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2007.04.05

For most people, photographs represent memories and, as such, they are precious and irreplaceable. We tend to look at our photographs shortly after we take them, to show them to family, friends and the online community.At that point, most of those memories are fresh in mind. Years, or decades later, we look at them again. This time, the memories are not so fresh and we would like to count on our most cherished photographs to be there for us. It is no surprise then that the question of how to best preserve photographs gets asked so often

Before the days of digital photography, images were mostly preserved in albums or boxes. Some people also preserved the negatives. Nevertheless, storing prints and negatives is far bulkier than storing the equivalent digital photographs. While a single Dual-Layer DVD can keep over 8,000 images suitable for printing, it would take 20 large albums to contain the same amount of images. If you store larger images on the DL-DVD, less images will fit but the same is true if you put larger prints in the albums.

Albums

In practice, neither digital photographs nor prints last forever without care. Prints may take up space but they are harder to accidentally destroy since they are immediately recognizable. I mean, it is easier to throw away a CD or DVD, not knowing what it contains, than a box of albums. This will probably be especially true when they will be passed on to future generations. In 50 years, how many people would even have a DVD drive? It will probably be an archaic device by then. On the other hand, without duplicates or negatives, printed memories can be destroyed during a disaster. Since prints are immediately viewable, prints do not become obsolete. They may become unrecognizable but that takes hundreds of years if properly stored and printed on good quality paper.

Digital photographs can last forever with every detail intact. I say can because achieving that requires on-going effort. I’ve heard numerous stories of people losing all their digital images to a crashed hard-drive or to a house fire. Digital photographs themselves are far easier to lose than prints. Studies also show that optical media has a limited life-span and that even if the media is nor lost nor destroyed, it may become unreadable within a few years. Quality media can greatly help with longevity but does not protect against obsolescence.

To successfully store digital photographs, you must:

  • Replicate: Digital images must be stored at a minimum of two locations to protect against disaster.
  • Rejuvenate: Every few years, digital images should be copied bit-for-bit into fresh media. This should be done to protect against degradation of image data. Having two copies helps here too since they are unlikely to develop errors simultaneously.
  • Upgrade: When your current storage media becomes less common than some newer media, copy all your digital images into the new format. This may require a software conversion if your image file formats gets old too
  • Avoid proprietary technology: Always store digital pictures on a commonly available type of media. If your media-reader breaks down and the manufacturer no longer exists or no longer makes the readers, the chances of recovering your images are slim.

In sum, keeping digital images alive takes some effort which has to continue with future generations. Prints, however, can cross generations with much greater ease, although eventually they will fade. What to do, depends on the effort that will be put into them.


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