Plugged In: Don’t let photo storage fade away

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Data obsolescence and security has been a concern since the beginning of the digital era 50 years ago. It will be a serious concern throughout the foreseeable future, and anyone storing business or other critical data on a computer system for any length of time should be concerned about retaining long-term data usability.

Even NASA, literally home base for U.S. rocket scientists, continues to be troubled by rapid digital change, experiencing severe backward compatibility problems when attempting to compare current planetary probe data with 1970s baseline data. Even when it’s possible to translate those old data formats into something modern and directly usable, the unavailability of older hardware requires the one-off modification of more recent tape drives to mount those old tapes and read that old data. It’s not always entirely successful, nor affordable.

What does this have to do with photography? Quite a bit, in fact, as highlighted by Adobe’s withdrawal of all future versions of Photoshop CS to an Internet-based system that requires monthly payment in order to remain activated. If your monthly payments cease, so does your access to Photoshop and to any photos that you happen to have stored on Adobe’s Internet cloud. This isn’t a trivial problem.

If you’re willing to make a little effort every few years, though, avoiding data obsolescence is not technically difficult. We’ll suggest some common-sense approaches that you can take now to ensure that your grandchildren and future historians will be able to view your photos.

Adobe’s recent announcement stated that mandatory monthly fees will apply to all versions of PhotoShop introduced after the current version CS 6. You will also need periodic connection to Adobe’s Internet site to keep your activation current, even if your account is paid current. That’s actually not entirely new — current versions of Photoshop require reactivation and re-registration via the Internet if they haven’t been used for a while.

Future versions of the program will continue to be installed and updated on your own computer, but Photoshop won’t run unless it remains activated.

Adobe’s stated first-year price for current PhotoShop users is $10 per month, which is fairly reasonable, particularly given that Adobe will update your software on a regular basis. Projected costs for first-time Photoshop licensees will be higher, and there’s no guarantee that prices in future years won’t increase to whatever the market will bear. That’s the free market, I suppose, but it does illustrate the potential danger of monopolies.

Adobe promises that DNG Converter, Photoshop Elements and Lightroom will be updated with new cameras, new RAW formats, and newer versions of DNG for the foreseeable future without forcing users to have a paid Internet subscription. However, much of Adobe’s newer technology will be available solely to paid Internet Photoshop subscribers, rather than traditional, single-payment customers.

Even if Lightroom, Photoshop Elements and DNG Converter are regularly updated, you never know when a company may change its policy once it becomes addicted to those forced monthly fees. It just happened with Photoshop with only a month’s warning, and certainly can happen to Adobe’s other products, as well. I saw something similar occur in the legal research market several years ago, when technically better CD-based legal research costs started doubling every year for the same product once the supplier decided to force its users to a monthly fee-based Internet service that I found less useful.

Adobe’s current approach does not force you to store your photos in their Internet cloud but you’re certainly encouraged to do so. However, Adobe recently admitted that it had not yet devised a method to allow users to retrieve their photos stored in Adobe’s “Creative Cloud” if a user chose to discontinue monthly payments. That’s not a minor oversight.

Future Photoshop-specific file formats may not be backward compatible to existing versions of Photoshop. That means that the careful work that you’ve done using intricately layered TIFF, Photoshop “Smart Object,” and Photoshop PSD format files is particularly at risk from forced data obsolescence if you choose to leave Adobe’s “Creative Cloud” for another software vendor. Other vendors will likely jump in, but ensuring compatibility and interoperability between non-Adobe programs and existing photo files, especially the RAW format, PSD and layered TIFF files favored by more experienced users, might be a major problem.

There’s also no doubt that “cloud storage” is more fragile and less reliable in the long-term compared to directly storing, backing up and controlling your own data, including photographs. When your business data, family memories and artistic efforts are all stored somewhere “in the cloud,” you have no control over what’s done with your data, how it’s protected, and whether it’s safe, retrievable and usable over the long term.

The past few years have seen all too many Internet data storage ventures going out of business, sometimes without any warning at all, and usually without adequate opportunity to retrieve your data, assuming that it’s stored in a digital format that’s readily usable anywhere else.

Even when there’s some warning that a “cloud” vendor will be shutting down and erasing your photos and other data, have you considered how long it takes to copy a terabyte of data over the Internet to a local hard disk, assuming that you have an adequate hard disk handy and really fast Internet speed? What about that soon-to-be-extinct Internet system slowing to a crawl as more savvy users rush to withdraw their data before it’s too late? It’s sort of like a run on a failing bank or stock brokerage.

So, what’s the best approach for the average photographer? JPEG, and to a somewhat lesser extent, single-layer TIFF files, are more or less standardized file formats with internationally accepted definitions. That means they’re likely to be supported by most other photo software into the foreseeable future.

DNG also is an open-source standard RAW file format. So far, though, it’s not been as widely accepted, nor as well-supported by camera makers and software vendors. Some cameras, including those made by Pentax and Leica, allow you to save your RAW format images directly in DNG format. If you have a choice, set your camera to save RAW files in DNG format rather than the camera maker’s proprietary RAW format.

Bulk-convert all of your photo files to standard file formats, preferably several different file formats, while you can. If you have layered TIFF or PSD format files, make sure that you’ve made all desired corrections and then save them to a different location as flattened single-layer TIFF format files.

I suggest converting and saving all photo files to several different file formats because we don’t know what data formats will survive over the long haul. If you gamble on a single file format and bet wrong, then there’s a good chance that your grandchildren will not be looking at photos of you in 40 years and marveling how out-of-date everything looks.

If you are an Adobe Lightroom user, you can easily bulk-convert and save every file in a catalogue to an external hard disk in DNG, super-fine JPEG and flattened, single-layer TIFF formats, all of which are among the most likely file formats usable 20 or 30 years down the road. This may take a day or so of unattended computer data crunching if you have a lot of photos, but it’s worth the relatively minor effort and cost. You can also bulk-convert nearly all RAW file formats using DNG Converter, a free stand-alone Adobe program that converts older RAW and DNG format files to the most current DNG formats.

Unfortunately, because most camera makers don’t use a standardized, nonproprietary RAW format like DNG, proprietary RAW formats will be a major cause of future inability to use RAW files from newer cameras with current and older single-payment versions of PhotoShop and other photo programs.

The lack of any sort of RAW file format standardization is likely a holdover from the early days of digital photography but has no good current rationale. DNG is Adobe’s attempt to devise a publicly available, free file format for digital photographs, rather as PDF files are to documents that virtually anyone can open from nearly any computer in the world. It’s the most likely RAW format that will continue to be directly usable in the future.

Although the DNG RAW file format has not caught on to the same extent as PDF formats have for document imaging, at least DNG is not a proprietary secondary format like PSD (PhotoShop Document), which will likely disappear if Adobe does. Neither Adobe nor any other business is likely to last indefinitely, so if you’re interested in the long-term usability of your image files, then it makes sense to use publicly supported open photo file formats rather than proprietary ones. Don’t forget that Kodak, now selling itself off in bits and pieces, was a bedrock of the Dow Jones Industrial Average not too many years ago.

Save your bulk-converted photo files to external hard disks, preferably making at least two copies of that photo archive hard disk. External SATA hard disks used with a USB 3 hard disk dock are really easy to install and use, while having the virtues of being universally compatible, inexpensive and likely to be supported for the foreseeable future.

If your computer and hard disk dock both support the eSATA method of attaching an external hard disk, then use it. It’s much faster than USB. I’ve found that eSATA devices can usually transfer a few hundred gigabytes per hour. The Thermaltake BlackX docks seem to be the most reliable and among the least expensive external USB/eSATA external docks.

Store at least two verified backups of these archival hard disks in different physical locations to avoid loss in the event of theft, fire or other casualty loss. Don’t skimp on buying good hard disks — they’re less expensive than even a single, modestly priced lens, and more critical in the long term. It would be a shame if your family’s photo memories, and perhaps your portfolio of high-quality images, is lost due to digital obsolescence or hardware failure.

Using these external hard disks is also the best current way to back up other personal and business data. Don’t forget your smartphone data, either. It’s even more fragile and ephemeral than regular computer-based data.

Oh, and remember that this isn’t a one-time project. You’ll need to bulk-convert your photo and data files every few years to ensure that you’re within the window of hardware- and software-backward compatibility. I assume that your business and personal data, not to mention your photos, are worth this much effort every few years.

Attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

1 Comment

Filed under photography, Plugged in

One response to “Plugged In: Don’t let photo storage fade away

  1. Thanks to Joe Kashi. I didn’t realize my thousands of photos are in possible peril.

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