Tech Tuesday: Backup and storage of photos

Your entire collection of beautiful photographs are at risk of being forever lost. All too often, people lose years of photographs due to improper archiving methods. With so many different ways of backing up photos, which one is right? Find out about the history of photo storage and learn how to store photographs for a hundred years.

The Question

One of the questions regarding photography that is often asked, is how to store photographs for the long term. One day as I was working in a camera store, a gentlemen came in and wanted to know if there was a difference in the storage quality of CDs that were available. He mentioned that some manufacturers claimed the CD’s to be of “archival quality” and would last for over 100 years. The question was more about how to store photos than which CDs might have a longer life. If we look back on the photographs that are available from the last century, we notice they black and white since color photography is a relatively recent phenomenon. If stored properly, those prints held up well and were a hard copy, meaning that you were looking at the photo rather than a representation of the photo from media. But back to the gentleman’s question, how can we store photos for the long term? Since digital photography seems to be eclipsing film photography, we’ll start there.

A Brief History of Media

Let’s look at the recent history of digitally stored media. In the early 1980’s, a 5.25” floppy disk was the most common method of data storage. If we look around, only 25 years later, it’s difficult to find a device to read those floppy disks. Then the 3.5” removable disk became more popular and had several capacities. Those are also becoming difficult to find with most computers shipping without them. Now a popular storage format is the CD and more recently the DVD. If you were going to attempt to store photographs on these media types for the long haul, it may be there will be no devices available to read the CD or DVD 100 years from now. If we take a look at music recordings, we see the same progression from cylinder recordings to 78 RPM records, to 33 RPM, to 8 track and cassette recording to CDs and now to portable media devices (i Pods) via compressed audio file formats such as MP3. In video, we see the same progression from 8mm, to Super8, to beta and VHS to DVD. The technology marches on and this can make it difficult to decide how to proceed. Obsolescence seems to be stalking our ability to store our captured memories.

Storage Solution

So what’s the answer? Since the advent of lower cost digital cameras, many photos are not printed. Back in the days of film, you had to get the pictures developed to see what was on them Now they can be viewed on a computer screen or on the back of the camera using the LCD screen and many never make it into the family photo album. To store photos for generations to come, use a quality photo finishing service and store the pictures in an acid-free photo album or storage box. If printing pictures at home, use archival inks and papers and store them in a similar fashion. If storing them on media such as CDs or DVDs, we’ll have to make certain that we keep a device around that has the capability to read the media inside a computer or CD/DVD player connected to a television that can accommodate that device. Finally, if you have chosen CD’s as the media for long-term digital photo storage, choose a name brand that you recognize and ask if they are archival quality. These are some ways that will allow the possibility of someone a hundred years to to view your photographs from today.

How do I do it?

When I first started digital photography I knew nothing about storage and just kept them all on my computer Hard drive. It only took one crash and the loss of all those photos to make me search the Internet for solutions.

I learned about burning them to CD, and then about archival CD’s. Next my camera files and amount of photos increased so i moved on the DVD’s. Storing both the RAW file and the edited version. This caused problems as I would neglect then have to spend a whole weekend catching up. Plus the number of DVD’s was becoming enormous. I needed another solution. Another problem arose when my updated software would no longer read my early and outdated Kodak RAW formats.

The solution, for me, came along with Lightroom. When I got it i started to use it to import all my photos and convert to Adobes universal RAW platform, DNG. Universally accepted and read. With the advent of cheap external hard drives, I could set Lightroom to import to one and automatically back up to another. I now have two 500 GB drives as my primary and backup. I have two, 250 GB drives where I store my edits and web versions, both backed up. When a drive gets full I label it and store it and Lightroom still has the preview, but shows a ? for a missing file, and tells me what drive it is on.

Once a month all photos are backed up to another 1 TB drive that is stored off site. You may not need these extreme measures but I want to have my photos to pass onto another generation.

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