Shelter for the storm of digital photos
* It's time to consider storage options if your computer's bulging with shots. Keep it simple by making prints, or store them at online sites.


By Brett Levy, Times Staff Writer

Well, congratulations, you've joined the legions of Americans who will shoot 34.5 billion digital photos this year. Sure, you bought that digital camera for the "free" photos, but suddenly there's no room left on the hard drive to unload shots of the kids unwrapping presents.

While digital cameras are being snapped up at a frenzied rate -- more than 24.5 million of them are expected to be circulating in the United States by New Year's Day -- consumers often don't have a strategy for saving and storing the photos, says Christopher Chute, senior analyst at IDC, a Boston-based research company.

Many digital photographers may have trouble finding room on their older computers -- yes, 5 or 6 years constitutes older -- for their ever-growing family photo album. Even larger drives of 120 gigabytes will run out of space quickly with the newer, higher-resolution cameras flooding the market.

And leaving your treasured photos on a home computer can be a scary prospect as hardware failures, viruses or spyware threaten to erase the hard drive or make the data inaccessible.

Hard drives "are not as reliable as people tend to think," says Per Gylfe, an associate of the New York City-based International Center of Photography's digital media lab. "If the disks go bad, it costs several thousand dollars to recover the data."

The most obvious solution is to burn inexpensive CDs or DVDs, but this may not be the safest long-term option, says Howard Besser, director of the Moving Image Archiving and Preservation Program at New York University.

The makers of home CDs never fully took into account how sensitive their products are to light, moisture and other factors. That makes it difficult to predict how long a CD will last, Besser says. Although some brands promise archival quality, these discs have only been around for a couple of years, not 100, so how can anyone be sure?

"People have to have better awareness of the fragility of these things," Besser says. "What was Kodak's slogan? A picture is forever? Well forget it. These things won't be around for long."

What about DVDs, which can hold many more photos than a CD? "They are worse than CDs," Gylfe says. "DVDs last as long as two years, that's all." (Commercial music CDs and movie DVDs are manufactured using a different method, so they last longer.)

Even if the discs are in good working order 20 years from now, there may be another problem: accessing those photos. The formats that they are stored on, most commonly JPEG or RAW, may become outdated in the future.

Another storage option, and the most-old-fashioned, is to print your favorite shots.

While purists may purchase a fancy dye-sublimation printer, the average consumer buys an ink jet. These printers, the most common on the market, use either dye- or pigment-based inks. Of the two, photos printed on a pigment-based printer will last longer, Gylfe says.

Many savvy digital photographers are storing their photos online using websites such as www.ofoto.com, www.snapfish.com, or www.shutterfly.com for added protection and as a convenient way to get high-quality prints. Some of these services are free to join, but require you to buy at least one print a year.

Prints from Ofoto and Shutterfly cost from 29 cents for a 4 by 6 to $3.99 for an 8 by 10. Shutterfly offers discounts on pre-purchased print plans.

Snapfish is free and offers tools to edit, share and store an unlimited number of photos. Prints currently cost 19 cents for a 4 by 6 and $3.79 for an 8 by 10.

But don't rest easy yet, says IDC's Chute. Some of these online sites have lost data while others have gone out of business, he says.

So now that you know the risks, what should you do? Some professional archivists are beginning to rely on a concept called Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe, or LOCKSS.

It advocates redundancy: a combination of sending CDs to relatives, storing photos online, printing out favorites and occasionally converting photos into a newer format. Consider buying an external USB or Firewire hard drive to make backup copies of your photos.

To cope with possible format changes, Besser suggests that families get all their photos organized, "then put a note on them to see a professional a few years from now to find out what to do with them."

Researcher Penny Love and associate technology editor Vicky McCargar contributed to this report.

Brett Levy is a systems editor at the Los Angeles Times.