The beautiful old black and white portraits of generations past are a testament to the fact that while we do not live forever, our memories have every chance of outliving us by many decades. The problem is that in this modern throwaway society we live in, photographs can often be seen as disposable, short term memories.
We take pictures on phones, on tablets as well as on cameras. Images are often scattered across multiple destinations and in multiple formats.
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But how do we go about archiving those images? How can we revisit our photos in later years? To so, we need to have a strategy, we need to ruthlessly edit and carefully choose our backup choices.
1. Be Selective
What percentage of your total image collection would you consider as precious? For most of us, it’s probably quite a low percentage. It will almost certainly include your very best shots, landscapes, portraits whatever your genre is. But it should also include those snapshots, family moments that have no compositional value but are hugely personal to you.
To this end, you should go through all your images across multiple devices and copy (not move) all the most important images into one location for further editing. Don’t be afraid to select more than you intended, you can always edit down further once you have moved the images across.
2. Catalogue The Selected Images.
If you have a well-organised collection then this stage will probably be fairly easy. If however, you are collecting together images from various devices, you may well need to do some cataloguing. Because this is designed to be an archive, the best option is going to be a chronological and location-based catalogue.
Personally, I arrange all my images into the year, month date/location as a matter of course. This makes archiving selected images easier.
It's well worth adding some keywords and captions to the images to make them easier to find in the future. You don’t need to add tens of keywords just some pertinent ones, especially with images of family events. Make sure you also keep any of the metadata that the camera wrote to the image. This is also very useful for searching images later down the line.
3. Which Format Do I Use For My Archive?
There is an endless debate about which file format in which to archive your images. There is the argument that file formats will change and become obsolete over time. This is undoubtedly true, however, there will always be software around that can update older formats to newer ones.
The key question when deciding on a format is more likely to be size related rather than it’s readability in the future. Probably the most future-proof and size conservative format is the JPEG file. If you have a large archive of already edited images then JPEG may well be the best format.
If you are looking for the very best quality at the sacrifice of disk space, then TIFF may be the next best option.
Another option worth considering if you wish to archive RAW files is Adobe DNG. You can easily convert most proprietary RAW files to DNG and if in the future Adobe is no longer around, it's fairly likely that you will still be able to read DNG files and convert them to a newer format.
4. Archival Storage Media.
This is perhaps the trickiest aspect of archiving your collection. What type of media should you use to store your images? There is a strong argument for archiving to optical disk such as DVDs. However, given the relatively limited storage size plus the declining use of optical disk players, this may not be a good solution.
In 10-20 years, it may well be very difficult to get even secondhand optical disk players, in working order.
The primary choice still has to be external hard drives for the moment. These offer the largest storage space with the best reliability and price. Of course, as these are electro-mechanical devices they are still prone to failure and so redundancy is an absolute requirement.
It is worth backing up your collection at least twice and if your budget allows three times. The second backup could be a secondary set of external hard drives, internal 3.5” drives or even in the cloud.
Cloud storage needs careful consideration as you need to be sure that the company you back up with not only has excellent security and fail-safe features but also is going to still be around in 10 years or more. Smaller cloud companies are going to be a higher risk than businesses like Amazon or Backblaze.
The key to selecting media is understanding that no format is going to be around forever. Who uses floppy disks anymore? Remember Zip drives? As technology moves on, keep abreast of it and be prepared to move your archive across to the newer technologies.
At the moment, for example, SSD drives are not recommended for archiving but as technology moves on, they may well become more suitable. You can keep your older drives as a form of redundancy but make sure you always have at least two copies of your archive on more contemporary hardware.
Photographs are not only a wonderful way to bring our memories back to life, but also for future generations to see how we once lived. You might think that images of your local town, for example, have no real use to anyone except you, but to future generations living in that town, they could be utterly fascinating.
We owe it to those future generations to preserve at least some of what we shoot today.
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