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Safeguarding Your Wedding Images

Safeguarding Your Wedding Pictures

A few years ago a bride from about seven years prior emailed me that her parent's house had burned down. Fortunately, no one was hurt in the blaze, but her wedding images had been stored there and were destroyed, and there were no off-site backups. The good news was that I still had her images in my archives, and was able to send her a replacement disc. Though my contractual responsibility for storing your wedding or portrait session does end once you receive the images, I have no intention of deleting older images. However, I do reduce the quantity of redundant backups maintained for delivered events and portraits, so I cannot guarantee that I will still have your images in the future if the need arises.
With that in mind, here are some guidelines for ensuring your images are preserved and protected for you and for future generations.

Print Your Images!

Are physical prints of photographs an anachronism in today's digital world? Absolutely not! As part of a long-term preservation plan, you should print at least some of your wedding photographs, and this is especially true if you did not purchase an album with your photography package.

While digital images stored electronically can, if good practices on archiving and backing up are adhered to, literally last indefinitely with absolutely no degradation in quality, it's alarmingly easy to completely lose these precious images forever if proper procedures are not followed. In climate-controlled conditions, professional-quality photographic prints will last over 100 years when displayed in typical home lighting, or over 200 years if carefully stored in darkness, providing a fallback that does not require anything but a pair of eyes to be able to view and is completely non-dependent on technology.

Another factor falls under the general topic of one's "digital legacy" (which is to say, what happens to all your electronically-stored stuff and online accounts when you die?). For instance, imagine that your photos are stored on your computer, and backed up to a cloud service. If no family member knows your computer password, they will not be able to unlock it. And if you don't have appropriate provisions in your will and/or leave clear instructions for how to access files that are stored online, loved ones will likely have no way to retrieve them. Eventually the account will be disabled, and the contents deleted forever. Of course, the need to preemptively address this eventuality is not limited to wedding photographs, but regardless, even if you make all the appropriate plans, there's still a chance that things could slip through the cracks. A shoebox of photographs in a closet or a photo album on a bookshelf is much harder to miss than images that only exist as digital files, which family members might not even know are there, nor be able to access.

And, of course, though not the topic of this article, prints are the best way for you, friends, and family to enjoy your wedding photographs now!

Maintain Multiple Backups, Including Off-Site Copies

I recommend maintaining at least three backups of your images (in addition to your readily accessible working copy), with at least one copy stored at a different location, such as at an office or a relative’s home. Cloud-based storage (see below) is another option for off-site storage.
Optical discs (DVD, or Blu-ray if you need more capacity for additional files) have long been a practical choice for making backups of files that will not be changing frequently (such as photographs). In addition to being inexpensive and compact, they also cannot be erased, whether by accident or maliciously by a virus. Use high-quality write-once media (not rewritable), and make your multiple backups on different brands of discs. While optical media is clearly declining in use, with many new computers now not including built-in drives, external drives and media are still widely available.
USB flash drives are another easy and convenient way to store backup copies of your images and other important files, as are small portable hard drives.

But...

Be Mindful of Media Longevity & Reliability

Storage devices and media do not last forever, even if just written to once and set aside in a drawer or closet.
For standard DVD data retention, a NIST accelerated aging study conducted for the Library of Congress indicated that data written to high quality media should remain intact for at least 30 years when stored in stable and ideal conditions. However, anecdotal evidence of much shorter lifespans suggests that this estimate may be overly optimistic. Other storage devices, such as USB flash drives and hard drives also have limited lifespans and are subject to sudden mechanical or electronic failure at any time. The most commonly cited estimate by manufacturers for data retention on flash drives is 10 years, but again, this may be overly optimistic.
Regardless of how you choose to store and backup your images, I recommend a very conservative and cautious interpretation of media life estimates. While a backup DVD or flash drive stashed away and forgotten about may very well end up being readable decades later if needed, don’t rely on this. Backing up your wedding photographs (and other important and irreplaceable files) to new media at least every 5 years is prudent and can be done inexpensively.
There is a new type of recordable disc (DVD and Blu-ray) available now, called M-DISC, which is claimed to have a lifespan of 1000 years and looks to be a promising solution for long-term data archiving. These discs require a special burner that engraves data onto a much more durable and stable recording surface with a more powerful laser than required for traditional optical media (which utilize organic dyes that are subject to degradation over time), but are still readable on most standard DVD or Blu-ray drives. A Department of Defense study reinforced the manufacturer's own studies about the projected longevity of this media, but even if this type of disc can indeed last centuries, it should merely be one of several components of your archiving and backup plan, as it does not eliminate the need for redundancy, and obsolescence will eventually also be an issue.

In addition to a USB flash drive for convenience, I currently include an M-DISC with most of my wedding packages, and encourage couples to simply stash this disc away in a safe place and forget about it (while maintaining other backups), leaving the M-DISC as a backup of last resort.

Cloud Storage

Cloud-based storage is a great way to provide an off-site backup of your wedding photographs. DropBox, Google Drive, and several others offer customers a fairly large chunk of storage space for free, usually sufficient in size for uploading your entire wedding, and there are also numerous online services such as CrashPlan, Backblaze, and Carbonite which will automatically backup all your computer’s files online on an ongoing basis. Amazon also offers unlimited photo storage for Prime members.
Because these kinds of large-scale operations will generally have a reasonable degree of redundancy built-in, their storage systems are much less susceptible to data loss from equipment failure than a typical individual's home computer. But a major catastrophe could possibly result in loss, and human error (yours or the company's), the malicious actions of hackers, or the company simply ceasing operations unexpectedly are all distinct possibilities. Lastly, as mentioned above, images stored online might not be easily accessible (or even known) to loved ones if something were to happen to you and your spouse. So do not rely on cloud storage as your sole or primary long-term archiving solution, but just consider it to be another component of your strategy.

Stay Ahead of Obsolescence

Even aside from longevity issues, media and computer interfaces do eventually become obsolete. Just 30 years ago, 5.25" floppy discs dominated the computer storage market (and as a fascinating side note, it would hypothetically take THREE of those discs to store just ONE modern digital image... a stack of over 2500 discs around 13 feet high would be required for an average complete wedding). But today, even if the data on a magnetic floppy disc were still intact, it would be a challenge to equip a computer to be able to read these files and transfer them to more modern storage.
Will optical media such suffer the same fate? Undoubtedly this will occur eventually, and optical drives are already beginning to be omitted as a standard internal feature on new computers, especially laptops (though external drives are readily available). However, the deep market penetration and broad utilization of optical media, fueled by the fact that backward compatibility so far has been maintained as technology has progressed (the drives for the latest incarnation, Blu-ray, are still able to read CDs from decades ago, as well as DVDs) means the ability to read optical media will likely be around for quite some time.
Similarly, USB ports are extremely common now, and improvements to the standard over the years have maintained backward compatibility, so the ability to plug in your USB flash drives and hard drives will not go away any time soon. But at some point in the future some other type of interface or completely wireless technology will take over, and USB will eventually fall by the wayside.
However, this is all largely speculative, as a direct projection of what the state of computer technology and media usage will be 30 years from now, based on observations of computers 30 years ago compared to today, is going to be skewed by the fact that in the 1980's, the industry was in its infancy, and only around 8% of households had a personal computer, with today that number being near 80%. And regardless, in reality these concerns are irrelevant, at least during your lifetime, since as long as you follow the established best practices by copying your images to new media periodically, obsolescence will naturally be addressed as the current state of storage technology at that time dictates what you choose for future backups.

Trust, but Verify

Another good practice is to verify the integrity of your stored wedding images periodically, especially when backing up to new media or transferring to a newly-purchased computer's hard drive. Consider the possibility that a minor glitch on your hard drive results in a corrupt image, which then either will not open at all, or will have a scrambled appearance. This corruption would likely go unnoticed if you don't happen to try to open that particular image. Unless the damage is severe enough for your operating system to alert you that the file is completely unreadable, subsequent backups would contain this corrupt file, and if it continued to go unnoticed, it's possible that your older backups (which still contained a good copy of the file) would have been copied over, lost, or discarded by then, leaving you no way to recover the uncorrupted file.
The easiest way to protect against this is with a utility that is specifically designed to detect the visual characteristics of corrupt images (not just one that simply confirms the files can be read, which may not be enough to catch a mangled photo) with one simple drag and drop of the entire batch of files. A great app for Mac OSX is called, appropriately, Corrupt JPEG Checker, available on the Mac App Store, and it is relatively inexpensive ($6 at the time of this writing). Similar utilities are available for Windows systems.

In Summary

It is important to recognize that the preservation of digital files is a perpetually ongoing task that requires a proactive approach, rather than a one-time thing that can then be forgotten about. Redundancy and diversity are key. A smart and reliable system of storing your digital images should include multiple types of media, such as a combination of active storage on your computer’s hard drive for easy accessibility, an external hard drive for regular backups, and several completely offline backups consisting of DVDs or Blu-ray discs of different brands, as well as cloud storage. Aways maintain at least one off-site backup, such as cloud storage or a hard drive kept at a relative's house.

Provided you periodically create new verified backups to guard against media degradation and obsolescence, this should be sufficient to ensure your images remain safe for you, your descendants, and other family members to enjoy indefinitely.