Making the world a nicer place, pt.1

Sometimes the world can be a pretty rotten place for a photographer. I'm not talking about vapour trails ruining a perfect sunset, or overzealous security guards giving you grief when you try to take a picture of a building - although that's enough to ruin anybody's day. No, I'm talking about the fear of not knowing whether or not I'll still be able to access my image data 5 years from now. And that's not because of CD rot.

At the moment, the world just isn't nice enough.

An endless number of different RAW formats. That's what's making the world so yucky for photographers. If you're after the best possible quality when taking photos, and would like to tweak them after they've been taken, you naturally shoot RAW. Problem is that every camera has its own RAW format. And not only are they incompatible between brands, in most cases even between cameras the formats aren't compatible. Oh, and they're bound to become obsolete. Soon.
Within months of purchase, your camera will be superceded with a new model. We've all got used to that (albeit sometimes with gritted teeth).
What not a lot of people think about though, is that, inevitably, these new cameras will have different RAW formats, and more likely than not, they will be incompatible to your camera's.
Once your camera is phased out, the manufacturer has little to gain from providing updates for the old RAW converters,although, speaking from experience, Fujifilm's Hyperutility converter could do with all the upgrades it can get.
Also, manufacturers of accessories, such as photo storage devices (portable hard drives with a means of displaying image previews), will most likely only support recent cameras. A case in point is the gorgeous Epson P-2000. Except it isn't so gorgeous, because it doesn't support my camera's RAW format. And chances are, it never will, because the S2 Pro is an old camera, so Epson has no incentive to write software for displaying its RAW format.
Another threat comes from the obsolescence of the manufacturer's software. Admittedly, it will take some time, but the day will come when your manufacturer's conversion software will no longer run on your computer. Whether it's because your computer's operating system will be upgraded, or because your computer's manufacturer introduces new CPUs, your conversion software will cease to work at some point in the future. And I wouldn't count on your camera's manufacturer to provide a conversion software for a camera that's been out of production for two years, regardless of the number of digital negatives out there.
But of course, that's not a problem for you, because you use Photoshop, right? Wrong, actually. A while ago, Thomas Knoll, onew of the original Photoshop developers and in charge of Adobe's RAW converter software, refused to write a converter for a new Nikon model. That's because Nikon had introduced a method of encoding the custom white balance setting, and reverse-engineering it might have contravened the US DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act). And since Nikon didn't want to volunteer the required information, he couldn't do it.
Although, after a lot of pleading with Nikon, Adobe were finally granted permission to decrypt the format, so that in the last minute everything turned out well. However, I'm still scared. I'm just an amateur with a few thousand negatives at most. What if you were a pro with half a million? How long until I can't read them anymore, because the manufacturer of my camera doesn't support a new operating system and I can't find a programmer to write me a converter?

As far as I can see, camera manufacturers have a few options:

  1. Clearly document the RAW format of each camera, and make it available to the public. I might not be able to write a converter, but somebody else might be. This is clearly the worst possible option, since every camera still needs its own converter. But at least it would be a step in the right direction, away from manufacturers locking users into their own, proprietary software.
  2. Get together with all other manufacturers, or at least with what could be considered to be a critical mass, develop a common format for RAW files, and place it under public license. The appeal of such an approach is immediately obvious: everyone uses the same format, everybody's happy with it (because ererybody had input), and nobody can meddle with it because it's in public ownership. Unfortunately, the danger is that there will be multiple factions and we'll end up with another Betamax vs. VHS battle on our collective hands. Also, trying to get a consensus out of a bunch of camera manufacturer's representatives, all with their own interests on their minds, is only marginally more difficult than getting blood out of a stone.
  3. They could adopt DNG, and enable every camera to output files in this format (either as the default or as an additional format). DNG is a standard for storing RAW format picture data, has been defined by Adobe, and while it's still proprietary, it's the next best thing.
    The argument for its adoption is pretty simple, really: any standard is better than none - a long as it isn't going to be hijacked by a single party.
    If past performance is anything to go by, Adobe can probably be relied upon as the owner of such a format, as they own quite a few widely used, quasi-standard file formats (PDF, EPS, and Postscript all belong to Adobe).

Personally, I like the third option best, provided Adobe allows equipment manufacturers and software companies to use the DNG format for free. Even a nominal charge would pose a problem, since it would discourage many shareware and hobbyist programmers, and the ultimate goal should be to make DNG ubiquitous.

A nicer world for everyone, for free

Imagine for a moment what would happen if the industry as a whole adopted DNG tomorrow.
Camera manufacturers wouldn't have to change a lot - just write the sensor data in a different format. That's all.
For you as a photographer and consumer, it would mean that your photos no longer had the kind of built-in obsolescence that comes with the ridiculously short lifecycles of digital cameras and the lack of support for older models. It would also lead to a wider choice of software and accessories. Imagine being able to make decisions about which accessories (like photo containers or software packages) to buy based on their features, not on your camera being supported. You'd always be able to buy the best software or hardware, without having to make compromises.
For third-party manufacturers, both cost of development and time to market would be substantially reduced, since only one converter would have to be developed to cover all cameras.
And it's not going to cost anybody a penny. Isn't this just too cool for words?

Making the world a nicer place, pt.1