How To Back Up Your Digital Photos... To Film

How To Back Up Your Digital Photos... To Film

Backing up is easy, right? You import your photos from a memory card, then everything is safe and sound on your hard drive. Wrong. Norwegian startup — Piql — believes the answer is to back up your files to film.

The durability of analogue prints and negatives — excluding the highly flammable nitrate film — is generally very good. We have excellent examples of photos dating back to Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s "View from the Window at Le Gras" in 1826. In general, analog recordings (writings, drawings, paintings, and photos) preserve well, with modern archival paper estimated to last hundreds to thousands of years under the right storage conditions.

With the shift to digital not much thought was given to archival, however that is now proving to be a significant headache for two reasons. Firstly, how long will media the last; historically, most storage media were magnetic (tape, hard drive, and floppy disk) and the magnetic media have generally been found to be long lasting, at least within the context of computing. For example, the amazing photos of Venus from the Soviet missions of the 1970s were format shifted from the original tapes before reprocessing. However we are now finding the lifespan of CDs/DVDs to be more variable, with writable disks notionally lasting a few decades and in some case only a few years. It's possible that we will be a generation with large online photo collections, but also large swathes lost to poor media storage.

Secondly, the type of storage media used can be problematic. Do you have any old 3.5" or 5.25" floppy disks? The files should be safe, but do you have a drive for them? How many people have old backup tapes? It's even more unlikely that you have the drives to read them and, even if you did, how about a computer to run it on? The BBC’s Domesday Project is a salutary tale of a product that became inaccessible within 15 years.

So what's the answer? From a digital perspective, you ideally want to store your data in one contiguous location (such as your hard drive) and regularly shift it to a new storage medium as you upgrade. This could mean copying it to a new PC or NAS. At the same time, you want to keep at least one backup, for example on another hard disk, a NAS, or online. As your archive grows, this process becomes increasingly complex and costly. For important, fixed, data archives, Piql believes it has an analog answer.

Piql-ing Your Data

Piql is a film company through and through — dating back to 2002 and the creation of its first product Cinevator, they provided fast printing of digital movies to film. However, it was their expertise in film that led them to develop a film backup service; film has a long shelf life and by innovating in this space, they have extended that shelf life up to around 1000 years. So how have they achieved this?

Piqlfilm is the base product, "standard" 35mm film in 1 km reels — yes, you read that right, a single reel is 1 km long! Onto that are imaged QR codes sized to single individual frames, however, these are described as "nanodensity" capable of storing 8.8 million data points or about 12MB of data; over one reel, that translates into about 120Gb. In order to achieve such densities, Piql needed a very sharp image and so use a standard PET (polyester) film base with high contrast, low speed, B&W emulsion. Standard movie reels are commonly 2000ft long (~600m), so Piql is using extra-long versions. This clearly has benefits as they can integrate their data processing into standard motion picture production workflows. Whilst we might gawp at developing a 1 km film reel, this can be achieved using an industrial film processor.

The data ingestion is a bespoke part of the workflow: Piql receives data from their customers, segment it in to QR code chunks and then encode it, before exposing it on to film using their piqlWriter. This fulfills the key requirement of losslessly converting from digital to analog so that they can take advantage of a reliable storage medium. The obvious question is this: how long will it last? Patricia Alfheim at Piql notes that:

The film is expected to last over 1000 years in the Arctic World Archive. We have conducted longevity testing, stress testing (from scratches to radiation exposure) and it has proven very resilient

This highlights another strand in their core archival strategy: an optimum location. The Arctic World Archive (AWA) is a storage unit in Svalbard, located in a concrete reinforced mine up to 300m below ground (and below the permafrost level). This ensures, even in the event of power failure, that the unit would remain below freezing. Svalbard was chosen as it is tectonically stable and formally declared as demilitarized. It is about as safe as can be possibly envisaged given current circumstances.

Of course, no backup strategy is effective until you can restore the data. The piqlReader (a film scanner) can re-scan the frames and decode the QR codes, however, Piql have gone much further given a worst case scenario of these facilities not being available. Alfheim comments that even "if (say in a few hundred years or more) reading technology is no longer available, you can manually retrieve the data, by following the human-readable instructions stored on the piqlFilm. All you need is a light source, camera, and computer, three things we think will always be available." These instructions are written in English, Arabic, Spanish, Chinese, and Hindi.

Who Archives Their Data?

It's fair to say that the Arctic World Archive is not the backup solution for your average user! So who is using it? Perhaps the highest-profile customer to date is Github who sent 21TB of data, or some 180 reels, this year. This includes an archive of all their active repositories, including Bitcoin, Android, and Linux. However, there are also collections of scientific, historical, and cultural information from customers such as the Vatican Library, Geoscience Australian, and the National Museum of Norway. If a customer wants to retrieve its data then they need to submit a request which is manually pulled from the archive before scanning and upload via fiber-optic back to Piql's headquarters for decoding. If they are really in a hurry this can be as fast as 30 minutes, but that's a service you pay for! So how much does it cost? Well, that's on a per-user basis, but expect it to cost more than a new NAS!

Images copyright Piql AS and used with permission.

Mike Smith's picture

Mike Smith is a professional wedding and portrait photographer and writer based in London, UK.

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Very interesting read. Thank you!

If the durability of analogue prints and negatives is, in fact, very good, why is archiving old classic film such a problem requiring great amounts of effort and money? And why do they need to be "restored" before all that? Is it because they were all on old nitrate film?

A lot of it is due to the chemistry of the film stock at the time. Combined with the very poor storage movie studios used, and constant handing of the original negatives to make copies/dupes it just degraded over time. The whole concept of film preservation didn't really take off until the mid 90's, so by that time you had films like "Wizard of Oz" just sitting in a hot warehouse for over 50 years.

Also some color films were just better than others, The Technicolor film stocks of the 50's and 60's turned out to be pretty stable over time, whilst the more common Eastmancolor stocks used in the 70's (aka Star Wars, Jaws) were just awful and started to color shift after a few years of improper storage.

Likely a similar story with old color film used for stills. I don't have any negative stocks for reference, but I have family shots from the 60's on Kodachrome that have sat in a drawer for 60 years and still look at perfect as the day they were developed. That's a positive film however.

The chemistry is much better now for negative film, and in the case of this piqlfilm, it is archival quality. The same will be used by the movie studios when they do a restoration. Scan the old original negative, clean it up, digitize it, then scan back out to a new 35mm archival negative.

Since there's no color shift I guess black and white negatives are even more durable, right?
A few years back, I bought a bunch of negatives from the early 1920s. They probably sat in a drawer for 90 years and they still look good. Here are a few examples (no restoration done):

Horse carriages also last a long time and they dont rust as much as all these highly complex cars. Simplicity of maintaining is also a tremendous plus. I might even commute to work with my horse from now on....

Since Elon Musk is bringing back electric cars from the 1800s, maybe he'll make a buggy whip for you, too!

A very interesting article. To me, converting digital back to film seems a bit counterintuitive. Film is very temperamental and has a poor shelf life. It's also too easily damaged. As a backup, I think a smarter and more cost effective storage solution would be multiple memory cards, tape drive, or a hard drive that is use for long term storage only. Also make some backups on a cloud based server.