I had been doing photography seriously since I was a teenager in the early 60's. I'd made my living at it, primarily as a photojournalist, since the late 60's. All of my negatives, contact sheets and most prints were stored in cardboard boxes, in my basement.
Around 1980 I experienced a flood in my home and I lost everything. Everything! Every negative, every slide and almost every print. Needless to say I was devastated. So much so that for almost 10 years afterward I did very little photography. I just couldn't retain my self image as a photographer without the fruits of some 20 years labour.
Taken with a Leica M3 and 50mm f/2 Summicron lens
"Angel Boy", is one of the only images still in my possession taken before 1980. The version you see here is reproduced from a scanned print, (explaining the reduced image quality) which survived because it was framed and hanging in my living room all these years. I had framed it because it was the first of my photographs to be purchased by the National Film Board of Canada. It is now part of the National Gallery's permanent print collection in Ottawa.
Then, in the early summer of 2001 there was a small fire in my house. There was no flame or heat damage but the smoke was so pervasive that we had to live elsewhere for more than 2 months while the house was cleaned. Fortunately there was no affect on my film or digital storage media. But this time, even if there had been, I would not have lost my work. I was prepared. Here's how you can be too.
The most cautious approach to the safe storage of exposed slides and negatives is to keep them in a fireproof file cabinet or bank vault. Many pros do this as a matter of course. Not all ones film mind you, but certainly the bread winners. But with the advent of digital image processing this practice is less common because now there an easier way.
When I scan my film I use a very high quality scanner. I believe that I'm getting just about all the information that's on the film. I scan in 16 bit mode. Particularly with medium format this produces very large files, typically 100 — 300 megabytes. Every week or so I put as many of these on a CD ROM as will fit. In fact, I burn 2 CD ROMs, and I'll explain why in a moment.
This means that if my camera originals are somehow lost forever I always have the raw scans. But, since as I've certainly learned, shit happens, just having one copy isn't enough. That's why I burn a second CD.
I now therefore have 3 copies of my scans. One copy is on my hard disk for ready access (I currently have a total of 4 — 60GB drives on two networked computers, for a total of 240 gigabytes of online storage). Everything that I need and want ready access to is instantly available. (With large capacity drives now being so inexpensive, why not?)
One copy of each CDR is kept in my home. So, if somehow one of the files on my hard disk gets accidentally zapped I have its backup instantly available. The second copy of each CDR is kept off-site. I have a house in the country, and every time I go there I bring up the current pile of disks that I've burned. This way, if I were to suffer a total loss of the computers, hard disks and CDRs at my home, I would still have a complete archive set available. Keeping this second set at ones office, or the home of a relative or friend works just as well.
Since blank CDRs cost about 50 cents each in quantity, the cost of doing this is trivial. It is time consuming though, so keeping up to date is important. Also, having one of the latest high-speed CD burners helps speed up the task.
The Death of CDR
I've often had people tell me that they're nervous about archiving on CDR, for two reasons. One is because they have heard that CDRs deteriorate over time (10 — 30 years), and that they worry that when the technology is obsolete there will be no way to read the disks. (Remember 5.25" floppies and 8-Track tapes)?
Both concerns are valid, yet both have a simple solution. Copy your files to the new medium once the latest technology is available and appears to have become a standard. Undoubtedly CDs won't last forever, either as a storage medium or a technology. So when its replacement technology comes along simply copy the files over and you're good for another quarter century or so.
One thing to bare in mind though is the file format that you save your files in. Unless this is a popular mainstream format (like TIFF or Photoshop's .PSD) it is possible that in as little as 10 or 20 years there may not be software around able to read it.
Whatever approach you decide to take though, backup early, backup often, and keep a complete archive at another location. One day you'll be glad you did.