How Long Will Your Photos Last?

When we interviewed Seth Resnick, we sent him a short list of questions by email. He returned a huge stack of information — far more than we needed for the profile but all of it very interesting, and touching on a number of important points. We’re going to look at some of the issues that Seth raised in separate posts, starting with the way digital images need to be archived for future use.dng.jpg

The problem associated with archiving pictures isn’t new; changing formats has always been a problem for photographers. (There’s little that you can do with daguerreotypes today and calotypes haven’t survived the years very well either.)

But software and hardware both change much faster than any of the -types of the past. In fact, there’s a good chance that many of the images now stored on your hard drive will be unreadable by the imaging software available in ten or twenty years’ time. And if they are readable, much might be lost in translation. In short, the thousands of digital images you currently enjoy might only last as long as the software that supports them.

As Seth put it:

Imagine that you shoot an award-winning photograph with your
camera this year. I’m sure that you assume that this great image
will be available to your great-great grandchildren and become a
permanent part of world history. Well, think again.

That should sound a warning bell for any photographer. But for those who earn a living from their photographs, it should sound alarm bells. Any professional photographer hoping to retire on future royalties from his or her best pictures needs to be sure that those pictures can still be used. A photograph that can’t be accessed because the format is no longer in use is worth nothing, however good it might have looked the day after it was taken.

So what’s the solution?

For Seth, the best way to store digital images is in DNG. Short for “Digital Negative”, DNG is a RAW image format created by Adobe. At the moment, it’s available with some cameras produced by Hasselblad, Leica, Ricoh, Samsung and Pentax. Users of other cameras can transfer their RAW images into DNG using Adobe’s free DNG converter (available here for PCs and here for Macs.)

The main advantage of DNG is that it’s non-proprietary. If Canon, for example, were to go out of business, there would be no new software capable of reading that company’s RAW formats because no one else knows how those formats store data. Any programmer though can understand how DNG works and create a program capable of displaying DNG files. That means images stored in DNG should always be available.

Of course, DNG isn’t perfect. It’s not completely open source, and some image information is still undocumented. And if you choose to store the camera-maker’s proprietary RAW format within the DNG file, then the completed file will be significantly larger the original. (You can find an interesting debate about the pros and cons of DNG at

Nonetheless, DNG does seem currently to be the most reliable way to store digital images for the future.

Unless of course, you plan on keeping your hardware and software to show your grandchildren too.

[tags] dng, raw, digital negative, seth resnick [/tags]

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