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Vivid Light Photography, digital and film photography online
Losing Digital Images to Neglect 
and Foolishness
by Jim McGee

I received an email this week from a reader who'd lost over four years worth of images to a hard drive crash.

Now my first reaction was why hadn't he backed up? I even asked him so in an email.

"I did," he said.

He'd backed up to CDs, albeit not religiously, he still figured he had most of his images. That is until he tried to read them on his new computer. For some unknown reason the new machine wouldn't read his old disks. Not a one.

He was frustrated when he called tech support at the huge PC company who had sold him a new computer. He'd been through four or five calls on the issue, each call more worthless than the previous call. I won't even get into his frustration dealing with language issues and an overseas call center. Such is the state of tech support in the PC industry. He'd written us in desperation after a coworker had recommended our site. Was there anything we could do to help?

I suggested he pull the drive out of his old computer and try installing it into his new computer. Sometimes problem disks can be read on the drive used to create them. Unfortunately the old computer had already gone out in the trash and was long gone. Besides he said, installing a drive was beyond his abilities.

Now before any of you start smirking, take a moment and take inventory of your own families. In general our readers are pretty tech savvy (judging by the questions you ask and the surveys we've done).

That means many of you are the person who gets called when someone in the family is buying a new computer or a digital camera. You're also the person who gets called when something goes wrong with one of those gadgets. As a group we take technology for granted. But if we look at the population as a whole we're the exception not the rule. Marketing folks call us early adopters. To us the idea of not backing up is as alien as neglecting personal hygiene.

But as I've said in these pages in the past I wonder about the security of our digital images five, ten or twenty years from now as more and more people switch to digital photography.

Evidently I'm not the only one. Several people have written about a recent article in another publication discussing the role film has played in the media in recent years. Professional digital photographers are ruthless about discarding images that won't be used for the assignment at hand. They capture so many images that it would take massive hard drives to keep everything. What's interesting is that the incriminating shot of O.J. in his Bruno Magli shoes and the shot of Bill Clinton hugging Monica both came from photographers still shooting film!

In both cases those photographers remembered shots sitting in their slide libraries when the stories broke. Many other photographers may have been kicking themselves as these potentially lucrative images had been deleted from their files.

In another column a historian was quoted as lamenting the fact that today we have images from the Civil war, but 100 years hence we're unlikely to have images from the 1990's. They'll all be lost to due to impermanent storage and an inability to read current technologies 100 years from now.

Truth be told I think our historian friend is a bit off the mark. Our culture is so deluged by images and video that it would be foolish to think that none will survive. But we're sure to lose a lot. 

Lennie Rue was telling me recently that a lot of the wildlife footage he originally shot on Beta is now gone. No one ever told him how short the life would be on those tapes. Some are gone completely. Others now suffer from dropouts to the point where they could never be used commercially. The concept of copying thousands of hours of video is daunting both in terms of dollars and time. Lennie is just one guy. What about the massive tape libraries kept at the networks? 

Another reason we'll lose a lot of images is because the value of the individual image is diminished in a society drowning in visuals. I did a Google image search for the image of Bill hugging Monica. This is an image we were being hammered with just four years ago. At the time the image appeared in virtually every magazine and newspaper. Those publications are now archived on the Web. You would think there would be hundreds of copies of Bill and Monica floating around. It was only four years ago right?


A search only turned up four copies of the image on the Web. Two in the BBC archives, one on a satire site, and one on the Web site for Country Joe and the Fish. Yep the same Country Joe and the Fish that played at Woodstock. It was a doctored image that showed Country Joe next to Monica during "the hug". If this historically significant image has all but disappeared in only four years maybe our historian friend has given us something to think about after all.

On a Personal Level 
Lennie is a model of organization. Everything is cataloged and cross-referenced as a good photographer's library should be. I never had to rely on stock to make my living so my own files are, shall we say, less than perfect. All my negatives and slides are stored in archival boxes and Printfile pages. But they're simply organized by assignment. In a couple of seconds I can lay my hands on all the rolls I shot in Ireland, Zion or Old San Juan. But individual images aren't organized and cross-referenced by keywords such as Cathedral, Rain Forest or Mule Deer and in most cases the throw away shots are mixed in with the shots that made it into the articles generated by those trips. Ask for a shot from a particular location and I'll start flipping through 30 or so rolls worth of slides.

Shot with a D100, this image didn't make the review for that camera. Today I would likely delete it. But in this case both it, and it's soft focus companion shots became the topic 
of an article.

Actually it's amazing how many times I'm working on a column or an idea and I remember a shot from an old assignment that fits today's topic and even with my "loose" filing system I can usually find it in a few minutes. Those trips into my old files often turn up other images that, while they might not have fit the article I was working on at the time, have value in their own right. One example was an article on Long Handheld Exposures. What normally would have been throwaway shots became the topic of an article.  

When I first started shooting digital I had a tendency to treat my digital images like my slides. I grouped everything by assignment and kept all my images good and bad. But as time went on I started deleting more and more images in the field and being more and more choosy about what made it onto my hard drive back at the office. That drive is backed up regularly and culling images keeps the size of the archive manageable.

But as I sit here now and think back, some of my favorite images haven't necessarily been images that had any bearing on what I was working on at the time. Some were things that caught my eye at the time and were "rediscovered" later when I wasn't so focused on making a deadline. How many of those personal images, captured digitally, have I discarded without a second thought because they didn't fit the assignment at hand? 

For me it's not a matter of discarding history - but a matter of discarding memories. Those images that bring a smile, that bring back memories when you stumble on them six or seven years later.

Back to Those CDs 
I suggested the gentleman try reading his CDs in other computers. He did find a PC that would read some of his disks but not many. At least he was able to save something.

All of us know the value of backing up. But has this digital photography made us too ruthless with our images? Do we cull too much? Or are we simply shooting so many more images now that we still end up with more images than we'd have had with film?

Talk to me in ten years. Maybe then I'll have the answer.

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