Well, the short answer is that I would wave you off of CDs right away. For something that important, I think other solutions are called for.
As I’ve discussed before, the continual progress of storage technologies is an ongoing issue. What we choose today might not be appropriate in a few years or a few decades.
Rather than tell you what you should do, let me tell you what I do in case my photographs are ever of interest to future generations.
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I used to use CDs
Lest you think using CDs was always a problem, I can assure you it wasn’t. In fact, for years it really was the storage medium of choice for all kinds of digital archives, photographs the most common.
CDs are what I used. In fact, I have a large storage bin in my basement full of CDs and a few DVDs onto which I burned backups of images, files, machines and all manner of other digital data that I cared about.
As I said, at the time, it was the long term, offline storage medium of choice.
In recent years, I’ve begun to migrate all of my backups and images to hard drives of various flavors.
My general recommendation is that you:
- Copy all of your images to a USB external hard drive.
- Copy all of them again to another drive as backup.
The reason I specify a USB external hard drive is that I believe the USB interface will be with us for a long time. The drive you have inside the external box may be an old drive that will some day no longer be supported (as is now often the case with IDE drives), but the USB interface hides all that. Yes, someday USB will also be obsolete, but it’s the approach with the longest lasting future that I can see.
And of course, I recommend copying to a second drive as a backup. If there’s only one copy, then it’s not backed up. If that first drive ever dies unexpectedly, you want there to be a backup copy that you can then replicate.
All of my new photographs go immediately to a hard drive on one of my computers. From there they also get automatically backed up to another hard drive on another computer.
However I still have all those old CDs. CDs that, in some cases, are upwards of 20 years old. I’m in the process of copying those to hard drives as well. As we’ve seen, machines are coming without optical drives these days. We also now know that CDs and DVDs have a limited shelf-life.
I recommend migrating everything stored on CDs or DVDs to a hard drive-based solution before the optical discs are no longer readable. I’ve been lucky – so far the only issues I’ve had are with 10 year old DVD-RAM discs. Those 20 year old burned CD-Rs, even though discolored, have been reading just fine.
One of the important additional things to consider when capturing or archiving any digital data is file format. Will the file format you save as today be something that is reasonably easy for future generations to decode and view?
When it comes to most pictures I recommend the following:
- When scanning, scan at a higher resolution than you need today. You can always create lower resolution versions from higher, but not the other way around.
- Always save the highest resolution un-edited original photo. You can’t re-create the original from a photograph that’s been cropped or otherwise altered.
- Save in .jpg format, with the highest quality setting.
Much like the USB interface, I think that .jpg is going to be around for a long time – perhaps someday not as a photograph creation format, but I’m convinced that .jpg images will be viewable for decades, if not hundreds of years from now.
Now, here I violate one of my own rules: I save all of my photos taken with my Nikon camera in .nef format. This format, often called “camera raw” actually includes more information about the image than does .jpg. The problem is that this information is often camera-specific, or at least manufacturer specific. Here I’m placing a bet that Nikon, or software that can read Nikon formats, will be around long enough.
One more word about backing up
One of the things I realized when I took a multi-week trip some years ago is that next to my life and the experiences I would have on the trip, the only truly irreplaceable items with me would be the photographs I took. As a result I took extra steps to make sure that they were backed up in case of both digital failure (like a hard drive failure) or loss. In addition to copying them to a USB drive that accompanied me on the trip (which traveled separately from my computer – for safety), I also mailed flash memory cards with photos back home periodically.
That extra level of caution when it comes to irreplaceable photographs has me taking an extra step as well: I back them all up to the cloud.
In my case, I go all geeky and have a batch file that once a week updates a copy of my entire digital photo collection stored on Amazon’s S3 data storage service. It could just as easily be stored elsewhere, however, using any of a variety of online backup and storage services.
And that’s what I also recommend you seriously consider.
It could be as simple as uploading everything to Dropbox, or Flickr, or Picasa, or it could involve using a specific cloud backup service. But the important thing to consider is the value of those photographs – even if only to you – and whether or not an additional backup copy stored off-site, in the cloud, is an extra layer of safety you want to invest in.
Obviously, for me, the answer was clear.