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Photographers ask camera makers to open up

It's time for Nikon, Canon, others to unlock their file formats, photographers say. At stake: the future of the world's image libraries.

A new organization of digital photographers is hoping to convince camera makers to unlock their proprietary file formats.

The OpenRAW Working Group on Monday called on camera makers to open up the tightly guarded RAW formats prized by serious photographers. Lower-quality JPEG shots already are recorded in an open, standard format.

At the moment, Canon, Nikon, Sony and many other manufacturers permit their customers to save uncompressed photographs only in custom, undocumented formats that have begun to worry digital photographers.

In a few years, camera makers may stop supporting RAW formats used by older models--potentially rendering vast image libraries unreadable. Canon already has announced that images taken with its discontinued EOS D30 camera can't be opened in its latest editing utility.

"What happened to the world of photography, that a camera just five years old becomes obsolete?" German photographer Juergen Specht asked in a post on the OpenRAW site. "Three-and-a-half years ago, a photographer named Bill Biggart died under an avalanche of falling debris as two jetliners plowed into the towers of the World Trade Center. His pictures, taken with a Canon D30 survived. This camera saw history. Now it's obsolete."

Nikon would not comment, and Canon could not immediately be reached on Monday for a response.

A number of third-party developers have been painstakingly reverse-engineering proprietary RAW formats, but the lack of a standard way to open the files has caused uncertainty about what might happen in the future. It also means that, instead of adding new features to software, programmers are forced to spend their time on reverse-engineering new RAW formats.

Adobe Systems is trying to gain support for an alternative approach it calls the Digital Negative format. It's based on the TIFF 6.0 format and is extensively documented.

Nikon said in a statement that it "makes available a software developer kit that, when implemented appropriately, enables a wide range of NEF (Nikon Electronic Format) performance, including white balance, for Nikon photographers and their productive use of the NEF file...Nikon continues to welcome dialog with bona fide software developers." NEF is Nikon's term for RAW files.