There is a new term floating around the digital photography world these days. It could actually be a major field of study or employment in the near future if we’re not careful. That term is digital archeology. What does it mean to photographers exactly? Well, in the extremely short period that computers and digital cameras have been in existence there are countless formats and technologies that have become extinct to the point where they are useless or unreadable. In fact this is happening on a yearly basis to the point of epidemic proportions and it needs to be addressed immediately. Let me explain…
Around the world, many governments and countries are not relying on digital storage yet. They convert many of their historical documents to paper or microfilm immediately because this is the only universally recognized archival format available today and the only one that is trusted to stand the test of time. Even the U.S. National Archives converts a lot of their information to something other than digital because they have no real hope that in the near future digital content will be readable. NASA has admitted that over 20% of the information sent back from the first Mars space probe is no longer readable because the information retrieved was stored technology that is now extinct or no longer supported by the vendor that created it. What a scary situation we face today. In my eyes, the digital information we’re creating today could be created or printed on something similar to degradable paper because over the course of time it may slowly just disappear back into the earth or disappear without a trace.
Now, this is an extreme example and the photographic file format issue is not as challenging as these examples state because we are dealing with popular programs, technologies, platforms and formats that are currently widely accepted into our culture. So the chances that you’ll be able to open a .JPEG file sometime in the next 20 years is decent — if not guaranteed. But there are still rouge formats, applications, database technology, etc. that will only work with certain formats. Plus there’s no guarantee that next year a new format will come out and catch on. Over the course of the next 20 years .JPEG could become an extinct format too although highly unlikely. Regardless, we do have a serious issue to face when choosing the method and format of digital photo storage and this is a good place to get into the “guts” of our archiving discussion.
As a casual or professional photographer yourself, when you take a digital picture and download it off your camera, what file format do save it in? Do you even know? Do you know what a file format is? This is a major concern and the one that we should all start with. Let me explain the basics over the course of my next two blog entries on the subject.
What’s a file format and an extension? Why would I care?
The definition of a photo file format is as follows: A file format is the layout of digital photographic information in terms of how the data within the file is organized to construct the visual image that you see on your screen. A computer program that uses the data in a file must be able to recognize and possibly access data within the photo file via an application designed to read image format. For example, a current popular photo editing program like Adobe Photoshop is able to process and display a file in a multitude of formats so that it appears as an image on the web, or maybe high-res printed material. Both uses require a separate file format. The web uses .JPEG as a standard full color image format and for print .EPS or .TIFF is a standard. If you tried to open a .TIFF file in a web browser you would get extremely mixed results if any. Similarly, if you tried to place a .JPEG file into a printed document it would appear as slightly blurry and low resolution — if the program accepted it at all.
A particular file format is often indicated as part of a file’s name by a file name extension added to the end of the file name. The extension usually consisting of 3-4 characters and is separated from the file name by a period. (FILENAME.EXTN) A program that uses or recognizes a particular file format may or may not care whether the file has the appropriate extension name since it can actually examine the information in the file to see whether the photo format is one it recognizes. As a “best practice” though it is always a good habit to label your files with extensions instead of just a file name. This will help you quickly identify the file format and ensure that future programs will be able to identify that file as well. Popular photo extensions include .jpg, .gif, .tif, .eps, .png, .bmp, etc. and they all have specific uses. Other possible formats include .psd, .pdf, .pcx, Kodak PCD, .pict, .pixar, Scitex CT, Targa plus formats only readable by the application that created the image.
As you can see it is a daunting task and I have only scratched the service of what you might be dealing with. So what is the answer you ask? Well lets narrow this down quickly in my next post and look at two of the most popular and reliable formats to determine a solution. Then we’ll evaluate a few other popular choices.
Check back tomorrow to continue this discussion.