Nowadays almost all photos are taken using various digital devices. In the era of paper photos, the main photo destructors were natural disasters like fires, and also such a phenomenon as discolouration. Modern digital photos face mainly the same dangers – fires, floods, and so on. Surprisingly, digital photos also have some equivalent to discoloration – degradation of a photo storage device over time. However, apart from these dangers inherited from paper predecessors, digital photos are subject to new specific dangers, for example: loss of photos due to a storage device failure. Let’s discuss in more detail what dangers digital photos might face and how you can avoid many of them.
Generally speaking, there are three bottlenecks where you can lose photos – when taking photos, when transferring them, and in storage.
#1 Loss of photos in camera
Immediately after you have taken a photo there is only a single copy of it. If this copy is lost, you can in no way get it back. In all fairness, such cases are relatively rare. Even if data recovery software doesn’t help, as a last resort you can send a memory card to a repair lab in the hope that the hardware specialists can help. However, if it fails, all you have left to do is to say “goodbye” to the photos because there was only a single copy of them.
For example, you shoot a football match and then on the way home lightning hits your camera and all that was left was a pile of ashes. This is what contracts call “force majeure” and therefore nothing can be done. However, history has some funny stories. A man had dropped a camera into the sea; a year later some divers raised it and surprisingly the photos were readable. Divers were even able to identify a camera owner by the photos and then returned him his “property” (read the full story here).
Here, there is little advice for you because surely you know better how not to drop the ball, say due to a camera failure or something like that, when shooting a unique event.
There are some tips on memory card health that will help though:
Also remember to turn off your camera before removing or changing your memory card or battery. Not doing so can result in a card crash and lost images.
#2 Transferring photos
The process of transferring digital photos from your camera to computer is akin to producing paper photos from the negative. In both cases you duplicate photos from a single copy you have, whether it would be a negative from an old camera, or a flash card in a modern digital device.
In the film days, the process of transferring photos to new data storage was laborious, took a lot of time, and required certain skills and equipment; with digital photos the process becomes radically simplified. However, strange as it may be, nowadays the chance of losing photos during transfer is still significant.
Earlier, when developing film you had to stick to certain rules. Ignoring these rules inevitably resulted in destruction of photos. For example, one such rule says that all actions with negatives must be performed in a darkroom. In case of digital photos there are also some rules, however, people tend not to follow them because ignoring them doesn’t always lead to loss of photos. Those “less fortunate” people who neglected the rules and lost their photos, then have to bother with photo recovery.
Let’s look at the rules:
- Always use the “safely remove hardware” option when ejecting a memory card or any other removable device from a computer. Otherwise, the operating system may not have time to handle data on the removable device properly. That sometimes can lead to the RAW file system issue, the typical symptom of which is when Windows shows you the message like this:
- Don’t eject a memory card from a working camera, for the same reasons as in the previous case.
- Always monitor the battery charge. If battery runs low at the wrong time, it may result in a file-system failure on the memory card. Generally, it is better to use a card reader device for transfers since it has no such problems.
- Transfer photos regularly. By doing so, in the worst-case scenario would be that you lose only you’re latest photos, rather than an archive for the entire year.
However, it should be noted that all listed above typically don’t destroy photos themselves. It just leads to a file-system failure which is pretty well cured by data recovery software, given that you have not formatted a card.
In general, loss of data in storage is bad form. Immediately after taking pictures you have just one chance to copy them, and you still can write data loss off to an “irresistible force of nature”, for example. Once you have enough time to create a copy of the photos, however, data loss is less excusable.
Do not trust only one storage technology
Do not rely upon only one storage technology, even if you think it is very reliable. No data storage technology, be it a fault-tolerant RAID or modern Storage Spaces from Microsoft, can replace a good old backup. More than that, a proper backup procedure requires an off-site copy, maintained in some physically separate location. This is to prevent simultaneous loss of both original,
and backup copies to a fire or theft.
- Off-the-shelf NAS devices like Synology and QNAP have several indicators that can be green, yellow, and red. These indicators significantly simplify monitoring of the device “health” – just remember what typical indications are, then glance at the NAS at least once a day. Extinguished or red lights are a reason for concern.
- If you store photos on a Windows PC, use special software to monitor your disk state. S.M.A.R.T. is a technology used in hard drive self-diagnostics. Fairly often, it can predict hard drive failure ahead of time. A monitoring tool requests S.M.A.R.T. status of the device periodically and if S.M.A.R.T. data deviates from the normal values, the tool will alarm you so that you can back up the data.
- Check the S.M.A.R.T. state of your hard drives at least once a month.
Photo recovery tips
If you have lost some photos and are looking for a way to recover them, there is no need to panic because photo recovery from a camera memory card is one of the easiest, and well-established data recovery tasks. All you need is to download and install any data recovery software – there exist both paid and free options – select a memory card from the device list, and see what it brings up.
If you are not satisfied with the quality of the recovery, it makes sense to try several tools since recovery algorithms used in various software may differ in some way. Note that data recovery tools, for the most part, are read-only so they will not destroy anything on your card. Windows CHKDSK is the significant exception to this rule – it sometimes does make matters worse.
Below are some tips on how to achieve the best result when recovering photos from a memory card:
- Stop using a card once you see that something is wrong. If the camera’s behaviour is unusual, stop taking any new photos until you clear up the situation with the existing photos.
- If possible, use a card reader device when recovering data. It is stable and provides better performance than a cord and direct connection to the camera.
- Do not take new photos once you realize that you need to recover data. Usually, with each new photo you lose a capability to recover one previously deleted photo.
- Ascertain in advance what your camera actually does when you format a card. If the camera uses a “complete” (also called low-level) format by default, change it to a “quick” format. Thereby, if you format a card accidentally you still can recover photos from it; after a complete format, all the data will be overwritten and not recoverable.
Bonus – discolouration
In early days, when archives were stored on magnetic tape, it was critical that the tapes must be rewound regularly. Otherwise, the data became unreadable because magnetic fields mixed between adjacent layers of tape (what was then known as crosstalk effect).
Some place the photos on CDs and then do not check them for years. In five years one can easily find that at best only half of the CDs are readable. CDs are not suitable for long-term storage and should only be considered as one of the backup options for a short period of time.
Those who keep their photos on old hard disks, in ten years will not be able to find a proper connector anywhere else except in a museum. If you are going to store photos for a long time you should use the most modern devices to increase the chances of find a compatible setup in the future. This is sometimes called “future-proofing”. However, you should not bet on the ultramodern technologies since it may happen that the technology does not stick and therefore, say in five years, you will not be able to find compatible components (think beta versus VHS).
Generally speaking, digital discolouration differs from analog (paper) discolouration, only in that you can discern at least something on a discoloured paper photo, while a digital picture is destroyed immediately and completely.
So some care and planning on your part can help you avoid losing your images, or in the worst-case scenario, quickly able to recover them. What’s your disaster avoidance plan?