Preserving your Past, Present and Future
The new generation of photographers has embraced digital imaging but the use of digital cameras comes with a price. The price we pay for this incredible technology is the potential loss of images by retaining the images in a digital form. Before we jump on what this really means; let's have a look at some analogue technology. The film medium has been well understood for many generations of photographers. There are established archiving methods for long term storage. The only caveat here is that the preservation of film negatives is not straightforward under average conditions. We have to remember that the preservation of film negatives by the Smithsonian or by the National Archives is done through exacting methods. The average person does not have access to archival temperature controlled vaults.
The average analogue film photographer who has amassed a great number of negatives over the years would have taken some degree of care when storing the negatives. This would entail storing the negatives in special sleeves and storing them inside of a larger storage container. The environment would be temperature controlled through residential air conditioning; but not too archival standards. The storage conditions can affect the longevity of your negatives but there are other conditions in play here. Two factors that have a bigger impact are the quality of the original film stock and adherance to quality control standards during film processing.
As a general rule black and white negative films will survive the longest, professional color slide/film stock comes in second and last is consumer quality film. Film that was processed in a professional quality lab will last the longest and film that was processed in a 60 minute photo lab will noticeably deteriorate in 25 to 30 years. Let's look at some example images taken in the 1980's.
The examples shown above clearly illustrate that the average film photographer may face challenges when storing negatives over decades. Physical prints are similar in nature. Black and white prints will last the longest. Color prints processed in a professional lab will last the longest with due care of the print. Prints that were created in a 60 minute photo lab or exposed to sunlight will exhibit color fading and physical deterioration over time.
Digital photographers reading this right now are rejoicing and reaffirming their beliefs that digital is the perfect medium. Not so fast. The storage of digital image files presents its own unique issues that need to be addressed. Digital photographers probably know the basics. Create a backup copy and store another copy off site. This should cover off most of the disaster recovery scenarios that the average person would encounter. If you are diligent you have included cloud storage for your most valuable images.
The issue with storing digital image files lies with the degradation of magnetic media over time. Every disk drive; whether they are consumer or enterprise level disk drives will experience read errors that increase with the lifetime of the disk drive. What this means that you may experience corruption issues on your image files the longer they are stored on the magnetic media. In the analogue film world your negatives may physically deteriorate and you may still have some ability to recover a usable images. With digital storage once corruption occurs there may be no recovery. This is why you see the emergence of storage management methods for consumers in the form of Windows storage pools and ZFS.
Bottom line is that digital photographers have to realize the limitations of digital storage and how to manage archival storage of digital files going forward for many years. The alternative is to print your images out on archival paper and hope for the best.
Some reading material to educate yourself on digital storage issues and archival management.
Long Term Statistics for Disk Drives
Looking at New Storage Technologies
Looking at Digital Archiving Issues
Watsonphotography.ca creates unique images of fashion, models, travel, people and racing sports by the Toronto based photographer Peter Watson.
Keywords: archiving, digital storage, film preservation, photography
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