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Vivid Light Photography, digital and film photography online
Digital's Dirty Little Secret?
by Jim McGee

Whether you're using a pocket digital for family photos 
or you're a working pro with a D1X you need 
to read this article.

You've been a boy scout. You saw the potential of pro-level Digital photography early. You retired your film cameras when the D1 & D30 hit the market and after they gathered dust for a year or so you finally sold them through the classifieds in Vivid Light (OK, so we're shameless). 

It's now 2007. Since switching to digital you've upgraded your PC every 18 months to keep up with the latest technology. Two computers ago you started burning all of your images to DVD instead of CD-R because DVD holds so much more data. You're such a boy scout that you even burn two copies of every disk and keep them in different locations - just in case. These are your images after all!

Your email software bongs over the music rolling out of the standard 12 speaker surround sound that came with your latest 33 giga hertz computer. It's your best client. They want to reuse some shots you took for them way back in 2002. Can you have them there by Friday? "No problem" you reply. 10 minutes later you've retrieved the appropriate CD-R from your file cabinet and loaded it into the drive. You're smart enough not to keep images on your hard drive since the latest version of Windows still has to be completely re-loaded every time it catches a cold. 

To your horror you see the message "Drive not available - OK - RETRY". After reloading the disk for the 10th time you give up and drive home to get the backup disk. It won't load either. For exactly 27 minutes you listen to really bad pop music while on hold for tech support (some things never change). Then a snotty little techie explains ever so patiently (since he feels all non-techies are idiots) that of course you can't read the CD-R. DVD drives haven't been able to read CD-R disks for at least the last 18 months! Don't you even READ computer magazines for God's sake?

So after carefully creating all those images, and carefully backing them up to media that will be readable for the next 50 years. You suddenly find that you can't even buy a computer to read the disks! Your images are lost! Worse you've royally ticked off your largest client who has absolutely no interest in hearing why you can't produce the images. 

That's not the worst. It slowly dawns on you that every image you've shot for the last five years is at risk! Another sickening thought hits you. All the photos of your daughters first few years are on those disks too!

Forlornly you look at the file cabinet in the corner. It's full of slides. All the work you did before going digital. What a cruel irony that all of that work is still easily accessible...

A Little History
This scenario is more likely than you might think. 

Those of us who have designed and worked with computers for most of our adult life realize that obsolescence is an immutable fact of technology. I know of one huge computer manufacturer who still makes a line of computers whose sole purpose is to emulate the dinosaur mainframes they built in the 60's and 70's.

Why? So banks and financial institutions can continue to run software that they've invested hundreds of thousands of man hours into developing and debugging. The problem they face is that the computers their software was developed to run on can no longer be kept running. 

For personal computer users, examples hit closer to home. Anyone using PCs for more than a couple of years saved data onto 5 1/4 inch disks. Lets say you suddenly found a need for an MS Word document on one of those disks so you go up into the attic or down into the basement and find the disk. How are you going to read it? 

Take a look at your computer. There are no 5 1/4 inch disks anymore. Can you buy a 5 1/4 inch disk drive at the computer store and have it installed in your machine? Maybe. But if you can, will it work? Getting old technology to work in new computers can be a horribly frustrating experience.

To find out if it was even an option I decided to check out the web site for CompUSA, probably the largest consumer computer retailer in the U.S. Their site lists 200 upgrade items that are available for PCs. 5 1/4 inch floppy drives aren't available. A search for anything to do with floppy drives turned up 23 items. None of which were 5 1/4 inch drives. It wasn't that long ago that 5 1/4 inch floppies were as common around the office as pens and paper clips.

Lets say you really need that file. You keep digging and finally find a service that can read that old disk and copy the file onto a new disk for you. Will MS Word really be able to read the old file? Microsoft says yes. I've learned to be a skeptic until I see it work. Especially if the file contains any special formatting or anything other than plain text.

Do I sound like a cynic? I went through some boxes in the attic and found a lot of media I couldn't read anymore. A mag tape whose format is no longer supported. A hard drive used to take computer code from project to project when floppies only held 360k. That hard drive type hasn't been supported in at least 10 years. The 360k floppy. The last PCs that could read them ran at 16mHz. What about that 10 inch floppy (pictured above)? I've got a better chance of becoming a Rockette and dancing at Radio City Music Hall than of  finding somebody who can read that disk. Both the computer system and the drives used to create it went in the trash at least 15 years ago.

Right about now you're thinking one of two things:

1 - There are so many CDs out there they can't become obsolete.

2 - Music is made on CDs so DVD drives will always support CD-Rs.

You're wrong on both counts. True there are a lot of data CDs out there. There were also a lot of floppy disks and a lot of 8-track tapes out there. How easy is it to listen to an 8-track these days? And I ask you again, find me a computer that will read an old first generation, 360k, 5 1/4 inch floppy.

You'd be right to say that DVDs will likely continue to support music CDs. But music CDs are a different format from Data CDs. Drive makers have to devote engineering time and money to develop each function in their drive. If music CDs aren't pushed out by music DVDs, then drive makers will spend the money to support them. But data CD-Rs will be forced out by data DVDs. That means drive makers will support them for a while during the transition. But they'll only support them as long as they think they have to, and as their popularity wanes less and less development time will be spent ensuring compatibility. That means some disks will be readable and some won't.

You only have to look a couple of years back for the proof. When 1.2MB 5 1/4 inch drives replaced 360k 5 1/4 inch drives, new drives supported the old format for a short time. Then you started having problems reading those disks on the new drives. Even when manufacturers claimed support they didn't always work. Shortly thereafter new drives didn't support the old format at all.  

Digital's dirty little secret is obsolesce and cost. 

The advertising agencies lied to you. Are you surprised? 

There's no free ride. The pundits missed the obvious. Are you still surprised?

The big plug for digital has been cost savings. 

"Of course $4,000 for a digital camera and $25,000 dollars for a digital camera back sound like a lot of money. But look at the cost savings in film and processing and you'll see that in the long run the digital system more than pays for itself." 

The truth is the cost savings take place in the short run. The long run is over the next ten to fifteen years and involves the storage and retrieval of those images. CD-RW and CD-R disks are used by many photographers for the cataloging and backup of their digital images. CD-RW disks have a projected life of around 5 years, Some CD-R disks claim that your data is safe for up to 50 years.

The problem is these formats will eventually become obsolete. Before they do you'll have to come up with a way to transfer all of that data to a new format. That may be DVD or some other format that we don't know about yet. But what we do know is if you have a large number of archival disks it will take a lot of time and labor to transfer the images. Time and labor means money. If you plan on keeping those images for a long period of time you can count on performing this process several times. Suddenly digital doesn't look so cheap - or easy.

For the Average Person
When my Aunt passed away last year at 72, I found old photo albums in her basement. Those albums contained photos of her mother's contemporaries in the 1920's. Almost every family has albums and shoeboxes full of family photos. Some have faded a bit with age and some look as good as new. What will the shoeboxes look like ten or even twenty years from now if the "experts" are right and digital replaces film?

Statistics show the majority of digital photos are saved to a disk or hard drive somewhere and are never printed. After a couple of years the computer will be discarded and the owner may not even realize that the photos are still on the hard drive until after it's broken or gone.

The weird irony is that fifteen years from now the grandparent of the early 21st century may find themselves in the same position as the grandparent of the early 20th century where the images they have of their grown children are only in their memories.

A Workable Solution for Pros
Can you say big hard drive? Can you say second hard drive? Those of us who use our computers heavily, especially those of us who've loaded a lot of software and peripherals have experienced weird Windows quirks. And a lot of us have experienced that dreaded Tech Support call where we're told the only way to fix our computer is to start over and reinstall EVERYTHING. Live through this once or twice and it's tempting to keep all you archived images on CD.

If you're a working pro there's a better solution. Today hard drives are relatively cheap. Get a second big drive installed in your computer (PC or Mac) and keep your database of images on that drive. That drive is then isolated from operating system glitches and reloads. Next get yourself a USB or FireWire external drive. This allows you to hang an external backup drive off your system. Since its a high speed drive connection, its easy to back up on a regular basis, or you can even set up your system to back up automatically (backup software us often bundled with these drives). 

If you're worried about offsite backups you can even get another of these drives, back-up on a regular basis and keep the drive in your home or in some other location outside your office. Yes this is costly but the $100 or $200 for the drive is nothing compared to a professional photographers investment in camera equipment. 

Now when you buy a new computer you can just move the external drive to the new system and blast your database of images onto that system's drive. Just keep an eye on new standards for external drives. USB has been the standard for the last couple of years and most systems today include a USB port. But USB is slowly being replaced by FireWire. In the not to distant future machines may not be available with USB anymore.

The Bottom Line
Despite what the advertising agencies and some magazine editors may tell you, there is no free lunch. I'm not recommending against digital photography. Far from it. I'm captivated by what you can do with digital. But just as when weighing 35mm against medium format you should know the real pros and cons of film vs. digital when deciding on what format to shoot. 

Especially when it's your precious images that will be at stake.  

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