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Friday, February 27, 2009

Misinformation: Archival Tech

Digital archaeologists may someday need a Rosetta Stone to decipher image files


This Article Features Photo Zoom

misinformationBackup strategies are a well-covered topic, and for good reason. From floods to fires to file corruption, there are innumerable ways that a digital file can be destroyed. Thanks to the ease of duplicating dig-ital images, however, circumventing these problems is often as easy as pushing a button. So your images are safe, as long as you use a variety of methods for backing them up, right?

Not quite. Digital is evolving so quickly that, in the period of a single decade, file formats can, and have, become completely unreadable. The variety of proprietary image formats and file types in the market provides a challenge not only due to the relative obscurity that extends from so many manufacturers with so many exponential products, but also because of the difficulty of designing programs that are able to continually support such a diverse gamut of files.

This is a problem particularly notable in the image industry because of the flood of differing RAW files available. For users of market leaders like Canon and Nikon, the problem is less worrisome, but it still exists. Both companies have an obvious interest in supporting their formats for years to come, but each company also has more than one RAW format itself, as do Panasonic, Pentax, Sony and others. These are problems for software companies in the short run. They become still greater problems for photographers in the long run when there’s no incentive for software makers to maintain support of archaic image types that often will exist only as backups.
Myth: Backed-Up Images Are Safe
Adobe has offered a solution to this looming problem in the form of its DNG format. By performing a RAW file conversion to DNG, files retain the flexibility of RAW, as well as the longevity of a long-lasting universal file type. The benefits for this to Adobe are twofold. For one, it limits the amount of file types that they need to support in the future, an advantage that’s then shared by other software manufacturers. Secondly, Adobe is able to supply less ubiquitous camera manufacturers with an available, premade RAW format so they don’t have to develop their own. There are already a variety of D-SLRs on the market that offer initial DNG capture, including offerings from Hasselblad, Leica, Pentax, Samsung, Sinar and others.

If not converting to DNG, it’s a good idea to back up files to some other format that will be easily readable in the future. Capacity is cheap these days, and an extra duplicate is never a bad thing. Lossless TIFF is an obvious solution, and for absolute safety, a physical medium also is a good backup, such as a print. It’s even possible to convert a digital file to film, which can last many years if stored properly.

No one knows with any degree of certainty what may be coming down the road. So while many photographers may not be worrying too much about this situation right now, the hope of us all is that our images will last beyond us. Even digital prints fade, yet, shockingly, an overwhelming majority of analog prints and negatives haven’t been preserved digitally. What this means to photographers is that our work and memories are literally fading away. While digital files don’t fade, without proper attention, they might just disappear.

 

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