Don't Panic! – Memory Disasters

Don't PanicAt some point in all of our careers, it’s going to happen. A disaster will strike and, for the briefest of moments, we’ll consider sending the assistant to find Dr. Kevorkian’s contact information. What kind of disaster could create such an extreme reaction? For a photographer, only a loss of images could make you want to have Suicide Hotline on your cell phone’s speed dial. After that initial wave of hysteria passes, however, it’s time to settle down and attack the problem. For every job there’s a perfect tool and, when it comes to image card disaster recovery, the perfect tool is the right software.

Long-Term Safety

One of the knocks on going all digital is the possibility of a loss of data—images—through some sort of computer glitch. While rare, such a loss is possible, but it’s probably no more likely than losing a roll of film at a lab or losing photos due to fogging from a light leak of some kind. On the whole, digital images are at least as safe as film images when properly managed.

Long-term management involves setting up a proper archive system. Again, some detractors say that this requires too much thought, but for long-term storage, film needs to be properly managed as well. The way to handle images long term is to establish solid backup procedures and follow them regularly. If you’re archiving to optical discs (CD or DVD), be sure that you use a pH-neutral marker when you write on the disc (the acid in most permanent markers can eat through the disc substrate, eventually rendering it unreadable, and an unreadable CD likely results in a permanent loss of data). Establishing a RAID to keep redundant copies of all your images is a safe way to ensure against catastrophic loss of archived files.

Memory Card Conundrums

When shooting film, there always was an outside chance you’d have a problem and lose photographs. I was shooting production stills for a music video producer once and one of the two camera backs I was using locked up, destroying a roll of film and rendering that back a paperweight. Those pictures are gone forever. Reading this you might be nodding at this moment, thinking that you’ve been through the same thing.

At first glance, the digital equivalent of such a disaster can be much more devastating. After all, a 4 MB CompactFlash card can have hundreds of images on it—a single card could hold an entire job. While it’s rare for any memory card to fail, it can happen, and if it ever does, the most important thing to remember is not to panic.

Memory cards typically fail because they become corrupted. Rogue data interferes with the camera’s or the computer’s ability to interpret the image data. The result is an error message and the appearance that all images have been lost. Note that I said the appearance is that all images have been lost. Appearances can be deceiving. Nine times out of 10, the image data isn’t gone, even if the card has become corrupt. Using image recovery software like Image Rescue 2.0 from Lexar, ImageRecall 3 from FlashFixers and RescuePRO from SanDisk, it’s a simple matter to recover the “lost” files.


Besides electronic corruption, which can happen for any number of reasons, there’s the possibility of human error contributing to lost files. Sometimes, the “Yes” answer to the key “Are you sure you want to delete these images?” question is selected hastily or by accident. A deleted file still exists in the memory card; however, it has been modified to be seen as expendable by the camera or computer. Using image-recovery software, you usually can recover these deleted files as well. If you format the card, images probably are gone for good, but if you merely delete the images, you stand an excellent chance of getting them back.

The other side of the coin also applies. If you want to delete your images from a memory card to prevent someone else from getting hold of them—say, you had borrowed a card—be sure that you format the card instead of just selecting the delete option.

In some cases, the memory card can’t be accessed by the recovery software. Then your best bet is to contact the card manufacturer. The major memory card makers like Lexar, SanDisk, Kingston and Delkin, among others, have a vested interest in helping you recover any lost imagery or data. If you contact their customer service centers, you’ll be directed to the appropriate recovery software, but if you point out that the software failed, the company often asks you to send the card in for a last-ditch effort at recovery. Of course, this is on a case-by-case and company-by-company basis, but they do try to be accommodating.

Care Of A Card

With the notable exception of the Microdrive, all D-SLR memory cards are solid-state; that is, they have no moving parts. Naturally, this makes the cards both reliable and durable. Some manufacturers produce cards that are designed to perform in challenging environments such as extreme heat or cold. While these cards cost more, they’re well worth it if you’re going to be in such an environment.

Because all memory cards are so small and carry so much critical data, there’s a natural tendency to treat them gingerly. Various manufacturers produce a variety of memory card vaults, cases and pockets that are armored, padded and reinforced to seal the card in a protective cocoon. You don’t want to abuse your memory cards, but for most situations, the protection offered by these products is overkill. Memory cards are incredibly durable. They stand up to the elements, impact and most other hazards you can throw their way.

The Microdrive is different from solid-state media. It’s actually a tiny hard drive within a CF Type II case. The Microdrive is quite rugged, but it does require more care than a solid-state card. In addition to being impact-sensitive (try not to drop one), the Microdrive also is a magnetic storage device and can be damaged by strong magnetic fields. We’re not trying to imply that the Microdrive needs to be babied because it doesn’t; however, a little extra care will ensure that your Microdrive doesn’t fail.

Unreadable Optical Media

As mentioned earlier, long-term storage of images on optical media requires some special precautions. Optical media (CDs and DVDs) stores data by “burning” small divots in the disc’s reflective layer. Many people think the disc’s main vulnerability comes from the possibility of scratches on the bottom side (non-label side) of the disc. Of course, you should always take care not to scratch any part of a disc, but particular care should be taken with the label side because a deep scratch on that side will go through to the reflective layer and render the disc unreadable.

With proper care, scratches can be avoided, but there are more insidious and less obvious ways that a CD or DVD can be destroyed. Most of us use a Sharpie to label a disc—they can color-code, they’re instantly drying and, of course, quite permanent. The downside is that Sharpie ink is acidic and over time the acid will leak into the substrate and eventually render the disc unreadable. Some stick-on labels are made with adhesives that contain acid as well. Those labels will eventually leak enough acid into the disc to make it unreadable.

Following the theory that the best defense is a good offense, always take care to use acid-free materials on optical discs that are used for archival storage. Specially made CD/DVD markers are marketed by a number of companies. The ink in these markers is pH-neutral and won’t harm the disc. We also suggest that
you keep the discs in sleeves or cases that are designed for long-term storage. It’s a bad idea to store the discs on a spindle over the long haul. Jewel cases are good, but bulky. Archival sleeves and a sturdy binder are an efficient, safe combination.

Okay—so you’ve done everything right and you store the discs properly. The Nike agency calls and wants one of your images from a shoot you did four years ago. They’re willing to pay handsomely and ask you to please send the image by the end of the week. You go to the CD archive—and wham! The disc is corrupt. It’s your only copy. Now what? In this case, memory card recovery software isn’t going to help. You need some heavy-lifting.

The good news is that digital data is much harder to get rid of than you think. The sinking feeling you get in your gut when you see an error message indicating that your image files are gone often is unwarranted. Not that it’s a comfortable feeling to discover that your images seem to be lost, but if you collect your wits and apply the right tool, you’ll usually be able to recover the files and move on with your life.


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