Thursday, December 27, 2012

Preserving our digital photographs

Holiday season is family photo season and now that we’ve transitioned from film to digital photography the number of pictures we take is at an all time high. But while our family albums often have pictures taken a century ago, it’s likely that the current crop of snaps will be irretrievable in just a decade, unless we work to preserve them.

The oldest surviving photograph, taken in 1826 by French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, titled “View from the Window at Le Gras” is still visible today while the ink jet prints on my fridge from 2005 are badly faded.

Niépce covered a pewter plate in lavender oil containing dissolved bitumen and exposed it for eight hours to the sunlit scene outside. The exposed bitumen hardened and the rest was washed off to leave a permanent image.

Photography has got progressively easier since then, including Kodak launching the brownie in 1900 with the slogan “you push the button, and we do the rest”. Later mass market innovations included 35mm cartridges and instamatic cassettes (although I never liked them).

Film based photography peaked in 2000 at 85 billion photos (this estimate is based on the global use of silver in the process) but this year, now that we’re digital and don’t run out of film, it’s estimated to hit 380 billion pictures. (Whether this four-fold increase in snapping actually produces any better images is debatable).

The largest single archive of current images is Facebook who noted that they had 219 billion images as at September 2012.

From the time I was in my teens, until about two years ago, I selected the best images from each roll and glued them in a series of albums. Recently I find I’m showing images to family and friends via Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. My album series has ended and I fear that my digital image narrative my have ended too.

Often it is the images that capture the ordinary, the view of the kitchen bench, the junk near the TV, rather than the false smiling relatives that are the most rewarding in retrospect. But being able to keep everything is a double-edged sword.

My digital archival storage plan

While digital storage is reliable it is ironically brittle. I’ve used and thrown out: punch cards, data cassettes, eight inch floppies, 3.5 inch floppies, zip disks and CD ROMs will be next in line.

My Aperture library, containing all my serious (RAW) images for the past few years is under 90 Gigabytes. Many other images have been posted directly to Instagram and only survive in 612 square pixel format.

When much loved Panda the cat died recently after keeping us company for fourteen years, I realised how few images remain.

I have images all over the internet, on Google Picassa, Yahoo Flickr, DeviantART, MySpace, and MobileMe. The last ones, on MobileMe web albums were deleted when Apple closed it down earlier this year. Yes they gave me plenty of warning, but no, I never got around to looking at them or saving them.

Paying for online image storage provides some assurance that they’ll make an effort to contact you before disappearing. The act of renewing the payment details every few years also serves as a reminder. It’s not expensive, Google charges $5 per month for 100GB of storage, Yahoo charges $25 per year for “unlimited” storage - although I’m always a little suspect of unlimited things.

Hard disks get cheaper very fast and currently a terabyte drive is about $100 so a good plan is to purchase a new one each year and copy over the whole archive from last year’s disk plus all the new images. The act of re-copying, plus keeping a few past years disks provides some redundancy in case of mechanical failure.

Apple has photo stream and iCloud but at the time of writing I’ve seen enough weirdness to not trust their cloud services just yet. (Jobs should have purchased DropBox).

The answer for me is a combination of the annually refreshed external hard disks plus some online storage (in case the whole house goes up).

I’ve also started printing out a few pictures and the bound books from Apple and others are a nice update to the glued albums I used to keep.

More pictures are being taken than ever before but I don’t think they’re better. Sometimes I like to use a camera that slows me down and doesn’t track the faces automagically. My new years resolution is to take fewer, better pictures and make an effort not to lose them in a disk crash.

I discussed this topic with John Doyle on ABC RN Breakfast this week.


Murray said...

Perhaps PaperBack is the answer:
The author Olly presents it as a joke but I think it has some merit.

Murray VK3ACF

Unknown said...

I likewise am afraid of what will become of my photos. I have been changing them from one type of media to another...but I am not convinced about the security of the cloud. For that matter...I have my doubts about computers also. ;-) I like the idea of taking less pictures, just making them better. Today, it is way to easy to just snap away!
Happy Holidays and a happy new year!

Indy said...

I have been following Scott Hanselmans' "The Computer Backup Rule of Three" with couple of variations - Another post by Scott that highlights the need of a backup strategy -

I have a NAS that works as a central backup for digital data, with CrashPlan+ regularly backing up data from the NAS. Two 3Tb Western Digital USB drives regularly backup the NAS. I use Dropbox specifically for backing up digital photos.

With any backup setup, the challenge is to restore from a backup, specifically how easy it is to restore data from a backup in case something goes wrong.