Digital Questions That Need Some Answers

While we plunge ahead into the digital world, and continue to buy cameras, printers, and scanners at record pace, there remain some issues that need resolution before everyone can feel comfortable with the digital thing. We do get letters, and your concerns are of paramount interest to us, that raise issues we have often addressed. But the tone of many letters express doubts about the viability of what we're being offered now in the years ahead. There is some history that underlies these doubts, especially with the constant changes we've seen over the past few years and how digital might have been oversold.

One of the chief concerns we hear in your letters is the stability of digital media. Right now CDs are the main storage medium, soon to be replaced by DVDs. But there remain questions about the long-term viability of CDs, in terms of both the media itself and the possible abandonment of readers and reader repair by manufacturers. Those who have more faith should look at the SyQuest format and, in film, the discontinuance of the manufacture of slide projectors. True, you can look at a slide without a projector, and that's what has everyone worried about the virtual medium of digital on CDs.

What about hard drive storage? How long will files last there, especially if we treat the hard drive as a passive storage device, protected from potential viruses and kept offline? Are there archival concerns we should be more aware of? And what of memory cards? Some are being marketed now as "shoot and store" media, to be kept like film negatives with images upon them even after downloading. Just how long will images sit there, and what type of storage conditions should we use to protect them?

Prints are a very good way to save images, witness the old albums containing family memories where negatives are long lost. But as of today there is no industry standard for judging and identifying the archival keeping quality of digital ink jet prints. Yes, there are independent and manufacturer tests and claims, but in truth there is no universal standard that allows you to truly compare one ink/paper combination to another. Many are pressing for this accepted standard (testing method) but the issue raised last year has still yet to be resolved.

How about the printers themselves? Unless you run prints through at least once a month you are in danger of getting clogged nozzles and might have to dump inks, not a cheap item. Enlargers bought in the 1940s can still be used to make prints today. Can we say with certainty that ink jet printers today will have ink supplies available five, or even three, years down the road? And if we put the printer away for an extended period of time, what maintenance will we have to use to make sure it even will work without a major cleanout six months down the road? Leave chemistry in a processor for a few weeks and you'll be growing things in there you never imagined existed. It seems the same might go for ink jets.

What about all those proprietary raw formats? Why isn't there a universal raw that all could use, and will the raw of today be readable in tomorrow's browsers and image-editing programs from both third party and manufacturer software companies?
I could go on and on about reader's concerns about digital, but space here limits this to a few of the consistent themes. And true, film had, and has, some problems. Indeed, the color dye instability of many films was the dirty little secret of the film industry way back that a few brave souls uncovered. But digital has become such a powerful part of photography that many concerns seem to get washed away by the force of the tide.

I welcome your comments and suggestions on all this, and would like to invite manufacturers and researchers to contact us to address some of these and other issues of concern. By now we all understand the benefits the digital form of photography brings to us. Now we want to be able to move ahead to expand our creative options with eyes wide-open.