Chances are, you've invested a fair amount of money on your cameras and lenses. You've certainly invested long hours pondering the craft of capturing the image. But how much time have you devoted to where that constellation of 1's and 0's that constitutes your livelihood goes once it's captured? How long have you considered your choice of memory card for your SLR, the discs you burn for yourself or for clients, or the hard drives you store your photos on in your studio and on the road?
Despite outward appearances, not all flash cards, CDs/DVDs, and hard-disk drives are created equal, so it pays to pay attention.
Flash in the Pan
Despite the popular notion that all flash memory cards are disgorged from the same factory with nothing to distinguish them but the housing, there is actually a good deal of variance between cards, asserts Jeff Cable, director of marketing, LEXAR. The difference goes beyond the performance and capacity specifications you're used to. "People forget that there is a lot of intelligence in those cards," he says. NAND flash--the basic ingredient in a memory card--is manufactured in different quality grades, with less-expensive cards plucking the lower-quality NAND, Cable adds.
Quality control can also vary markedly between brands. "We have a lab with 16 people, and all they do is test products all day," Cable notes.
Off-Loading On the Road
Flash memory has also migrated over to notebook computers in the form of Solid State Drives (SSDs). Unlike hard drives, SSDs have no moving parts, so they can take an enormous amount of jostling without impairing any data stored on them.
Notebooks that use an SSD instead of a hard drive boot and load applications faster, as much as 10 times faster in the case of SANDISK's newest G3 SSDs, says Don Barnetson, senior director of SSD marketing, SanDisk. "What that means for high-end photographers is the ability to scroll through thumbnails of pictures in real time, rather than waiting for them to slowly appear one after the other."
You'll also enjoy about a 15 percent boost in battery life when using an SSD, according to Barnetson. "Photographers are some of the most demanding users in the computing space, so we expect them to be early adopters of SSD technology," Barnetson says.
Where SSDs do lag behind hard disks is in price and capacity--you'll pay more for the benefits of SSDs. However, flash prices are plummeting--on average of more than 50 percent a year for the past three years, Barnetson says. While they may never achieve a price-per-gigabyte parity with hard disks, flash vendors hope that users will pay for the security, speed, and energy savings.
Go for the Gold
Before you reach for a spindle of CDs or DVDs to burn an event, studio session, or simply make a backup, Steven Mizelle, president of KMP MEDIA, has a message for you: Think about risk. Most CDs and DVDs have a life span between two and seven years, he says: "There are a lot of ways that the integrity of the data burned onto them can be damaged."
If the images are lost, they can take your reputation with them. By contrast, gold-plated archival-grade discs not only look snazzy but provide clients with the peace of mind that the photos stored on those discs will last as long as 100 years (provided, of course, that they're not used as Frisbees or otherwise mishandled).
Newer Blu-ray discs are capable of enduring for approximately 50 years under the right conditions, says Jim DePuydt, product manager, IMATION. They're too expensive to simply hand over like a CD or DVD, but they do serve as a handy archival solution, provided you have a Blu-ray burner, DePuydt says.
Indeed, as a medium for long-term archiving, nothing aside from magnetic tape can currently match an archival CD, DVD, or even a Blu-ray disc, says DePuydt. Hard disks fail, and flash memory holds data in the form of an electric charge, which dissipates over time.
As the volume of images under management grows, many studios turn to hard disks arranged in RAID (redundant array of independent disks) arrays for both conventional day-to-day editing and longer-term archiving, says Dale Pistilli, VP marketing, branded products, WESTERN DIGITAL. These groupings of hard-disk drives provide several benefits. First, since they combine multiple drives, they offer redundancy (hence, data security) in the event one drive fails. Depending on the configuration, they can be speedy for editing large files without bogging down your system.
RAID offers a "very low potential for data loss," Pistilli says. For studios that want to both edit files quickly and back them up securely, the company offers a RAID 5 system (the networkable WD ShareSpace 4), which combines the performance attributes of a RAID 0 platform with the data security of a RAID 1 array.
Hard-disk drives will survive longer than your typical optical disc, Pistilli says, and are considerably less expensive per gigabyte than flash memory--as much as 30 times less for some products.
Keep it Safe
When it comes to your images, it's good to cultivate what Cable characterizes as a healthy paranoia regarding your files. "There is no such thing as total security," Mizelle warns, but that shouldn't stop you from saving your files on the highest-quality media across multiple platforms. The professional life you save may be your own.