Reader questions and comments re: JPEG

by Sally J.


Readers comment on JPEG, The Practical Archivist responds.

One of the reasons why I keep harping on JPEG is that I want you to realize that the format used by digital cameras might disappear someday. Obsolescence ain’t pretty, and if you’re like most people you probably never think about it.

Anyhoo. I started to to address the new questions in the comments section, but figured that if I pulled everything into a new post more folks could join in the discussion.

**PLEASE NOTE: My comments are in BLUE — so reading this via RSS feed will be confusing. You might want to click through and read this post on the blog itself.

The Legacy Lady said…

I have often wondered what would be the best way to preserve my digital files. I shoot in RAW format and save a backup of those files as digital negatives. From there I process in photoshop and save JPEG – your post has me thinking I should possible look at tiff format – which is supposedly the best way to save without the compression of a JPEG.

Legacy Lady, TIFF is considered “best archival practice” in large part because it is completely lossless and uncompressed. TIFF is also preferred because it isn’t tied to any single company or camera manufacturer.

For images that are born digitally as JPEG files (family snapshots, for example) you can choose to keep them as JPEGs or convert them to TIFF. You’ll need a software program like Photoshop to do this.

REMEMBER YOU CAN ALWAYS PRINT OUT YOUR FAVORITES. For family snapshots this is my A#1 preservation advice. It’s cheaper than ever and you only have to print the ones you really love. Compared to what we used to spend on film developing, this cost is minimal.

Reader eckenheimer addressed some of Legacy Lady’s questions. [Again, my comments are in blue]…

Legacy Lady, here are a few comments on your post:

* The raw “negatives” are a great idea, but be aware that older raw formats can disappear and programs to process them years from now may be difficult to find. I’m being a bit paranoid here, but it’s happened before. Agreed. Betamax, anyone?

* Please be certain to store one copy of the DVD/CD in a remote location in case of fire, tornado, theft, etc. at your home. Yes! Offsite storage is key. And in the case of large scale disasters like hurricanes, you’ll want that offsite location to be far away and not just across town in your office.

* There’s no “do it and forget it” kind of easy answer with digital. Periodic updating or upgrading is a fact of our digital life. This is so true. It’s not a pretty picture. Yep. Our old methods for dealing with photos are not at all helpful in the digital environment.

* Highest quality jpeg is a lot smaller in size and very nearly as good as tiff, except for large format, high resolution color photographs. It’s easy to do a side by side comparison to decide whether it’s satisfactory for you.

While very high quality JPEG may look similar to TIFF to the naked eye, it’s not just image quality that is the issue here. One of the major problems with lossy compression like JPEG is that altering the image in any way (change its size, add a caption, crop it, color enhance it, etc. etc. etc.) results in a loss of quality every time you save the new information.

If you are not going to make any changes, then you don’t need to worry much. Except for the fact that the JPEG format itself may fall out of favor and become obsolete. (see original post for more details).

eckenheimer August 17, 2007 at 7:45 pm

In my previous comment, I should have added that if saving any image long term in jpeg format, you need to keep an “original” which is never altered and make any changes only to copies of it. This is because, as Sally correctly pointed out, each save after a change to a jpeg image degrades its quality slightly. Sorry I omitted that critical bit of information.

As for the format falling out of favor, that is a hazard that plagues all digital formats. I have no idea which image formats will exist in ten years, and wouldn’t bet money on which current formats will still be useable five years from now.

Sally J. August 14, 2007 at 2:58 am

You’re right, Denise — that was GIF.

There’s a wikipedia entry that explains what happened.

Moultrie Creek August 12, 2007 at 8:41 pm

Great discussion! I seem to remember years ago there were some issues about patents or something for one or more formats (GIF maybe?). What kinds of strings are attached to the various formats and how does that affect us?

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