A collection of just some of my digital storage media from over the years
A collection of just some of my digital storage media from over the years

It’s tough to call those who use a decades-old technology embraced by the majority of the world “early adopters,” but that’s exactly what digital camera owners are.

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Memory cards and the inside of a roll of 110mm film
Memory cards and the inside of a roll of 110mm film

Photography has been in existence for more than a century and we know from holding our grandparents’ baby photos that C-prints can withstand the test of time. Can you confidently say the same thing about a hard drive full of digital memories?

Hard drives fail, hacker attacks corrupt clouds and digital technology changes so fast that today’s photographic file standards are already being replaced. Will people even know what to do with a 3.1 megapixel jpg in a few decades? The only true way to ensure that all those precious 1’s and 0’s stay around forever is to print them out and store them safely.

A true photograph is almost alive. The image itself is embedded in the emulsion – the very fibers – of the photographic paper. It’s tangible. It’s something you can hold. A digital file, on the other hand, is an illusion: a trick of light, electricity and motherboards. Sure jpg and RAW pictures are vibrant and easily shared, but when that solar flare sends an electromagnetic pulse towards Earth and fries the world’s circuitry, I’ll be happy to have printed albums of my best work.

A cracked-open roll of Fuji 110 film that I purchased after it was already 10 years expired.
A cracked-open roll of Fuji 110 film that I purchased after it was already 10 years expired.

The best place in America to make high-quality photographic C-prints of your favorite snapshots is Dickerman Prints Photo Lab in San Francisco, where I have the pleasure of working.

In addition to the film inside the 110mm roll, there was a protective black sheet with numbers that correlated to the same negative. That's what the black curly thing is in the background.
In addition to the film inside the 110mm roll, there was a protective black sheet with numbers that correlated to the same negative. That’s what the black curly thing is in the background.

Guardian reporter John Naughton sums it up perfectly:

The reason is that while digital technology has generally been very good for photography as a mass medium, it has also made the resulting imagery much more fragile and impermanent. Of the billions of photographs taken every year, the vast majority exist only as digital files on camera memory cards or on the hard drives of PCs and online backup servers in the internet “cloud”.

In theory – given the right back-up regimes and long-term organizational arrangements – this means that they could, theoretically, endure for a long time. In practice, given the vulnerability of storage technology (all hard disks fail, eventually), the pace at which computing kit becomes obsolete and storage formats change, and the fact that most people’s Facebook accounts die with them, the likelihood is that most of those billions of photographs will not long survive those who took them.

I purchased this 160gb hard drive in computer store in Mumbai, India. Until then, I had never heard of the brand Moserbaer
I purchased this 160gb hard drive in computer store in Mumbai, India. Until then, I had never heard of the brand Moserbaer

My Moserbaer 160gb hard drive has been all over the world with me. I bought it in Mumbai as a backup for my netbook nearly two years ago and it hasn’t let me down yet.

Do YOU trust all your digital images? What is your backup strategy? I would love to hear from you in the comments!

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  • http://www.colorcritical.net Dmitri IVanov

    Granted that hard drives fail, printed copies can also be destroyed in a fire, for example. I think the cloud is a reasonably safe short term backup solution, while the ultimate indefinite archived backup would probably be a DVD or maybe blue-ray disks, and those stored underground in more than 1 location. Analog is less versatile and terribly bulky. I think that enough people are involved with the RAW format, for example, to make sure that at least their old photographs get converted to a would-be modern format. Apocalypse notwithstanding ;-)

    • http://www.AdventuresofaGoodMan.com Greg Goodman

      Great points! Though, I think a relay of external hard drives is my prefered way to back things up. I have too many old discs that just don’t work anymore and it’s so much easier to keep terabytes of data together on an external.