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January 12, 2006

Your digital photos: are they safe?

At the risk of spoiling your day, may we suggest that if you've been storing your digital images and music collection and other data archives on CD-R/RW discs, it might be wise to make another copy immediately ... and think about longer-term storage alternatives.

According to a physicist and storage expert, the maximum life - we repeat, the MAXIMUM life - of data stored on burnable CD media ranges from two to five years. Several people have told us their CDs became unreadable in a matter of months.

The best alternative, according to the expert, is magnetic tape. But even magnetic tape is subject to heat and dust and magnetic fields, has to be re-tensioned periodically, and stored vertically.

Hard drives can provide longer storage life than CDs, but choose the 7200rpm models, because their bearings are more robust.

Bleeding Edge has made multiple copies of our archives on several hard drives, which we re-copy periodically.

As for your precious prints: if you're looking for longevity, cheap inks and paper aren't a good idea, as you'll learn if you have a look at the data amassed by the world authority, Wilhelm Imaging Research. By far the best solution for 6x4 prints is the Epson PictureMate Personal Photo Lab, using Epson PictureMate pigment inks, and photo paper.

Posted by cw at January 12, 2006 07:03 AM


Tapes? Nope. No way. Start by putting the photos on the hard disk - that's where you're gonna do culling, editing, rotation, and what not. Make regular full file copies to DVD. At say half yearly make sure those file copies are full file copies to DVD-R not DVD-RW. If you store those DVD-R and they are at half yearly intervals, the expiry date of your latest DVD is a moving on one, not a static one.

Posted by: anandasim at January 12, 2006 09:20 AM

Umm, I have dozens of CDs I burned in 1996 that still work just fine. How does this gel with a maximum life of 5 years? Am I just extraordinarily lucky?

Posted by: Alex Clarke at January 14, 2006 08:14 PM

I am a little bewildered by all this. I have many files, photos, music, etc stored on CD-R that are 6, 7 or so years old and all are fine. The MAXIMUM life you quote of 5 years is, therefore, incorrect. What about the Kodak silver/gold CD's that used to be available that guaranteed a life of 100+ years? Was that a lie?
HP's colorfast paper and inks promise a similar long life. Are they lying too and if so, can we sue them?

Posted by: Rod Stone at January 14, 2006 11:11 PM

The point, surely, is not how long your CD-Rs have lasted, so much as how much longer they're likely to last. If the experts say a maximum of five years, and your CDs have already lasted seven years, you can either choose to regard the warning as scare-mongering, or you can restore them to other media. It's entirely your choice.

As I wrote a year or so ago, according to Wilhelm Imaging, the acknowledged expert on photo life, Kodak has refused to use the same testing technology as other manufacturers. If other manufacturers used the same testing, their longevity figures would be three to 15 times longer than they are.

I take the view that if their figures are suspect in one area, they're likely to be suspect in others.

I know of several batches of Kodak CDs that performed very poorly indeed, a few years ago, as a result of which I stopped using Kodak CDs entirely.

You can, of course, elect to trust Kodak. I do not use their products.

Posted by: cw at January 16, 2006 09:28 AM

Having spent over 50 years taking and making photographs (I started at age 7) and over 30 years in the pro sector of the w/sale-retail photo industry (inc. digital) I'll toss in my two cents worth.

Good old Wilhelm is probably as reliable a reference as any, however he's not infallible, having been caught with some dodgy findings a few years back.

Kodak have had their share of good and bad CDs, but then so have just about every manufacturer. I've had bad batches from TDK, Ricoh, Verbatim and others; I've also enjoyed many good batches. (Interesting aside: In my many years in the photo industry, seldom did we ever have a "bad batch" of film; it happened, but pretty seldom. My own experience suggests bad CDs are much more prevalent).

One must remember that we consumers have enjoyed the benefits of a technology - film-based imaging - that was developed (sorry!) a very, very long time ago, and which has been refined to the "enth degree".

Digital imaging is by comparison, in its infancy, and whilst we are more then ready to enjoy the huge benefits thereof, we must also accept the fact that it's a rapidly changing, developing, emerging technology, and brings with it certain unwanted (and sometimes unknown) side-effect baggage.

Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect is that one of digital's greatest advantages - ease of use - tends to lull us into a false sense of security with regard to digital content, be it images, text or music.

If your images deserve genuine archival longevity, then B&W tri-color separation negatives is almost certainly the safest way to go (note I didn't say, "Cheapest"!). Of course if the film is not processed 100% correctly, it's not worth a brass razoo.

Magnetic tape? Yes, possibly. I have reel-to-reel music tapes I recorded on a Tandberg 64 deck 40+ years ago that're still excellent. I've also heard the horror stories of tapes that have faded to zilch after 10 years.

I've just completed a year-long project of duplicating 30 years of family photos (slides, negs & prints) onto CDs. Note I said "duplicating", not "archiving", as I feel my correctly-processed films will be around when the CDs have disintegrated, however if a bush fire rips through here, it's a lot easier to grab a case of CDs than a dozen large cartons of films and prints.

"Digital" provides us all with a means of recording data of almost any type which is unparalleled in its ease, efficiency and speed of use (quality is sometimes arguable), however everything in life has a price, and the "price of digital" may at this stage of development, be "longevity".

Posted by: Brook Acklom at January 16, 2006 02:38 PM

Like some others I have yet to have a burnt CD-R fail that was stored correctly. The following link gives recommendations for archiving that include controls on temperature, humidity and light to minimise changes to the sensitive dyes used in this type of CD.


Posted by: Ron Dempsey at January 17, 2006 02:24 PM

Rolling DVD's seems a very good idea, and switch to dual layer when the data gets too big. (though when are these going to start dropping in price?!!)

I've found no problems with CD's stored for long periods in multicases so far (around 5-6 years, so theoretically I'm hitting the limit), the bad ones tended to show up immediately (so not degradation). For the record the universities I know all rely on magnetic tape for back up but the machines are expensive.

I wonder whether flash will soon become competitive in this field as its price is dropping rapidly and the current claims for its stability are often 20 plus years.

Posted by: tflip at January 18, 2006 01:50 PM

I have, since my last post, discovered that I have perfectly ok CD-R's that are at least 9 years old which makes the claim of "maximum, I repeat, MAXIMUM" life of 5 years a foolish assertion. In spite of your doubts, Charles, I have more faith in my Kodak Ultima CD-R's than most others and I have them guaranteed by Kodak (in writing) to last 100+ years. It's a pity I can no longer obtain them.
Magnetic tape, in my opinion, is a much more doubtful option. I have worked all my life in the music industry where it is well known that the storage of magnetic tapes is a problem. Great care must be taken and even then, there is no guarantee that they will last indefinitely. I have recently discovered some tapes in my possesion that have been in relatively safe storage for around 50 years. Although they played reasonably it was obvious that one or two playings was all there was ever going to be as the magnetic coating was shedding at an alarming rate. I have saved the audio files to Kodak CD-R.
I also have several VHS videos that have noticeably deteriorated after 10 to 15 years.

Posted by: Rod Stone at January 24, 2006 10:08 PM