Storing Digital Photos – Part 2

OK, so I got a little carried away on a tangent with that first post on storing digital photos. I had really planned on talking more about hard disks and backups than trips down memory lane. So lets try it again.

The instant you take a photo with any kind of camera be it film or digital, the clock starts ticking on the life span of that image.

We often think that film images are permanent because the rate of decay is slow. You can take some slides and throw them in a drawer and when you take them out ten years later they look pretty much the same. Take those same slides and let them sit around for sixty or eighty years and maybe they still look good – then again maybe not. How long film images last varies widely depending on what film you are using and how you store it. Slides stored in the dark under proper temperature and humidity could last hundreds of years. On the other hand, if you expose them to light or store them in a damp basement or a hot attic or the dog chews on them or your house catches fire, then their lifespan could be much much shorter.

In the digital world things move a little more quickly. Digital images stored only on your hard drive are in trouble. Of course everyone knows about hard drive crashes. Modern drives are very reliable but they are mechanical and, as with all mechanical devices, they are subject to failure. On my day job in the computer world, I see drives fail all the time – I’ve even seen some catch fire. The files on a trashed drive might be recoverable (at a cost) and then again they might not. Certainly the chances of recovering all your images intact from a failed drive are slim. Personally I get nervous about files stored on drives that are more than a few years old, but even new drives can fail due to mistreatment or manufacturing defect.

Even if your disk doesn’t crash and burn there are still things that can rob you of your favorite photos. Like say you accidentally delete them while making room for some new images. Or maybe you pull up your original full size image to make it smaller so that you can email it to someone and you accidentally hit “save” instead of “save as” – now the image is too small to be printed decently. On top of all this, the magnetic imprint of your photo on disk can “fade” over time. Your disk may be running fine, but those photos that you haven’t pulled up in a few years might be unreadable now.

Check out this link on digital longevity –

And this one on storing your images –

So what do you do? Well everyone knows that you should backup your hard drive regularly. Unfortunately this is easier said than done and most people’s backup plans are spotty at best. I worry about making sure that proper backups are in place at my workplace every day, but even I tend to get lax when it comes to the home front.

And what about those backups? Tape – subject to failure and fading just like hard drives, maybe worse. I find backup tapes all the time that are partially or ccompletely unreadable after just a few months of storage. CD/DVD – better than tape, but depending on the quality of the disc and how you store them they can last anywhere from a hundred years (estimated since they haven’t been around that long) to just five years.

Your photos are also in danger of being completely intact yet still unreadable at some point in future due to changes in technology. In the digital world everything is obsolete as soon as you buy it. I have film cameras that can still be used after thirty years. I have five year old computers that are boat anchors. There are a bunch of different file formats in which to store your photos. Which ones will still be around in ten years or twenty years? Try getting your current word processing program to read files from twenty years ago. How many times have you sent a file to a friend and they can’t open it because they have a different version of the same program?

So what do I do? I’ll tell you and you can decide if it is too little or too much for your situation.

My film scanner scans my slides into TIF format files. The original files are around 50MB. I set my Nikon D200 digital camera to record both raw file format(Nikon NEF format) and JPG for each photo. The NEF files are around 15MB and the JPGs are around 5MB.

I drop the original files to my main 80GB hard drive. This is where I do my photo editing. I always keep the original file (in whatever format) in its original form – I save edited images to a separate file. That way I can always get back to the original if I decide that I didn’t like my changes or maybe I get an upgrade for my photo editing software that has a better sharpening function.

I save my edited files in either TIF or JPG file format – sometimes both. Which format is best is the subject of too long a discussion for right now. My deal is that to keep the most information in the image I use TIF, but TIF files can be very large and it is a pain to try and work with them routinely so I like to have JPGs around. I always set my editing software so that it uses no compression or as little compression as the format will allow. Never throw away information through compression!

OK so here is the exception to the “never use compression” rule. Always use compression when you plan to post an image on a web site or send it in a email. Uncompressed files can be very large and that is not what you want when someone is trying to download it. So besides the original untouched file and the edited but uncompressed file, I also create smaller sometimes compressed versions as needed for things like posting in this blog.

Now, I have a second hard drive in my computer. After making changes to images on my main drive, I copy the files to the second drive. That way if one drive fails, I have a backup. Copying the files to the second drive gives me redundancy in a relatively rapid way versus tapes or buring CD/DVDs. Even if my PC dies, I can move one or both disks to a new one and still get the files.

As I finish editing a batch of images, I name them according to my own quirky system and start grouping the batches together under a common folder. Once I have enough to fill a CD or DVD, I burn the files. I make sure that I always buy brand name high quality CDs and DVDs. This is no time to cheap out. You want some assurance that the burned discs will last. For really important files I use gold based archival quality discs.

Now that I have a copy of the files on CD or DVD, I delete the files from my main hard disk so that I have room for more incoming images. However, I have a third disk. This is a 300GB external USB attached disk. I copy the images to this disk for “long term” storage while still being able to pull the files up without having to dig out the CD or DVDs. This disk is slow compared to an internal disk so it is no good for quick backups, but the large size lets me keep heaps of images close at hand over the long haul.

At any one time I make sure that I never have less than two and usually three copies on different media of all my images. If I was a little more paranoid, I would store the CD/DVDs somewhere off-site in case my house burns down.

For things like family snapshots that we take with our 4MP point and shoot camera I still make sure that I never have less than two copies of every photo. I keep them on hard disk and I keep a copy on CD or DVD. I always keep the original file intact while saving any edited images in separate files with as little compression as possible.

Finally over the years you need to look out for that fading problem. Copying your files from one hard drive to another every year or two (like when you get a new computer) will refresh the files. You can also buy a program like SpinRite from GRC to refresh your files in place.

And of course always keep those shoe boxes full of prints around for extra security.



2 Responses to “Storing Digital Photos – Part 2”

  1. Nikon World Says:

    Nikon World

    Interesting article, Thanks for sharing.

  2. Nikon Planet Says:

    Nikon Planet

    Nikon Planet, Thanks.

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