The Evolution of Photo Formats

I've seen the topic of photo file formats pop up a number of times, from JPEG to HD Photo to TIFF to DNG… the list goes on and on. The Photoprenuer has an interesting article titled “How Long Will Your Photos Last?“. This one really got me thinking about standard formats and the future of the digital photo.

When I think of photo prints, I think of them fading after so many years. This is probably not the best way to keep your photos around for a long time. Film and slides, I'm assuming the same thing, but I'm no film expert. Now digital photos, on the other hand, should keep forever as long as you don't lose them or corrupt the files… right?

While the data integrity may be preservable, the ability to view that data may not be. The battle between JPEG and HD Photo has already begun. Almost every camera outputs (or has the ability to) a JPEG, and it's a format that's viewable on any piece of viewing or editing software I've encountered. But what about 10 or 20 years from now when the humble JPEG has been deemed “outdated” and support for this format slowly trails off? Could this happen? Not anytime soon, but I won't be surprised when it does.

That same battle may already be underway with RAW files output by dSLR cameras. Most cameras output a RAW file that is of proprietary format to that camera manufacturer. What happens when they go out of business? Konica Minolta was gobbled up by Sony and I'm cranking out MRW (Minolta RAW) files that will probably drop off of Adobe's support list as the KM cameras die off. What about the smaller dSLR manufacturers like Pentax, Fuji, and Olympus? How long will they last in the market?

Luckily, there is (sort of) an answer to the problem — DNG (Digital Negative) format. It's kind of a non-proprietary RAW file created by Adobe, and it's even being used in some cameras. For those of us with cameras that don't output a DNG, Adobe has DNG converter software for Windows and Mac — sorry, no Linux. It sounds intriguing, but apparently there are still a few issues with the open source-ness of it. But it's really the only RAW format that tries to address this issue.

Is this the format that will take over as the standard of RAW? Who knows. I'm hesitant to jump on board and double the number of files in my image library. Maybe as soon as every camera manufacturer implements this format in their new cameras, I'll make the move. Until then, I'll probably just rely on Adobe to keep supporting my file formats.

I don't see any huge changes in photo format support over the next 5 or 10 years, but I'm guessing something will happen eventually. I would expect a shift or update in formats every decade or two as technology progresses. Heck, I wouldn't even be surprised to see our basic methods of data storage change so drastically that it wipes out the need for file formats as we know them. But hey, correct me if I'm wrong in 50 years.