I bought a digital camera for our family back in 2005. At the time I bought it everyone else I knew already had one and had been using it for many years. It is now 5 years later and we have decided that after some close calls we need a better system to store our invaluable data! After all it is impossible to re-create those photos. While the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Park are not going anywhere in our lifetime, our family changes – fast! If you don’t have lots of photos you can forget a bunch of the fun times you have together.
During a discussion, if you ask anyone two simple questions “Have you ever lost digital photos” or “what do you do to archive your digital photography” you will always get “Yes” and at least one of the following:
- Printing the Photos
- Burning a CD/DVD with the Photos
- External Hard Disk
- Online Backup
- Scrapbook / Photo books
The truth is that only a combination of these techniques is going to work and nothing is 100% guaranteed and it is surprising how many people have lost so many photos! The phenomenon of losing data or in which the format the data is stored in becomes obsolete is called the Digital Dark Age. Storing large amounts of data for long periods of time is tricky business. We’ll discuss each approach separately before discussing a combined approach.
Printing Your Photos
Paper lasts forever, right? Not exactly! Did you know that the Declaration of Independence has to be kept in a case made of titanium and aluminum filled with argon gas to help preserve the document? Artwork has a similar problem. White turns to yellow and the colors either fade or darken. Photo’s from your childhood are yellowing at an alarming rate! Go back and look at your chemical prints and see how much they have yellowed. You may be surprised! Generally no matter what the physical media the culprits are: acid/chemicals, air/oxygen, heat/light. You can get acid free paper and store it in an acid free box but it’s likely you still have acid and chemical exposure from external sources such as the oil in your fingerprints. Even this will not keep chemical photo’s from aging because the very process used to develop these pictures adds acids and chemicals that will eventually destroy the photos. Photo’s that are printed using ink suffer from these same problems. There are special inks that resist aging but in general most still either fade or are damaged by water and humidity.
Another noteworthy item is that this archival method cannot save the video snippits that most point and shoot digital cameras have now days.
Burning a CD/DVD with the Photos
I burned my first CD back in the summer of 1995! It was a CD of MP3’s (pretty new at the time) and was one of my most favorite possessions! It was burned on a CD writer that had an internal HDD to help with buffer underruns (a very common problem! I lost more CD’s to buffer underruns then I had successfully write back then). It was burned at 1x speed and took an additional hour to verify the data was written correctly. I had to drive miles and miles to find a Circuit City that carried writable CD media! That CD lasted until about 2008 at which time it became unreadable – despite optimal storage conditions. That is a lifespan of about 13 years. This was a gold CD and was very high quality. Low quality CD’s will not last as long. Many of them have a lifespan of only 1-3 years! Word to the wise – DO NOT CHEAP OUT ON ARCHIVAL OPTICAL MEDIA! Just last month we had a scare where the CD for the August 2009 photos wouldn't read. Luckily we had a backup and did not loose those photos and videos! That disk was only 1 year old! If you think that writing your photos to CD/DVD is going to preserve your memories forever, I have news for you – That ain’t going to work, Alice!
Keeping in mind that typical higher quality CD media only has an average lifespan of 5-10 years in optimal conditions; knowing which CD-R/DVD-R is the highest quality is not simply a matter of picking the best brand. There are some CD/DVD media that are made for archival. One company claims that their CD media can last 300 years and that their DVD media can last 100 years. This is obviously a theoretical average using the ISO 18927-2002 guidelines. Personally I’ll replace these disks every 10 years, but at least I know I can go 10 years without a lot of worry about loosing a few disks. It is also recommended that data stored on optical disks are not stored in a compressed format (like zip). This is because if there are disk errors the contents of a compressed file are completely gone where some uncompressed files could be recovered individually.
External Hard Disk Drive
External hard disks are the best way to backup modern computers with terabytes of data. They are fast and the disk failure rate has gone down significantly. Simply having an extra copy of your data is a valid data backup strategy but it’s not really an archival strategy. Eventually that disk will fail AND your computer disk will also fail! They are mechanical devices and simply cannot last forever. When these disks fail, they usually fail in a spectacular way often leading to large expenses to recover data and the possibility that not all of the data could be recovered.
An alternative to the traditional disk drives are SSD Disks. SSD (Solid State Disks) have no moving parts and will theoretically last a lot longer. They have the added advantage of failing on write rather than read. That means when these disks do fail it’s because they cannot write. SSD’s are a new technology and do have some problems. For instance they can only be written to so many times before a cell cannot be re-written. This is exacerbated by write amplification where SSD’s have a larger cell of memory than the file system. Each time a block in that cell needs to be changed the entire cell must be re-written. There is some new technology to help overcome these limitations but all things need to be considered in a data archival scenario. For my money though, I’ll probably buy a 128GB SSD for our “secondary” backup device. It may be pricy now, but when we fill it up the next one we buy will probably be much larger for the same price.
If you choose to use a SSD for archival there are some things you need to be aware of. First, while the data on the drive can last a very long time, it will eventually loose charge if the drive is not plugged in from time to time. The amount of time a drive can sit unplugged and retain it’s data is said to be about 10 years, so it’s a longer period of time. Still, if you fill a drive up and are no longer writing to it every month you need to devise a scheme to plug them in every once in a while. It’s not clear to me yet if the data actually needs to be re-written in order to prolong the longevity of the data but I hope to figure that out soon. Another consideration is that each time you write to a cell the shelf life on that cell decreases some small amount. This means that it is optimal to use this device as archival only and resist the temptation to double the speed of your computer. :) Last, there is a difference between SLC memory and MLC memory. SLC has more write cycles but is quickly loosing favor to MLC because it’s less expensive to manufacture. Again, I’m not sure which one makes a better archival drive but I’ll post here when I find that out.
With online backup services like Mozy and Carbonite combined with inexpensive broadband Internet, it’s easy to see why this will be a good alternative for some. Broadband internet would be a must in this case, but if you had this setup you would also be protected in case of a fire. The only downside to the online backup is the question about what happens if the company goes out of business and/or if you were unable to keep paying the annual premium. A lesser issue might be that if you did need to restore your backup it could be difficult to retrieve all of that data. All things to consider when you devise your archival strategy.
Scrapbooks / Photobooks
My wife really likes to do digital scrapbooking. She has been working on creating a photo book each year of our favorite pictures from that year. We would typically upload the pre-finished scrapbook images to Shutterfly or some other online photobook website. We really love these books and while they are time consuming and expensive we’ll continue to produce them because this is how we enjoy our images. Our favorite part is that once our kids grow up we can make a special book for them with all of their photos and/or order another family photo book for them.
I have zero photos of myself when I was a kid! It is our goal to scan all of our childhood photos before they fade too much. We have already done our wedding photos using our fancy HP Scanjet G4050 Photo Scanner (with transparency attachment for scanning negatives) and will eventually spend a lot of time at our parents and siblings houses scanning photographs.
These photobooks are not really a backup of our images. If you were to scan one of these images back in you would not get a good enough resolution to print it again or order a larger print. And again, they do nothing to preserve the home videos to which we have equal attachment.
We have decided that we are going to backup our images monthly on both a SSD device and the special archival CD/DVD. Some months we only need a CD to backup or data and other months we need a DVD – mostly because of movies. We also hope to be able to get a new DSLR camera and the image space required to store those will increase by at least double the output of our current 6MP camera. After 10 years we will make a backup for the current month and also a fresh copy of the backup from 10 years earlier. We haven’t figured out 100% how we’re going to deal with the scenario where there is a fire it will likely be something like we store them at a relatives house or a safe deposit box.
The important thing is to make a plan for your data and get it implemented!