Friday, May 4th 2012
As I have written elsewhere (see, for example, My first “proper” camera), I started photography in the days of film, before digital devices were even a distant dream. In those days, the cost of photography was significant. First, you had to buy your film and then you had to pay to have it developed and the photos printed on paper. Further cost was incurred if you wanted to make copies and enlargements. Even if you did all this processing work yourself, you needed to buy the equipment and then the chemicals and paper. Unsurprisingly, this limited the number of photos that people took.
The arrival of digital technology can properly be called a revolution because it has radically changed what we do and how we do it, in so many areas of life. Its effects on photography have been profound. First, it has made available a range of small but efficient cameras at affordable prices and even integrated them into that other universally owned gadget, the cell phone, so that there is a camera in nearly every pocket or handbag. Moreover, once you have a digital camera, photography is virtually free: there is no film to buy, no developing and printing cost, photos can be displayed on electronic devices (including the camera itself) and distributed and shared by email and the Web. If you do want to make a “hard” copy, this can be done with your cheap but efficient colour printer for little more than the cost of the paper.
When we used film, we had to store the negatives and the prints in a physical storage device of some kind. One corner of my book case was devoted to two sets of folders, one holding negatives and the other, prints. Though the folders took up space, the collection grew so slowly that I never thought this would become a problem.
Today, that has changed, and storing my photos has become a major consideration. This may seem paradoxical when we know that a digital photo is not a physical object but a set of numbers on a disc or memory card and that we cannot meaningfully assign a size to it. But though a digital photo may not have a size, it does occupy a certain amount of “space”. I put the word in quotation marks because this is not the conventional sort of space – that contained inside a box or a room, say – but a “virtual” space, which, for all that it is virtual, is nonetheless real and can be filled and used up.
Putting that another and simpler way, it can happen that you have so many photos that they fill up the available storage space, leaving no room for any more photos.
In the days of film, I would come home from a day out with maybe a score of photos. I rarely used up a whole 36-exposure film. Today, however, I come home with between 150 and 300 photos, depending on circumstances. Not only do I photograph actual scenes and objects but I take location shots – street names, panoramas situating the subject, etc – and information shots – information plaques, street signs, station names, etc. Whereas I would once have taken a single shot of a subject, I now take several from different angles and distances, just to see how they will turn out or because I am trying get a clear shot in a busy street.
I shoot in RAW because I find that this gives the best finished results but the software for my geotagger only recognizes JPEGs, so for every shot I take, my camera produces two files, a RAW and a JPEG. Only the JPEGs get geotagged so I have to keep them in case I need to check the location of a photo later.
RAW files are only the starting point for a finished image. You can acquire editing software for them but in order to be displayed or printed they must first be converted to another format. The only application I have so far found that is capable of converting my RAW photos to other formats without distortion is the SilkyPix software that came with the camera.
Now, suppose I change to another camera – a Nikon or a Canon, say – what then? I will need different conversion software for it, but what, then, about my present RAW pictures? Either I will have to keep the SilkyPix software for ever and ever or convert these photos now to another format and keep a converted copy for possible future use. The only format which approximates all the picture information present in the RAW is Tiff. As you know, Tiff files are enormous, bigger even than RAW files. They eat up space like nobody’s business.
Until now, my photos were stored on two 1-terabyte external disc drives. One was the working drive and the other was the backup. With disc drives, as with any equipment, the question is not “Will it fail?” but “When will it fail?” and that is a question to which we do not know the answer until the disc actually fails. This means that we must keep at least one backup of all important data right from the beginning.
When I bought my first external disc drive, a 500 gigabyte LaCie, I thought it would last me forever. Far from it: my 1-terabyte drives are now becoming full and it has been necessary to expand my storage space.
Maplin are currently selling 2-terabyte Seagte FreeAgent Go-flex drives for £99.99 and so I have bought one. It will become the backup drive and the two 1-terabyte drives will become the working drives. That means that the contents of one of these drives have had to be moved to the new disc, an operation that has taken several days to complete.
This gives me a terabyte of disc space for more photos. It will be interesting to see how long it takes me to fill it. When that day comes I will have to buy more drives and so on.
Talking in terms of numbers, a small modern disc drive, about the size of a library book, holds far more pictures than my old shelf of folders but, talking in terms of time, it gets used up faster simply because the photographic data are accumulating at such a rate.
We have seen all sorts of storage media appear and go from innovation to obsolescence in ever shorter time spans: cassettes, 5.25″ floppies, 3.5″ floppies, CDs, USB flash drives, and ever more capacious external disc drives. Perhaps even now a new wonder device is waiting in the wings which can store a terabyte of data on the equivalent of a grain of sand. It would not surprise me if this were so. What is certain, though, is that whatever it is, in a couple of years I will be needing it!