PSA: Have Photos Backed Up On CDs? You May Wanna Move Them!


To be honest, I have not backed up images on CDs for over 10 years now. But back in the days when a D70 RAW file was about 5MB it made sense. You could fit about 140 RAW photos on one CD. Or if you back up a few years earlier, photo labs would provide film scans on CDs, with the average size of 3MB per scan, a CD would hold over 200 photos.

Any why not? CDs were cheap, easily stored and cataloged and they would last forever. Right? Wrong. It turns out that the lifespan of CDs is not as long as everyone initially thought. And it also turns out that CDs are more susceptible to the elements than we thoughts. And your old photo collection stored on CDs and DVDs is probably dying s you read.

The Library of Congress  are having a similar issue and are now seeking ways to save their CD collections as well.

CDs were not meant to last forever in the first place – they were more of a fast way to produce media to the masses – so we shouldn’t really have expected them to be alive today. But it gets worse. recordable CDs and DVDs are even more prone to fast deterioration because of their complex laying.

And to put the last nail in the coffin, labeling a disc with either a marker or a sticker expedite the decay process. This is because the chemicals found in the adhesive interact with the reflective silver layer and literally eat into the disc.

If you still have photos on CDs and DVDs, this would be a good time to bring them over to your hard drive.

What to do next?

The first thing would be to get a hold on those CDs. If you are organized they may be resting somewhere in a neat CD case or a CD drawer labeled by date and location. If not they may be in the same shoe box where the printed copies and negative are. Get them all together in a nice stack.

You would want a computer that still has a CD reader, while not all new computers have them, they are still pretty common.

Now comes the laborious part. Get each disc copied over to your hard drive. You can clean them really gently with a lens cloth, but nothing stronger than that. definitely not liquids or solutions.

If you have the date or location of where the pictures on the disc were taken, put that info into the files name or folder.

If a disc fails, put it aside, chances are there is not much you can do now. At the end, you can try and get them to a data recovery service if you can handle the bill.

[lead photo (CC) by Fanch The System]

  • innovatology

    Ummm… and hard drives will last forever? I think not…

    • D.Pulsar

      For ever, no.But they will last much longer, and there is solution to manage HDD with RAID strategy. RAID-5 for example (this is what i’m using) allows you to write your datas on several disk, and if one of them crashes, data can be recovered using other disk

      • innovatology

        Most HDD’s are engineered to have a magnetic stability at bit level of about 10 years at normal operating temperatures. That means that the bits may start randomly flipping if left alone. I believe few manufacturers actually publish this data, and certainly do not publish tolerances. Temperature variations will decrease that time, and many other factors will influence the mechanical lifespan of a HDD. You should not rely solely on HDD for archiving purposes.

        That said – at the moment there are few, if any, viable alternative technologies for digital archiving short of periodically copying your data from one medium to another and maintaining multiple backups.

        This, together with our move to the cloud, is going to cause a lot of headaches for historians in centuries to come. I predict a gap in history due to digital decay. Still, this comment will probably not last that long, so it won’t matter 😉

  • Marco 2k7

    I backup all my stuff on an external HDD, but I still store another copy on DVDs. It may be useless…but I’m safe XD

  • Joey

    I store all my stuff on platinum punch cards.

  • Renato Murakami

    This is true, and it’s quite possible that if you’ve been doing this from the early stages of CD or DVD recording, you already lost part of it.
    I won’t get too much into it (if you want to know a bit more about it, search for Disc Rot and some other terms), but basically, in the early days of CD and DVD blank media, the techniques and technology for protection of those weren’t as good as they are nowadays. It’s mostly invisible to the final consumer but over the years protective layers and different ways of making the reflective layer on CDs and DVDs evolved. If you ever broke a CD or watched a video on how they are produced, you’ll know: it’s basically a very thin plastic sandwich with a couple of transparent plastic sheets for buns, and the reflective layer which stores the data as the hamburger. 😀
    And even with the best technology applied into making those, they still have a relatively small lifespan.
    I’ve gone through all of them, and am currently using a blu-ray recorder fully knowing that one day I’ll have to replace it for something else. Lost too many CDs and DVDs that were stored and handled properly.
    Contrary to advertising and even several warranties, it’s not a very reliable storage format – which is why several companies still uses magnetic tapes to this day (which are also not entirely reliable, but you can increase it’s life span quite a lot when it’s handled in very controlled environments).
    In any case, good PSA. Lots of people don’t know about this.

  • midwestslp

    Thank you for the info.
    A note to the editor: You should really proofread your articles.

  • JoeBob Frank

    Odds are good that you can recover data from a moderately damaged disc with a tool called ddrescue. I’m speaking specifically to the GNU version and not dd_rescue (both are similar and open source). I’ve had luck in the past on optical & drives with ddrescue.

    Also, I did experience this first hand a few months ago while re-archiving some 10+ year old CD-R & DVD-R to BD-R. Of the 100s of discs I went through I had to recover files from about 10 with ddrescue. One wasn’t salvageable. All media was kept in CD cases inside a closet.

    I’ve started making a parity disc before burning my BD-R now. This will provide some additional protection. The way I do it is with par2 (very similar to RAID5 without going into all the detail) and have it set to have one parity disc for every 9 actual discs. That is the number I’m comfortable with.

    There is always a better solution than this but it’s how I roll. For the stuff I really care about I use an online backup provider.

  • Wil Fry

    My risk-reduction plan is to use *multiple* backup types. Every image of mine is in at least three places: hard drive, DVD, and online. All of those places will fail at some point, but the chances of them all failing at once is miniscule — aside from a worldwide EMP event or catastrophic failure of civilization, in which case I’d be less interested in keeping my photos than in staying alive.

    For what it’s worth, my backup CDs from as early as 2001 are still functioning without fail, and in fact have saved me through a couple of hard drive failures.

    Another tip that will make all future backups easier/faster: Organize As You Go. It’s always going to be more difficult to organize later than it is the day you take the photos. Establish habits of naming folders by date (or subject, or location, etc., depending on your style) as you copy the images from the camera the very first time.

    For me, dating works better. An example folder name from my hard drive: “20140521-0843 R play w B (s28,Y560,v4)”, where the initial numbers are the date and time, “R” is my daughter, “B” is my son, and the notes in parentheses are lens, flash, and trigger information. Every month’s images are in month folders (“2014-05 May”) and every year’s images are gathered in higher-level directories.

  • Alim

    Who else remembers using the Ricoh platinum and then Taiyo Yuden CD-rs’, haha you just took me 10 year back. :)

    Nowadays I use Sandisk cards for short term storage (1 day – up to 2 years), Flickr and as internet my storage. I don’t even use justhost as a webpage, I only use it the FTP and WebDAV features. I can backup, share, collaborate, and sync with any person on any device using WebDAV and FTP.

  • ext237

    Back in the pioneering days of buring CDs, a disc burned in one manufacturers drive wouldn’t work or be read in another device. I’ve had discs become unreadable while in a crystal, in a dark storage box, on a shelf, untouched for only 2 or 3 years. Home-quality cd/DVD burners are very unreliable.

  • Konflix

    Remember analog cassettes,8 tracks and videotape? I have cassettes dating back to the 70″s that sound great and any VHS videotapes that I can find look pretty good. Magnetic tape signals were not supposed to last that long. Old TV shows recorded to 2″ video prove this point. And that pastel and saturated plumbicon video look are a kick to watch. If I’m correct,many TV shows are still backed up on tape.As for convenience….well…

  • lowolf

    When Cd’s came out they were suppose to last 50 years same is true for any media type, So use External hard drives, Flash drives and cloud storage , you never know when something can happen and you need those copies so back them up to multiple locations.
    I learned long ago not to trust CD or DVD and I have had hard drives fail so being more careful I have learned to backup to multiple locations.

  • Roger Lambert

    Please be aware that there are two types of recordable CD/DVD’s. Regular ones with a 10 year lifespan. And gold CD/DVD’s – which have an estimated lifespan of 200 years. Gold does not oxidize, unlike the aluminum layer in the the regular discs. A gold DVD still costs about a dollar.