Digital Storage?

wilderness black and white photographyWell, as my recent interest in digital photography has taken off lately I have found myself reading some of the “idiots” guides available on the net.

While, generally, these have been helpful – before reading them I had no idea what the different f-stop values meant and the like – there are some odd misconceptions being bandied around.

I really get the feeling that these books are written by people who are actually wetfilm enthusiasts but are trying to convert themselves at the same time.

FilmThe main thing which interests me are when they have a list of “pros and cons” comparing digital with wetfilm. l love these! You almost always see some reasonable examples mixed in with what is (in my opinion of course) the nonsense.

Things like being able to take a bazillion photographs (effectively unlimited storage, you can just copy them off whatever memory card you are using and use it again) are a massive pro on digital cameras. Compare the utility of going out for the day with a roll of 36 exposure film compared to a 1Gb SD-Ram card!

Also, with digital cameras you get the chance to review your photos there and then. So when you take that memorable photograph you don’t have to wait until you get home to realise you had your thumb half over the lens and the image is lost for ever – you can check and reshoot as often as you want.

Memory CardsThe pro of digital cameras which really gets me is the storage. Often books and articles will be filled with the benefits of using digital media to store pictures. They will go on about how the picture will never fade, you can make unlimited copies and all will be identical and how the digital copy will remain intact, with no loss of quality for ever.

This is nonsense. While it may well be technically true, it hides an underlying falsehood. In work, on the wall, is a picture taken in 1898. This picture is 108 years old. It is black and white, and a bit faded around the edges but I can look at it. Anyone who walks past it can look at it. I could copy it if I wanted, although the bright light may further degrade it. This is the wonder of wetfilm pictures.

Now take a digital picture. Imagine for the sake of argument I had a digital picture that was a mere ten years old (one tenth of the age of the photo on the wall). It is in the JPEG format which is good because we can still read JPGs but it was archived onto a 5.25″ floppy disk. Well that’s that then. I have nothing which can extract data from a floppy disk like that any more. No one I know has anything which will do it. I could take it to a specialist retailer and have it done for me – but what specialist equipment is needed to look at the hundred year old photograph.

Revisiting Old FriendsNow moving close to the modern day, I have a digital picture which is only three years old. It is JPEG, which is good but for archiving purposes it (and some others) were zipped onto five floppy disks. Again this is a big problem for me as my PC has no floppy drive. My laptop doesn’t either – and my mobile phone certainly doesn’t. Once more I have no method of accessing this image – which is only one twentieth of the age of the one at work, without purchasing more, specialised, equipment.

This problem continues on many levels. For example, JPEG photographs are a “lossy” format so some picture quality is lost no matter how hard you try. As a result of this, some camera manufacturers allow you to take RAW pictures, but this adds a new problem. You then need specialist software to view the pictures (and convert them to JPG etc), which kind of defeats the point. Also, not all camera manufacturers have compatible RAW formats so there is little reason to be confident that the RAW data you have today will be viewable next week.

alert the data recovery companyIn addition to this, online storage services aren’t much better. You may think uploading all your date to Flickr/Google/Whoever is great and solves all your backup issues but it doesn’t. What happens if you lose your account details? What happens if your host decides to charge (or charge more) for its services? What happens if they fold and get rid of all the data? However you look at it, its gone.

In all, while there is good reason to think digital has advantages – I am not convinced long term storage is really one of them.

(note: The pictures here are just nice ones I found on Flickr – I did not take them myself)

5 thoughts on “Digital Storage?

  1. Excellent points. Storage is the real problem with digital photographs. It’s genuinely impossible to get digital documents from twenty years ago, due to different operating systems, let alone get pictures. Printing them off is a step towards permanence but inkjet ink doesnt have the staying power of printed photos either. The other problem is that camera per pound spent, good digital cameras still cost lots more than normal SLRs.
    All the same, there is no contest in terms of being able to shoot dozens of pictures to get the one you want.

  2. And being able to edit them to your hearts content.
    And email them to people…
    And take pictures with your phone which you can then send around the globe….


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  5. As with any type of digital archive, it is essential to update the media format as they get replaced. Copy everything from 5.25″ disks to 3.5″ disks as soon as it becomes evident that 5.25″ are on the way out. Don’t wait until near obsolenence as it may be too late; your old hardware could die suddenly leaving you without an upgrade path.

    CD-ROMs are like this. Yes, they’ll be around for a long time, but as soon as you see computers start being shipped without compatible readers, that’s the time to upgrade to the latest standard format of the time.

    Storage format is another interesting debate. If you’re interested, you can read my thoughts on RAW vs JPEG on my Landscape Photography blog. I use both, but always JPEG for archival.

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