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the print that never was

lookdad.jpg

In 1997, my husband and I moved to Tokyo. Expecting to take a gazillion photos to post on the webpage I maintained for friends and family in the States to follow along on our adventure (this was long before blogs hit the scene), I bought a digital AGFA camera. As planned, I shot at least a gazillion photos — and then along came our first baby and I shot a gazillion more. One of my all-time favorite photos of my newborn son was made with that camera. I was extremely frustrated with the lack of options for getting a good print of that image, even in tech-savvy Tokyo, and I sort of lost my enthusiasm for using digital. I upgraded my film camera twice since living in Tokyo, but during that same time I never upgraded my digital camera. For me, it’s always been about the print and I remained one of the lone holdouts in the (as a mother) consumer and (and a photographer) professional arenas shooting film.

Today, I thank God for that print that never was, but for another concern it has since raised. Every single digital file I shot in Tokyo was meticulously saved, backed up and backed up again, storing them on a remote server, on my hard drive and on an external drive. And every single one of them has spontaneously corrupted. Only six remain, and that’s because I found a program called SplashID that I can’t live without, and it came with Splash Photo and I just happened to upload some of my favorites to my Palm before they corrupted. (Thank you, Splash!)

“That’s great and all, but what’s this got to do with me?” you ask. And that’s where it gets interesting.

Each and every time you open, save and close a .jpg file, you lose data. .jpg files were created for maximum compression (which is inherent to data loss) and for viewing with the human eye, which is quite adept at filling in missing pixels. If you don’t believe me about the human eye, try printing my low-res favorite image posted above, the infamous photo I could never print; it looks like a newspaper photograph under a child’s magnifying glass. I didn’t even bother reducing it so someone wouldn’t steal it from my blog to market it elsewhere — it was low-res straight out of the camera in those days and therefore unprintable. On screen, it views fine. It’s one of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken in my life, and it’s (you guessed it) a .jpg. .jpgs are called “lossy” files in the industry, because they lose data. The more you open them, save them, close them, open them, edit them and save them again, the more lossy the file. If you really don’t believe me, google “.jpg lossy” and see for yourself.

I fear an entire generation of today’s children are going to emerge from childhood with no photographs to document their journey. My son is 8; it took only eight years for the digital files of him, albeit backed up with great intentions, to disappear. The average photo CD has a lifespan of about 3 years. THREE YEARS! That’s barely enough time to regroup from having a newborn in my world, let alone getting around to properly storing images. Gold-plated CDs have a 10-year lifespan under optimal storage conditions. OPTIMAL STORAGE CONDITIONS. Raise your hand if you’re one of those people who has actually gotten around to optimally storing your negatives and CDs and digital files. (The rest of us can jot a note on our list of things to do someday, right under “learn French” and just before “trek across Europe.”)

Those of you who have been photographed by my studio received a box full of 4×6 prints in the mail. Other photographers tell me that I’m committing studio suicide by giving out so many prints with each session. “People are scanning them!” is the moniker in all the professional photographer magazines. And it’s true. I’ve been the victim of theft countless times as clients scan my photographs, sending them to Snapfish or Kodak or another online lab to have reprints made, both the client and the lab violating federal copyright laws. (Professional Photographers of America has a program that tracks this kind of illegal scanning and printing, and I have since enrolled to help protect my images.) But I can’t shake the experience of the photos from Tokyo. I continue to offer the box of prints for my clients because, although I would love to think that my photos remain a treasured part of their childhood in the decades to come, I would hate to think that they are the only images that made it to print before the digital files were lost.

I continued shooting my children with good old fashioned film until two years ago, when I was sufficiently satisfied that the quality of digital prints could rival at best even a mid-range black and white lab. I upload all of my professional digital files to Pictage, but I also utilize Lakeside Camera and Mpix and San Miguel Photo Lab [editor’s note: unfortunately, San Miguel has since gone out of business.] for the photos I take of my family. All good labs for printing from digital files. But it isn’t only the print quality of digital that gives me pause; it’s the longevity of a digital file. I wish I could say that I diligently convert all .jpg files to .tiff files, but I don’t. Somewhere between learning French and traveling Europe, I hope to accomplish that. For now, I backup, backup and backup.

And I print every good image.

I shoot RAW. Sometimes I convert to .tiff once they’re on my hard drive.

And I shoot one roll of film to every six months of digital of my children. I have joined the Film Preservation Society at San Miguel Photo Lab, the best black and white film lab I’ve had the privilege of partnering with, and I can only tell you that even Christmas morning is nothing compared to unpacking a box of prints that I haven’t already previewed on an LCD — especially when I’m shooting T-MAX film in a trick $30 Holga I bought off the masterful Randy Smith. I take my Holga on all of our family vacations and I’ve found that by giving pause to consider each frame I shoot, my Holga photos are inherently different from my digital photos. Plus, we’re a beach family; our vacations involve sand, and sand is the deadliest enemy of a $5,000 digital SLR. The last thing I need to worry about on vacation is my equipment.

Yes, I shoot digital photos of my family; the debate of digital vs. film, in my world, really boils down to personal preference. I am and have always been (and am likely to remain) a technophile. I had my own website long before most of my friends even had email; I love Photoshop and the possibilities it brings to my images. And I love film and true black and white labs and the illusions of permanence in storing decades worth of negatives in pretty black notebooks.

But most importantly (and WHEW, finally, the conclusion), I love photographs. Digital or film, Nikon or Canon, actions or RAW presets … all of those things are simply tools in a photographer’s toolbox. My greatest aim is to pass on to my children the photographs that document their childhood so that they may one day enjoy the look back at all that is good and wonderful about today.

3 comments
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  • christine - Miette, make prints of your favorite photos. Backup your hard drives diligently. Store images on 24K CDs for the best results. Pray. That’s what I do.

    Bob, you are correct; .jpgs lose quality every time they are opened, edited and then saved, but not when opened or displayed.ReplyCancel

  • Bob Sullivan - As a tech reporter, I hear all the time from people who are crying because their gadgets or hard drives have let them down. Chris, you are so right, when the precious photos are only on a hard drive, tragedy is almost certainly ahead. My mom always used to say if our house caught on fire, she’d grab the family photo album. What does she grab now?

    I have a question about your JPG comment, however. I believe you are only partly right.

    I know every time you open a jpg, do something to it, and save it, information is lost as the image is further compressed and pixels are thrown away. But the mere act of opening it and/or closing it does not throw away additional information, I believe. The file is unaltered; it is not compressed again unless save it again.

    Am I missing something?ReplyCancel

  • miette - OH MY GOD!!!

    So what exactly am I supposed to do???? I don’t get what the answer is! You mean after all my agonizing I was actually better off with my crappy 35 mm camera! AAAARRRRGGGGHHHH!

    *sigh*
    🙂ReplyCancel

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