Losing our digital memory

With digital photography accessible to everyone, it's easy to amass a photo collection in the terabytes. But what happens to all these memories when something goes wrong?

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Photographs are one of the closest links we have to our own memory.

Storing photos used to be relatively easy in the days of analog: piles of negatives and prints housed in shoe boxes or a multitude of photo albums and picture frames would be a mainstay in every household. Photos weren't infallible, though, with issues like fungus and fading an issue.

(I uploaded all my photos to the web in one step image by Daniel Oines, CC2.0)

Digital photography, on the other hand, demands a slightly different mindset. It makes us change how and where we store our visual memories. Arguably, the most important images that photographers are making today are stored on hard disks, memory cards, USB sticks, NAS units and online sharing services like Facebook.

But what would happen if something suddenly rendered all these images obsolete? The age-old question of "What would you save first if your house was burning down?" doesn't really extend to non-physical formats like digital images and video. What does the 21st century family save in this situation?

Though the humble JPEG format has been around since the early 1990s, many other image and file formats have fallen by the wayside. That's not even taking into consideration the demise of physical formats that hold these files, including floppy discs, optical discs and the fallibility of media we use today like the humble CD or DVD.

Digital obsolescence

Photographers who shoot in RAW, an image format that stores all the data that the camera's sensor sees, face a growing issue in regards to maintaining their digital files. As each manufacturer uses a different format to encode RAW images, future iterations of photo editing programs may not be able to read them.

Digital Memory

(Credit: Craig Simms/CBSi)

Open source provides one solution, as formats such as Adobe DNG (digital negative) are able to be read by a wide range of programs. Even so, the process of constantly re-saving photographs from one format to another is arduous and may be beyond the reach of the home photographer. A select few digital SLRs can save images in the DNG format, but it's far from widespread in the industry. Often, it's not until someone tries to access an old file unsuccessfully that the issue of digital obsolescence rears its head.

Peter Shaw, manager of National Preservation Digitisation Projects, at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra, faces similar issues on a much larger scale. "Original photographic materials are stored in conditioned environments that ideally provide low temperature and relative humidity to extend their useful life for the long term," Shaw said. "In the past there were limited programs to create preservation and access photographic duplicates."

Since beginning the digitisation of photographic records in 2003, the Archives has also had various practices in place to help preserve digital photos as effectively as possible. Firstly, when digitising the original image, a master TIFF file is created which can be used to reproduce an 8x10-inch image at 400dpi. Two smaller JPEG files are then created for web viewing.

House of Osti
House of Osti and Prue Acton fashions, 1975, an example of one of millions of images stored at the National Archives of Australia. (Credit: National Archives of Australia)

As for native digital images, they are stored in a digital archive using custom open-source software to manage and track the life cycle of the files.

This makes perfect sense when keeping track of a collection as extensive and as important to the national interest as that housed at the National Archives, but what about everyday photographers and families?

(Top image credit: Photo Prints at SFAI by Paul Schultz, CC2.0)

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To print or not to print

Printing was the obvious solution in the days before digital photography. Having the ability to produce copies from negatives was the de facto way of sharing, displaying and storing images.

A recent study by InfoTrends revealed that 37 per cent of respondents would chose CD or DVD to pass on digital photos to their children, 16 per cent favoured an external hard drive and an even smaller 10 per cent chose web albums. Printing photos didn't even rate a mention.

prints
Printing photos is an unpopular way of preserving digital memories. (Photos image by Ana Labate, royalty free)

According to Rishi Ghai, senior program manager, Asia/Pacific Peripherals Research at IDC, the issue is a lot more complex than people shunning physical prints and extends to how we think about backing up our data.

"The first level of backup happens pretty much in 100 per cent of cases. Anybody who has a digital camera goes home and downloads their images onto a PC," he said. It's the second layer of backup, where you are making copies of images onto a second device, that many home users don't think about.

"In some cases if they have a hard disk and are savvy enough they might back that information up as well. But it is common to leave images on PC you use every day and hope that hard disk doesn't crash," he said.

"One of the primary reasons why home users print photos is either to share them or for personal archival purposes. If your focus is on sharing photos then it's probably just easier for you to upload onto Facebook or Flickr ... the flexibility that online sharing gives far exceeds the flexibility that a printed photo has. That said, there is a market out there for having good quality printed photos that you want to display in your home. Even that to a certain extent is being almost cannibalised by digital display systems. So even for the home user, the number of options available for displaying pictures is moving beyond print, so that is a bit of a challenge."

Photo calendars
Photo calendars could be one way to make printing photos appeal once more to consumers. (Credit: Big W)

Not only is printing a physical photo costly if you are investing in a printer and ink system at home, it can also be expensive in the time you need to dedicate to a physical collection. "Managing what you have printed may be an issue later on," Ghai said. "Unless you have a very organised library of printed photos it's not very easy to sort and maintain the archive you have."

Ghai suggests there is plenty of market potential in creative photo merchandising, or printing images in a range of formats like t-shirts, calendars and photo books. "Those are perhaps the emerging areas that are more aligned to converting your digital print into something more physical," he said.

The cloud method

Talking about "the cloud" has become ubiquitous when discussing methods of photo storage. It's now pretty much second nature to anyone who uploads their memories to sites like Flickr, Facebook or Google+ even if the term "cloud" is never mentioned. Persistence is the big issue here, as there's no longevity guarantee, and even sites like Flickr have fallen foul of photographers, deleting images in one fell swoop.

Apart from the obvious social examples and applications like Apple's Photo Stream, which syncs photos across a range of devices, there are some other sites making inroads into online photo preservation.

1000memories is one site that comes with an interesting claim, saying it will store your photos forever. Not just forever in terms of how long its servers last, either. Given the site's partnership with the Internet Archive this claim seems to hold a little more credence.

1000memories
1000memories claims it will store all the photos you can throw at it. Forever. (Screenshot by CBSi)

1000memories works a little differently to traditional photo storage services that just hold images in a range of folders. Initially, the service was meant to act as an online memorial for people who had passed away, but it is morphing into a site that can tell much more current stories. Memory Pages are a collection of photos and videos that tell the story of a person, and can also be linked to a Family Tree containing pages from friends and relatives. It's a bit like an online genealogy service mixed with persistent photo storage.

For a basic user, 1000memories offers the ability to store documents, video, photos and audio clips in a repository called "the shoebox". There is no limit to the total size of this shoebox, though no individual file can exceed 1GB.

Chronicle of Life offers something similar as a trustworthy digital repository for visual memories. It's also free to sign up for, and offers file redundancy as well as automatic migration of obsolete file formats into new ones. The catch is adding data: each MB of storage costs US$1, which could become a very expensive proposition when considering the photos from an average family holiday can add up to several gigabytes.

Curation

These photo storage services, while guaranteeing data persistence online, aren't as cost-effective as a couple of external hard drives or a NAS unit for data redundancy. The best way to use them is to effectively curate a set of images that you want preserved over all others — those images from pivotal moments such as weddings and birthdays.

Memory Vault
Could you condense your life in 8GB? (Credit: CBSi)

Curating your digital photo collection is a little bit like recalling memories: you use one select piece of information to recall another memory. In the same way, one of these important, curated photos can be used to trigger a memory of additional images stored elsewhere.

Physical media companies like SanDisk are also getting in on the business of digital memories, marketing devices such as the Memory Vault to users wanting to preserve a set of images for future generations (up to 100 years). Again, given the reasonably limited capacity of 8 or 16GB, anyone who invests in a device such as this does need to spend the time curating appropriate images for preservation.

As with most things, the key to preserving digital memories is never straightforward. A combination of backing up photos and video to hard disks, storing selected files online and printing the most cherished images is one way to ensure that memories are preserved long after they are created. Take once, store many.

 

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