Sunday, 10 August 2008

Digital as an Historical Record

A friend was recently given a suitcase full (literally) of old letters, photos, and medium format negatives that had belonged to a great uncle from the 1920's. They eventually found their way to my friends mother who didn't know what to do with them, and was about to throw them out. Fortunately, Jackie salvaged them, and contacted me wanting to know what she should now do with all these images.

It's still a fairly common scenario, but it got me thinking. How common will it still be in 100 years from now? Will a great nephew of mine inherit a suitcase full of my digital images archived on DVD? And if they do, will they know what to do with them? Will they be able to open them and view them? Will they still be readable, or will adverse storage conditions have destroyed them beyond saving?

I don't know about you, but I find these pretty important questions. Trouble is, I'm not sure I've got very satisfactory answers.

Do you back up all of your digital files? I hope so. But if you do, exactly how should you do it to be as 'future' safe as possible? Is backing up to DVD enough? Should you also back up your important files on an external hard drive? Is just one back up enough - or should you keep another copy at another location in case anything happens to your first back up? And what about hard copies of all your best images - don't forget to print them out.

Printing as we know it today throws up another bunch of issues though - issues that a lot of photographers aren't even aware of. How are most digital images printed at home? No prize for guessing that it's done on an inkjet printer. Best case scenario on how long those prints will last? How's a couple of years - if you're lucky!

Inkjet printers use 'ink' based dyes for printing (duh) - trouble is, these dyes aren't very stable over time, and start to break down (very quickly) when exposed to even moderate levels of UV (sunlight). They just won't last.

Manufacturers such as Epson, Canon and HP are combating this by bringing out new ranges of inks that have their 'molecular structure' fortified to give a longer-lasting print, especially if used in conjunction with their own photo papers that also have better structural properties for holding and retaining the ink. But at best you're still talking about maybe 20 to 25 years with a print that is kept in an album - out of direct sunlight.

If you are looking for 'archival' quality prints that will last 100+ years, then your only option at the moment is to go with a 'pigment' based printer. Not surprisingly, these are much more expensive than their inkjet cousins, but you definitely get what you pay for in terms of permanence of the final print.

Pigment based printers use a pigment similar to paint, and not the traditional dye based inks. They are far more impervious to UV light (just as is normal paint), but again care must be taken when exposing them to direct sunlight. NO artwork should be placed in direct sunlight - full stop! Why do you think all those art museums and gallery's are fairly low-lit, temperature controlled vaults? It isn't for their visitors comfort - trust me.

So how do I archive my precious images. Am I any better at this than you? Probably not. At the moment I back-up my own work 'reasonably' regularly onto DVD, and external hard drive. Both of these copies are kept at my home. Not good enough. I should really make two DVD back ups (at least) and keep one off site. That is what I do for my design work, and it's what I should do with my own images. And it's what you should be doing too.

As for future proofing, well, it's crystal ball gazing stuff - but that doesn't mean we shouldn't at least be thinking about it. What we 'can' say for sure, is that DVD will be replaced by 'something else' in the future, and we will then all have to migrate to the new format. But what will that mean for all of our files saved on DVD?

I'm optimistic enough to think that, just like I can with the suitcase full of negatives today, someone will be able to open - and then convert - my 'digital negatives' in the distant future. Will my optimism be rewarded 100 years from now? Only time will tell.

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