The Digital Threat

If you don’t know it by now, you will soon enough: Your existence is threatened. Maybe you are a professional photographer with a digital camera. Or maybe you’re a “traditional” shooter, scanning your film, and spending hours meticulously retouching each image to make the perfect digital files. But either way, archiving your life’s work has been reduced to stuffing as many bits of data as possible onto the magnetized platters of a hard drive, or the pitted plastic of a DVD.

In 2002, you said that you’d never use a CF card bigger than 512MB because you couldn’t fathom losing so many images. In 2003, you said you’d never use a CF card bigger than 1GB because the thought of losing more than a gig’s worth of images was incomprehensible. In 2005, you frequently shoot with a 2GB or 4GB card.

You spend thousands of dollars on your high-tech gear, but ironically when your computer’s hard drive runs out of space, you search for the cheapest external drive you can find to back up your images.

Nowadays, you can find drives with enormous capacities for $1 per GB. However, drives are still mechanical devices, and Murphy’s Law says they will break at the most inopportune time. The more drives you have, the higher the risk of experiencing a failure. (Those of you that have been around for a while, and had a Western Digital Caviar, are well aware that the failure rate was much higher than advertised).

You might not consciously realize it, but when you create a back-up on an external hard drive or DVD, what you’re really doing is mitigating risk. The more copies you have of an image, the less of a chance that a single loss will be disastrous. But using unproven archiving media (like DVD) is a crapshoot with questionable long-term value, and as your archive grows, you create a management nightmare for yourself. If you shoot 500GB/year and burn two DVDs of every image, you’re already dealing with 175 DVDs per year.

You might already have RAID, but RAID is useless if you don’t replace the bad drives quickly. I personally have seen RAID systems that have had two drives fail within a week, causing catastrophic data loss. And if you are monitoring your systems vigilantly, you’re likely spending more time than you want being a system administrator rather than a photographer.

So here’s the digital threat: Five years from now, your life’s work will be represented by a series of 1’s and 0’s, and if you don’t find a way to deal with the stack of DVDs and 27 hard drives in your closet, your existence as a professional photographer will be in jeopardy.

Hard drives will continue to get cheaper and denser, but unless there is a fundamental shift in technology, the drives will keep breaking at the same rate. And the more you have, the more failure you’ll be exposed to. By contrast, your Internet connection will get faster and cheaper. So how will you store your images in the future?

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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the co-founder of PhotoShelter.

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