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Digital Camera Guide

How to Store Your Digital Photos So That You Won't Lose Them

[Image of antique photo. Many photos have survived tucked away in shoeboxes or dresser drawers for decades.]

For a lot of us, "archiving our photos" in the past has meant taking the film prints, putting them in a shoebox and stuffing them under the bed. If we were really thoughtful about it, we might even have gone so far as to write the date on the back of the picture first. Some of our favorites might make it to the family photo album, but for the most part our pictures are forgotten for years at a time... sometimes longer.

The amazing thing is, even with so little care, our photos tend to survive very well. Years later, we can pull them out of the box and take a walk down memory lane. Sometimes, we'll even find a very old picture that a friend or relative has saved from half a century ago. The photo may need careful handling or sometimes a little restoration, but for the most part they are nearly as good as when they were new and every bit as enjoyable.

What about our digital pictures? Many of us "archive" these in more or less the same way we archive our other photos. We take the picture, save it to disk or CD, and then forget about it. Our computers have become our virtual shoebox. We all know that we want our children to enjoy our old pictures the way we enjoyed our parent's or grandparent's photos, but most of us don't give much thought to how to go about it. Few of us consider if what we are doing now will work in the long haul.

Will our digital photos survive for our children and grandchildren to enjoy? Yes, but only if we know how to take care of them properly... which means a bit more than simply burning them to CD-ROM and forgetting about them.

But aren't things stored in digital format supposed to last forever? Yes and no. Many people confuse digital data - which theoretically can last forever - with the media it's stored on - which undoubtedly won't last forever. The timelessness of digital format comes not from how long the media lasts, but from the fact that perfect copies can be made. Hard drives, floppy disks and even CDs will all eventually fail. However, unlike a film print or negative that degrades slightly every time it is transferred, a digital photo can be copied endlessly without damaging it. The hundredth generation copy is every bit as clear and crisp as the original. As long as you continue to make new copies, you can preserve your pictures for a very long time.

Aren't CDs supposed to last over a hundred years? Why should I make copies? CDs and DVDs that have been pressed at a factory may last that long. Glass masters may last even longer. The CD-Rs that most of us use have a much shorter lifespan. While some may be rated to last up to 75 years in optimal conditions, in practice many experts believe most varieties will only be good for ten to twenty years.

[Image of reel-to-reel and single-density floppy disk. Can your computer read these? Probably not.]

Unfortunately, the real problem in digital archiving isn't how long the media will last. The more important question is will your computer still know how to read it in ten years?

Computer technology has developed at a very rapid pace over the last several decades. As better, faster, smaller types of media have been developed older media and file formats have quickly become obsolete. Most software comes on CD or DVD these days... very few things are stored on 3 1/2" floppy disk. Most computers don't even have a 5 1/4" floppy disk drive anymore, and many people haven't even heard of 8" floppy disks - much less own a computer that can read one. Yet, many of us have photos under the bed that are much older than 8" floppy disks.

Even if your CDs are still good twenty years from now, it is very possible that the computer you will own in the future won't be able to read them. If you don't copy your pictures to new types of media as technology changes, they may become completely inaccessible.

With all this in mind, what is the proper way to preserve digital photos for posterity? There are a several key things you can to do to help ensure your pictures will be around for a long time to come:

  • Copy your files to more than one location. Hard drives fail and a scratched CD is worthless. By storing your photos to both your hard drive and CD, or to multiple CDs or DVDs, you minimize the chances your pictures will be lost permanently if something goes wrong. Keep at least two copies of every image you want to keep - more if you can manage.
  • Refresh your data every few years by copying it to whatever the current format is. When you notice that people aren't using CDs as much anymore, copy all of your files from CD to DVD. When people stop using DVDs, copy your files to whatever the next big thing is. Some of us here at TFP have files we've kept easily accessible for twenty years or more simply by copying them every few years. Usually once every 3-5 years is sufficient in our experience, although as the pace of technology speeds up that number may shrink slightly. Don't forget, too, that if you need to change file formats there are usually software programs out there that will automate the job so you don't have to work hard to do it. One of our favorite programs is PMView, which will convert an entire folder's worth of pictures to another format in a single mouse click.
  • Mark your pictures read-only or, preferably, store them on read-only media. Marking your photo files read-only, or storing them on read-only media such as CD-R, will help prevent you or someone else from accidentally overwriting them. Read-only media is a safer option than setting the files to read-only on your hard drive, as the read-only setting on your hard drive can be changed or some software may ignore it. In addition to protecting you from accidentally saving over your files, storing your pictures to read-only media may help protect your files from damage by some computer viruses if your system becomes infected.
  • Share with friends and family! Not only is e-mailing your photos great fun, if your relatives save your photos to disk and you save theirs, then you've created your own automatic "offsite backup" system. That way, even if you lose your copy, you can always go ask Uncle Bob if he still has his.
  • Buy high-quality media. Usually the price difference between respected, name-brand CD or DVD blanks and generic ones isn't much, but the length of time they'll last is.
  • Have your favorite photos professionally printed. The one media that has thus far stood the test of time better than virtually all others is paper. If you have pictures you really like, print them. Ink jet hasn't been around long enough to know how it will withstand the ravages of time, so for the moment most experts seem to recommend that you take your pictures to your local photo lab to have them printed instead. Most places will do this for about 30 cents a shot, so if you have some special photos you really like, it's well worth doing.

Taking good care of your digital photos will ensure that the memories will be there for years to come.