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The Panic of 2013 -- Accessing Your Work Tweet This   Forward This

29 May 2013

When Adobe announced it would stop developing the Creative Suite to focus on Creative Cloud versions of its production software, the sky fell on photographers once again.

For some of us, the ground opened up too. And a few scrambled to find their footing on other platforms.

Mostly that just revealed how little they know about Photoshop (even if we can all stand to learn more, as this Michael Ninness presentation proves). Their meager needs are easily met by less powerful software mainly because they never learned much about Photoshop. They never needed to.

The sky falling is a different matter.

The sky isn't falling. It can't. But we can panic, if we choose. All we have to do is worry whether we can access our work if we're late on our monthly payment to Adobe for the Cloud.

Like any panic, there's a raindrop of truth behind that concern. If you build your ebook in InDesign CC and you subsequently give up your Cloud subscription, you won't -- at least as things stand now -- be able to open that InDesign document.

Adobe has promised to address that -- and agrees that you should be able to access that document. "How" remains unresolved.

Meanwhile, it won't hurt to think about what you can do to manage your work.


This isn't the first time photographers have worried about ownership of their images.

When camera makers let us save our work in proprietary Raw formats, we loved the idea of processing the data later, recovering highlights and developing shadow detail, shifting the midtones with no banding in the final histogram and all the other fun more bit-depth promised.

Then we found out some of them were hiding essential data in the indecipherable MakerNote section of the Exif header so we had to rely on them to tell us what we shot.

We didn't like that. Not one bit.

After all, we said, who owns the image? The camera maker or the photographer? It seemed obvious to us the photographer owns the image.

A few photographers wondered why they couldn't have all the benefits of a Raw capture without the proprietary nonsense. And a few arguments were made to suggest you couldn't. But they never made much sense, frankly.

Proving the point, Adobe developed the DNG format as an open Raw format, publishing the specs and developing a free converter to convert proprietary Raw formats into DNG files. Because you could wrap the whole proprietary Raw file in the DNG file, nothing had to be sacrificed using the open DNG format, although there were some important efficiencies to be gained if you simply converted.

Camera manufacturers gave up the bid to hide essential data in the MakerNotes. They didn't stop using it, of course, but they didn't go after the third-party utilities that reverse engineered the data so it was just as accessible as the rest of the Exif data.

So whether you used DNG or not, your camera originals were not held hostage by the camera manufacturer.

PANIC 2013

The InDesign example above doesn't translate for photographers using Photoshop, although it does (theoretically) for those using Lightroom.

When you manage your image collection with Lightroom, you are building an SQLite database [Fn 1] that includes essential information about each image. That information includes things like the file's physical location, various camera settings from the Exif data and any edits you may have made. These are all something separate from the actual image file on your hard disk.

You can use various database utilities to read the SQLite database Lightroom creates but you won't get very far because you won't understand the data structure. If you can't open that SQLite file with an application that can read that information and display it in meaningful ways (like rendering the edits), you do lose your work. And since they only application that can do that is Lightroom, you do need to be able to run Lightroom.

Adobe recognizes that, too. Product Manager Tom Hogarty posted a Creative Cloud FAQ in which he asserted, "Lightroom 5 will continue to be available as a standalone product, available for purchase as an Electronic Software Download or as a boxed product with a traditional perpetual license."

So Lightroom users are better off than their InDesign cousins.


But Photoshop users inhabit a different world. There's no database. But there is a proprietary format known affectionately as PSD. It's well enough known that many conversion utilities and other image editing applications can read it. But that's small comfort when a new version of Photoshop revamps the PSD specification to handle new features.

The advantage of PSD is that you can open a PSD file and pick up where you left off. Your Adjustment Layers are right where you put them, your Blending Modes are set the way you left them, non-destructive changes are still editable.

But it isn't really an archival image format. It's a working file format.

As Ctein points out in PSDs and Permanence:

PSD's should not be considered an appropriate format for archiving. Especially not layered PSDs. Especially, especially not layered PSDs that include active elements like un-rendered type or smart filters or objects. No way, no how.

So, um, what is an appropriate archive format?


There isn't one. So, yeah, now you can panic. No, just kidding. There's no single archival format and no need to panic. Both.

Let's start at the beginning.

You capture an image in the camera. Or do you? There's the Raw file and then there's that JPEG option. You can get both at once but the JPEG is itself a rendering of the Raw data. That presents certain efficiencies, though. So you can legitimately record Raw, JPEG or both with any press of the shutter.

That's your camera original.

It should be archived. There will never be anything else like it. And that's true even if you prefer to archive your camera originals as DNG (which are camera originals for some cameras). Optics Pro, for example, just won't look at a DNG file. It wants the camera original.

There really is nothing else like what comes out of your camera.

But because we do a lot more with our images these days than just shoot them and look at them, the camera original isn't always the whole story. We may make extensive edits to the images, cropping them, straightening the horizon, improving contrast, shifting the tone curve, spotting out dust, all sorts of things before we like what we see.

An application like Lightroom reads but doesn't overwrite the camera original. In fact, until you export your images, the edits you make only exist as instructions in Lightroom's database. Which is what makes it important Lightroom can be owned outright and not merely subscribed to.

We tend to look at our edits -- whether in Photoshop or Lightroom -- as provisional. We've improved the image but we may take it further. Or not. We don't know. We like leaving it where it is. We like having the option to come back to it later with fresh eyes.

In Lightroom, that's no big deal. We can quit Lightroom and return to it later with our edits rendered just as we left them.

But Photoshop is different. We have to save a file or everything we did is lost. If we save the file as a PSD, we won't overwrite the original and we'll be able to open that PSD to continue our edits. If we export it as a JPEG or TIFF (an uncompressed TIFF, Ctein recommends), we've rendered the image and can only take it from there -- no backtracking, no adjustments.

But that export is an important archival format itself. It's the baked version of the image. The final version (although there can be more than one final version of a camera original).

Call it the final edit.

So now we have the camera original and the final edit to archive.

But wait, let's not forget that working file, the PSD in Photoshop or the edit in Lightroom's database. That's archive material, too.

It's the working version.

In Photoshop, you'd archive the PSD file. In Lightroom, you'd backup the database (which is why Lightroom prompts you to do just that when you quit). The working version is always going to be dependent on the software that created it (and therefore not, strictly speaking, archival).

But it's an important file. It's the blueprint. The master plan. Save it, back it up, put it in your archive.


How does DNG fit into this picture?

It's lamentable but because Optics Pro doesn't open DNG files, we've stopped converting proprietary Raw files to DNG. We sure like avoiding XMP sidecar files holding our Raw edits and love the way DNG lets us slap our copyright inside the file, but we don't want to give up Optics Pro either.

And as soon as Optics Pro recognizes DNG as an input format, we'll go back to using it for just those advantages, if nothing else.

Meanwhile DNG does have a role to play in making intelligible images stored in Raw formats developed since the release of your image editing application intelligible. DNG Converter remains a free utility and is updated simultaneously with Adobe Camera Raw to handle the latest Raw formats. By converting an unsupported camera's format to DNG, you will be able to open that image in your old software. If that's Lightroom or Photoshop, it will read DNG just fine.


So no panic. Just archive. Archive your 1) camera original, 2) working file and 3) final edit.

You'll keep your options open and you won't lose your work.


[1] Thanks to Aaron for pointing us to Gerrit Schimpf's SQLite vs MySQL page summarzing the difference between the two. Requiring an embedded database, Lightroom uses SQLite.

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