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Saturday, February 10, 2007

What Insurance Is For

Jacques Lowe, John F. Kennedy, Jackie and Caroline

I recently redid my insurance, and it brought up some interesting points.

Not just about insuring cameras. I'm pretty familiar with the pitfalls of insuring cameras, and you are too, probably. Oddly enough, my old "hobbyist" cameras were insurable, but my latest DSLR wasn't. I use it for professional purposes, and I use it outside the home. The bottom line is, if you have any appreciable investment in cameras and photography equipment, you need a separate insurance policy for them.

I insured my books (which I have to inventory, though—is that going to get done?) and my CD collection, on which I put a replacement value of $10,000. That wouldn't replace what I have, but I figured if I had $10k to spend on CDs after a fire, I'd be satisfied.

The interesting thing that came up was related to the CDs: what about iTunes music? Presumably, my computer could perish in a fire, and it—the computer, and even the software I have on it—is covered. But what about my iTunes music, the value of which exceeds the value of my software by a considerable margin? My agent's assistant said, "I don't think that's covered." I translate that to mean, "If push came to shove, you're raw meat and we're an alligator."

And that brought to mind a further thought. Years ago, a photograph was legally held to be worth $1,500. (I don't know what the current law is, since I'm essentially out of the business.) Mostly, this covered cases of lost submissions to magazines and other clients, and I dimly remember it being a cause of periodic disputes, chiefly because it was either way too much or way too little. The thought was this: if my house went up in flames, what about the value of my pictures?

Much of the value of my negatives and digital picture files is personal, of course. And some of it is potential—or at least, so I hope. In the past three or four years I've essentially stopped shooting 35mm B&W, after 20 years of shooting that way, and one ambition I have is to collect the best of my 35mm B&W work into a book. If I were to lose all my negatives to disaster, obviously that book would never get made, and that would be a loss—to me. Of course I couldn't prove that the raw material for any such book has monetary value, even though it might have.

But, in point of fact, I do happen to have a few dozen negatives and picture files that have actually earned more than $1,500—a few have earned three or four times that. Would insurance cover those few "earners," or would they essentially be like iTunes music—valuable, but good luck getting reimbursed for them? This brings up so much "gray area" that it's positively murky. If a negative earned $1,500 in the past, does it have that much value, or has all its value already been realized? If one picture file earned $2,500, does another similar picture file have that much potential value? How would you prove that? No wonder the law assigns arbitrary values to pictures.

There are numerous examples in history of irreplaceable photographic archives being lost to disaster. Most of Carleton Watkins' archives were destroyed by the San Francisco earthquake, for example. The answer from an insurance standpoint would seem to be: if you want your pictures to be insured, take out a separate policy for them, assign a value to them, and pay the premium for it.

Even some archives which were given every chance to survive, haven't. Jacques Lowe, for example, was a talented shooter who was also President John F. Kennedy's official White House photographer. His archive—tens of thousands of irreplaceable, historically significant negatives—were carefully organized and stored under ideal conditions in a bank vault. The bank, unfortunately, was in the basement of the World Trade Center. No trace of any of it was ever found.


Above left: Carleton Watkins, Buckeye Tree, California


Blogger Dave said...

Insurance for hard to duplicate tangable items like prints, chromes and negatives makes sense, but I wonder about the cost of insuring digital files compared to the cost of an off-site backup system? For the cost of the premium, I'd bet you could build a backup system with DVDs, tapes, or removable drives (or a combination) and store them in different locations. For example, how would the cost of backing up the drive with all your iTunes and putting a copy in a bank safe deposit box (or even just a relative's house) compare to the premium of the $10,000 you have on your CDs?

Sure, backing up takes a little disipline and time, but not only can you save money (maybe) over insurance, but in the event of a loss you'll have the data.

11:04 AM  
Blogger semi said...

If you don't do offsite backups of your images, you are asking for trouble.

Some strategies.

1. If you work away from your home, take a backup of your images to your office and leave it there. A small external hard drive (or a handful of DVD-R discs) is very inexpensive.

2. A safety deposit box at a local bank also works well.

3. If the above two don't work for you, you can leave an (encrypted) backup in your car. (It's encrypted so that if the backup is ever stolen out of your car, it would be useless to the thieves. Both the Mac and PC offer easy encryption for backups)

Dual-layer DVD-Rs cost a couple of bucks each and hold 8 GB of data.

The new Blu-ray drives that are available (~$400) will write 25GB or 50GB to a Blu-ray disc. You can even get rewritable discs.

Small hard drives are slightly less desirable (because they are mechanical and will ultimately fail one day) but work fine for second or third copy backups.

Remember the golden rule: If your digital data doesn't exist redundantly in at least two separate locations, it really doesn't exist at all.

12:39 PM  
Blogger robert e said...

There's a third side to the intriguing can of worms opened by Mike and Dave: As non-unique digital copies, a collection of iTunes-purchased music can be quickly, easily and exactly reconstructed from inventory. (Theoretically, this is also true of DVD's CD's, etc., but one's iTunes are already, and continuously, inventoried.)

iTunes itself, or a third party, could sell collection insurance/backup, either for a recurring premium for up-to-the-minute inventory, or a one-time virtual "backup". The price at which enough people find either way attractive (vs assuming the costs, risks and discipline themselves, or vs going without) may yet be profitable for iTunes, or even a third party.

1:14 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

As I've rambled on here before, I'm slowly exploring online backups. I already use my smugmug account as a backup for any JPGs I've shot, but I'm looking into Amazon's S3 service as well. So far I've gotten data up there and back in one piece. Now I'm working out a scheme to back everything up on a regular basis (as well as how much I'm willing to spend a month for data storage).

There are also services that will do this. The last time I looked I didn't like any well enough to give it a try, but storage prices might change my mind (i.e., if they wind up charging less than Amazon).

3:00 PM  
Blogger Albano Garcia said...

Photography is, and always was, about loss. Is in it's nature.
So, get over it ;-)

3:34 PM  
Blogger robert e said...

Just the other day, I turned my place upside down looking for a particular negative. I have a scan, and a CD backup of the scan. Yet I'd always wanted to try wet printing it and an opportunity had come up. But I couldn't find the negative.

(It turned up the next day--among several pages of negatives in a box that should have contained only proof prints.)

11:17 AM  
Blogger Anton Olsen said...

I wouldn't recommend storing CD-R media in the car. The media doesn't handle extreme temperatures well at all and unless you live in a cool cloudy climate it'll frequently get too warm or cold in the car.

The problem is in the different rates of expansion for the plastic disk and the foil back. If they experience frequent extreme temperature changes the foil starts to flake off and it will take your data with it.

Down here in Texas I can expect a music CD-R to last about 2 months in the summer when it's 105F outside and pushing 145F inside the car.

7:40 PM  
Blogger soboyle said...

I've tried online storage, and found it way to slow to be workable. At least it was for me trying to upload raw files. Even with a good connection, it seemed the servers on the other end were just crawling along. I'm sure this will be a viable option one day, but curently the services I've tried aren't workable. One option might be to pull a jpg out after your final edits of your photograph, saved at the best resolution, and upload these to an online storage site, then at least you have a copy of your favorite shots, if not an ideal copy of the original, and the file size will be a meg or 2 as opposed to 10X that.

8:53 AM  

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