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Home » Archiving Digital Photography (Part 8) How to choose a digital storage solution — The big question.

Archiving Digital Photography (Part 8) How to choose a digital storage solution — The big question.

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So, finally we come to the question we have all come together to solve. The big million dollar question… “what are my options for storing my digital photography?” Well, the answer has its good and bad points and I’ll attempt so answer them in depth without taking up too much of your valuable free time. I know we all would rather be outside shooting pictures than reading technical jargon about what we love to do so as usual, I’ll try to keep it short and sweet whenever possible.

The goal of this series isn’t to delve into every possible option available, but to focus on the most popular and reliable options and to point out the faults that some of these popular options don’t usually like to spell out in their manuals.

First, the good side is that thankfully there are many, many options. Some are good and some are really poor and the options are improving on a daily basis. The options range from storing your photos right on your computer hard drive to storing them in a fireproof facility somewhere across the country or around the world. Your chosen media might be as familiar as CD (compact disc) and DVD (digital video disc) or removable cartridges, tapes, optical storage, internal or external hard drives and even remote storage locations. This list describes some of the most popular solutions and actually it only touches the surface.

Now, before we actually start investigating actual storage media options, lets start our exploration with a more immediate question… “How do I know my media will stand the test of time?” I really hate to keep delaying the discussion of the actual storage options but to make the best choice we need to fully understand all the important elements that make up a good storage solution. Hang with me and hopefully we’ll all learn something.

How do I know that my media will stand the test of time?

This is the million dollar question. The big kahunah. How do we know that our storage media will stand the test of time? Well, the quick answer is that “we don’t”. That’s the question that plagues us because there’s no perfect solution yet. If there was, you wouldn’t be reading this in the first place. In the past you could store your negatives in acid-free sleeves, shove them in a dark place, in low humidity storage or a bank vault and you could be pretty certain that when you went back 20 years later your negatives would be preserved and ready to make new prints.

Today, we’re not certain that our digital photos will even last a year or two on todays media. Heck, they might not even make it through the transfer if we’re not careful. For this reason alone, I want to try and provide reasonably sound advice on archiving your digital photos. This series and the advice contained within is to be used as a guide and not the end all answer to photo archival solutions. There simply isn’t a perfect solution yet. Hopefully by reading through the next few chapters you’ll have a pretty solid understanding of your options, their advantages and their limitations. Most importantly, I’d like to offer advice and draw on my personal experiences so you can use this information as a starting point to make your own decisions and to find out what works for you. Once you’ve gained a firm understanding regarding your options you’ll be much better off when you decide on your back-up, archiving and storage solution. Plus, you’ll know what works best within your schedule, budget and personal needs.

Choosing the best media – What do I look for?

As I stated before, “the verdict is still out” on storage media. There is no perfect solution or ultimate answer because things are always changing. There are some things we should definitely consider when looking at storage solutions though. Actually, there are five main elements that we’ll consider when evaluating our storage options as we go forward – Data permanence, price, capacity, performance and portability.

Obviously the first thing that we’re going to be concerned about is how long the media is supposed to last. (Data permanence) Most media companies will provide basic information based on excellerated environmental testing that’s supposed to simulate the aging process. It’s important to note that this information is not guaranteed. In fact it is normally a best case result and should not be considered fact. For example a company might say that their CD’s will last for over 25 years. What does that mean? Is that CD stored in a refrigerator in the dark or next to a window in an office? Can I transport the CD on a regular basis and expect those results? Can I use it on a daily basis and still experience the same life span? What if I store that CD in an attic vs. in my basement? Will that affect the life span? The key is in the wording and I’m guessing that most manufacturers use the words “can last” instead of “will last”. The storage media surely does have the potential to last the maximum amount of time, but will it in reality? Probably not.

As you’ll see there are many factors that might affect the data permanence of storage media so the best thing to do is use the information I am providing as a starting point and then continue to monitor good websites and continue to do your own research and testing. The data permanence information provided by the media manufacturer is a good gauge to determine if the media is decent or really bad but that is about it. The information regarding data permanence will always be changing and companies will always be improving every year so keep up with the current best practices and leading companies because they are not all created equal.

The next issue that we will face is how much money this will cost us as we go forward. (Price) As with many other elements of photography price is a deciding factor. Do I want the 50mm 1.8 lens or should I spend the extra 200 bucks and go for the 1.4? The 1.8 will do an adequate job but would it be better for me to just fork out the extra dough and do it right the first time? The same questions will face you when determining your archival solution and my answer is always “spend the money”. When you are confronted with the choice of spending a few extra dollars to preserve your work and your memories, spend it. Spend the money every time if it gives you even the slightest edge in reliability, performance and piece of mind. There is nothing worse than realizing that you made a decision to save an extra buck or two and it ended up costing you everything.

The amount of storage space you have to work with is another very important factor. (Capacity) A few years ago we had zip disks that stored 100 megs and one gig hard drives and that seemed like a lot of space. Today we have high capacity DVD’s that can store up to 9.4 gigs and hard drives that can store hundreds of gigs and even Terabytes. (1000 gigs) In the near future PC’s will probably have 200 terabyte hard drives and who knows what the next big thing will be in portable storage. To put that in perspective though the entire contents of The United States Library of Congress will fit on about 20 terabytes and 200 terabytes could easily store the entire collected knowledge of the human race with room to spare. Obviously this is not photographic or video data which would eat that up pretty quickly but you get the idea. Storage capacity is growing on a daily basis and getting cheaper by the minute. We’re not going to be as concerned about storage space in the near future as we are now. We’ll just need it to be reliable and fit our needs. Can I get by with a CD that holds 650 megs? It’s affordable, easy to duplicate, small enough to store in my office and easy to transport or do I need the terabyte hard drive? The big question though even if you have the money to buy the latest and greatest is “do I trust it”? These are the questions we need to ask ourselves. (And we will going forward)

The next issue to deal with is how fast can I access my media. (Performance) When talking storage media and performance you are talking about how fast you can write and read your data. This will be an ongoing problem in the future as we get more and more used to faster media and hardware. When we go back to retrieve our images in 10 years, that 30 seconds it might take to actually pull a large file off of a CD might seem like years so I would keep this concern in the back of your mind.

As you store your data on your chosen media and as you upgrade and move your data to new storage solutions in the future you’ll be very concerned about how long that might take you. An example of my concern would be someone that has 200 32x CDs, chock full of images. In the future you might decide that the time has come to move your information to a new storage technology for increased reliability and space. You’ll be required to insert all 200 CDs individually and copy the information to the new media. Depending on your lifestyle that could take days, weeks or a month or more. Let’s say you chose to back-up your photos to 9.4 gig DVDs. You are basically looking at transferring 160,000 megs of information so that would mean that you will have a total of about 18-20 DVD’s — a far less daunting task for sure. Now, I am definitely not saying that DVD’s are my perfect solution. I’m just giving this as an example as something that you may consider. Personally, my time and dealing with all those CD’s would be worth it if my data fully survives until I am ready to transfer it to the next big thing. I would gladly take a hundred hours and say “thank-you, mission accomplished”. Time is our enemy though and we never seem to have enough of it so I am willing to bet it will be an integral part and an ongoing concern regarding your back up strategy. What? You didn’t actually think that archiving your images meant you will keep your files on CD forever did you? Upgrading to new media over time will be an integral part of the archival process and one that we will also address as we go forward.

The next piece of the performance puzzle is how sturdy your media is. (Durability) We’ll discuss this more in future posts but consider whether you will be transporting your media on a regular basis. Maybe you’re going to be accessing your back-ups on a regular basis and copying files? Will they stand the constant use or exposure to the outside world? Where you live will surely be a factor due to environmental concerns, etc. Concerning yourself with all these questions are important and they really are questions that people often overlook.

The final element that we need to consider is how easy it is to take your images from one location to the next. (Portability) Should I store all my information on 5 external hard drives that sit on my desk in my office or should I continue to back up those hard drives to CD so I can store a duplicate copy off site? Maybe I have one hard drive at home and I just duplicate it and stick it in a fire-proof safe in my bedroom. It would be tough to transport 5 external hard drives back and forth but would the strategy be more sound and overall more safe? Probably, but that would be a question for you to consider as we go forward.

As mentioned above, while discussing portability you’ll also have to consider the overall stability of the media that you choose. Is the media sensitive to light, bumps and bangs, electricity, radiation, etc. You never know what will be waiting for you around the corner so consider the durability of media as you consider portability.

In closing

As we go forward we’ll be looking at these five media elements to determine Mr. or Mrs. “Right Now” Media Solution. If you don’t get the joke, I am referring to finding our perfect “media mate” — one that will satisfy our needs for the time being or at least until something better comes along. (For those who frequent the bar scene, you might get what I am joking about) We’ll discuss the most popular options available today and dissect them so we know how they work, their history, what makes them good or bad, etc. so we’ll have intimate knowledge of the inner-workings and what might cause us problems as we try to preserve our photography.

In my next post let’s dive into the shallow end with one of the most obvious places to archive your photos….

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  • Phillip Winn

    “one of the most obvious places to archive your photos” On the web, right? 😉