May 12 2008

Are We Losing A Generation Of Photographs?

digital cameraThe other night I was lifting weights in my bedroom, and I glanced over at a little wooden box I hadn’t opened in years. I remembered it was the box I kept all my “important” things in, so while I was cooling down from my workout, I decided to pop it open and take a look in it.

At the bottom were several photos from my childhood I hadn’t seen in ages (no… I’m not sharing them with you). They were a mixture of Polaroids and traditional photos, and it got me to thinking about the state of photography and what digital cameras may be doing to it.

There is no denying that digital cameras are convenient, easy to use and far cheaper than developing traditional film, but where will be in 20 or 30 years? Will we have lost a whole generation of photos to convenience? You won’t be able to do what I did the other day, and randomly find some photos at the bottom of a box, they will all be stored on hard drives and memory cards, and what if we can’t access those mediums down the road? What if we change the formats of pictures and JPGs, GIFs and TIFs aren’t even used any more? What if your hard drive crashes, and you hadn’t backed up the files? With traditional photos, at least you still had a shot at having the negatives.

I’ve already been a victim of bad file management, and I’ve lost 90% of the pictures I took on my first trip to Japan in August of 2000. I have only a handful of pictures from that particular trip that I had cropped down and shared on my website at the time. Luckily I now use to backup all of my photo files remotely whenever I load them on to my hard drive, but that may not even be a sure thing in a few years.

floppiesThe other problem that is bothering me is the number of memory card formats out there for cameras. XD, SD, Memory Stick, etc, you know some of these formats are going to go obsolete, and eventually you’ll lose some images you forgot to offload, and there will be no way to access the data any more.

I am certainly as guilty as anyone else out there in that I have been using a digital camera since they cost $900 and could only take 32 pictures on internal memory. I was such an early adopter that the first time I used it on assignment for a magazine article, I had to stop after every photo because people would run over to look at it, having never seen one before. So, yes, I am as guilty as guilty can be, and I sadly have no idea what a good solution is. Do you take photos you think might be something you want to look at 30 years from now on standard film? How do you determine that in advance? Do you print out every digital snap you take? That could cost you a ton of money.

Giving up digital photography probably isn’t an option at this point in the game, but how do we make sure that future generations will enjoy the photos we’ve taken. Will flipping through digital pictures on a computer monitor ever hold the same magic as plopping down on a couch and flipping through a photo album with a grandparent? Doubtful. If we don’t start pondering this now, though, it may get to be too late.

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Science & Technology


  • Hey Sean, you raise some good points and I agree that with each generation we lose a bit of the old that gets replaced by the new. It’s a convenience thing. Isn’t it? Our digital life revolves around that instant gratification and ease of use. It’s been years since I’ve had to wait to get the pics developed… I think the new way is still pretty exciting though, and we’re having a blast watching slideshows and on my kids wii hooked up to our 46″ HDTV. I don’t miss watching 35mm slides in a dark room.

  • And I totally agree, I L-O-V-E the convenience of digital photos and what we can do with them. Sadly that is all in the here-and-now, it’s the future I worry for. The loss of photography would just be very sad to me.

  • I’m not worried. I frequently transfer pics from my 8Gb card to the computer, and hard drives are getting cheaper and cheaper, I’ll eventually have multiple hard drives to back up the same pictures, and probably some blu-ray discs too. I don’t look through my old pictures often, but when I do, I’m always reminded of something. I prefer them to be on the computer. I like everything instantly, and I like being able to just click a button and the next set is right there, as opposed to replacing what I just looked at, and then getting the next ones out of a box.

    As for format changes, we’ve been through this before, on many different types of files. I don’t think jpeg is going away anytime soon. But if it does, I think we’ve all learned our lesson by now, and we can fire up gimp and do a batch conversion to a different format.