print out those which I use for my portfolio.
Having a photographic print is like having a negative of your digital image. You can always use them as a back up to be scanned back into a computer, or to be used for archival reasons in case one your methods fail. Something tangible, especially with today’s amazing print and quality paper, is a great thing to have in hand.
I keep the images in plastic sleeves in a protective safe at my parents house just in case my place burns down, or some other natural disaster wipes out my home.
The pipeline process that you create for yourself may seem tedious, even formatting your memory cards every time, but if you have ever lost a treasure trove of images like I had when my house was robbed, (they took my computer, hard drives, and all my cameras) then you’d want to create a way to ensure your images stick around.
While I’m not holding my breath for the 5D nanostructure to come into the consumer market anytime soon, it leaves me hopeful that this new technology will find a way of keeping important works, data, ideas, philosophies, books, and other things we as a human race has created, safe for billions of years. But don’t be a sucker and end up like I was when I didn’t even think twice about saving my images beyond my computer and hard drives because technology failure and disaster are all too common in the photographer’s world.
Back it up, back it up again, and then back up your back up…