by Howard Butterfield Published 01/06/2006
As distasteful as it somehow is, our new digital cameras are simply computers with a lens on the front and the plethora of new data recovery companies and software on the market to help us with our corrupt data should act as a warning to us all. The sobering thought is that they must unfortunately have customers! The old saying in the computer industry is 'not if but when failure occurs' and we should try to take advantage of those years of experience.
The feeling of total despair when you realise that you are dealing with a corrupt data device is one not easily forgotten and the cost, inconvenience, aggravation and damage to business reputation is well worth investing some time and money to avoid.
There are of course the inevitable stories of successfully using memory cards after they have been through the washing machine or dropped from a great height, run over by trucks and still used successfully to record the day. Undoubtedly some of these anecdotes are true and the manufacturers have made huge improvements to the robustness of these devices. However we must be careful and not lose sight of the fact that these products are intricate and fragile and can be prone to failure.
So what precautions can we take against data loss and if, after taking those precautions, we are ever unfortunate enough to be in that situation, what should we do?
Some basic precautions
Handle carefully Fairly obvious, sorry but deserves a mention. Simply leaving these devices in your pocket with your keys and loose change can cause problems if you don't put them back in the plastic covers first. Cleanliness is also important though photographers are generally excellent in this area, already aware of the consequences of a single speck of dust on a chip.
All forms of moisture should be avoided if possible. A small roll of cling film kept in the camera bag can often be invaluable. However, it is the less obvious sources of moisture like condensation that often catch us out. Being outside in the cold and then going inside and turning the camera on without giving it time to acclimatise is pretty much guaranteed to cause problems.
Never turn off your camera whilst it is still writing to the card or take the card out of a USB card reader whilst it is still being accessed. Installing the card in a device while it is on should also be avoided as should attempting to access images from your PC and camera at the same time. It is also wise to take a bit of time to really reflect on what you are doing before deleting files or formatting a drive!
Low battery power
Low battery power can sometimes cause corruption; try not to use your batteries to the bitter end and have charged spares. Use a separate card reader rather than trust the connections and battery of your camera.
Format the card
Always format the card in the device you are intending to use it in. Using a card formatted in another camera is not a good idea. Also formatting the card regularly can help to eliminate errors that can lead to corruption. Format all your cards before you leave, place them in your holder one way for unused, the other for recorded. Put your name and phone number on them!
Whilst it is convenient and tempting to use the largest card size available, it is wiser to use smaller multiple cards. The largest sizes are generally more vulnerable to corruption and generally slower so can sometimes CASE STUDIES: theimagefile... DISASTER AVOIDANCE Howard Butterfield of theimagefile... provides some sound advice cause problems in burst mode.
Heat and vibration
All sources of extreme heat or vibration should also be avoided. Leaving the camera in the car on the dashboard in the hot summer sun whilst driving along a bumpy road is something that perhaps we have all done but at least now we can appreciate the risk.
Static and magnetic fields
Static shocks and strong magnetic fields are both causes of data corruption. Static can be avoided by grounding yourself before handling the data devices. Great care should be taken with magnets, they have a habit of cropping up in unexpected places. If we had more space, the tale of the wedding photographer who put his camera on top of the disco speaker at the end of the evening would illustrate the point!
Backup as soon as possible Whilst your images or files are only in one place, they are obviously at greater risk. Backing up on to a portable device, laptop or better via the internet to remote servers as soon as you are able is always a great idea.
And finally, an old-fashioned way of losing your data but that can have exactly the same devastating results: having your equipment stolen. This is again, unfortunately almost inevitable these days. So separating your expensive camera (the likely target), from the data, (the really valuable bit}, is always a good idea. Especially if travelling on any form of public transport.
So what do we do if we unfortunately find ourselves in the situation of having missing or corrupt data?
Our advice has to be that if you accidentally deleted a file or formatted a drive inadvertently then you will have a good chance of recovering these files yourself using one of the many software products available. Try to recover the files as soon as you can and obviously don't try to write or delete anything else to the card or drive. If, on the other hand, it is a case of classic data corruption, take care, very often in these cases software can make the situation much worse. The very best chance of success is to send the card or drive to the experts; a firm of data recovery specialists. The good news is that in most cases at least partial recovery is possible, for a fee of course.
The Backup Conundrum
One of the main issues facing a working photographer is how to ensure that they do not lose valuable data files. Loss of a wedding set is almost a business-buster, it would certainly damage your reputation. In the first part, Howard Butterfield described some of the precautions you should take and now we move on to look at your backup and security strategy for the longer term.
How long should data be kept?
It is likely that your computer will contain images and other data such as your accounts, VAT returns, emails, your address book and appointments calendar. All are valuable, and all need to be secure for extended periods (5 years and 9 months for your accounting records for example - probably longer than you really need to keep wedding shots). In such time periods the chances of hard drive failure or corruption are high, bordering on certainty. At the Professional Imagemaker office for example we lose about one or two hard drives each year. Your strategy has to accommodate this eventuality.
The Principle of Redundancy No this is not being chucked out of work (possibly the very reason you are reading this!), this is an engineering term to describe the safety factors you employ to protect against failure and damage, and to lessen the effects of such events. It is best described by a real-world situation.
If you shoot a whole wedding on a single 8 GB CompactFlash card and then drop that card in the moat of the castle where the reception is being held, you have just lost the whole wedding. If you shoot on two 4GB cards you have just lost half the wedding. If you have shot on eight cards you have just lost 1/8th of the wedding and so on. Now, you might just fall into the moat yourself, and so if you have passed some, or all, the cards, to your assistant for safekeeping, then you are reducing your risks still further. If you leave your cards in your camera bag, the most "stealable" item in your possession, then you increase the risk of losing the lot. Cards stored securely in your pocket are vulnerable only to pick-pockets or muggers! There are always checks and balances to risk assessment; for example if you use smaller cards you have to change them more frequently, increasing the risk of removing a card mid-write or dropping it in the moat in the first place. However the generally accepted wisdom is that small vis better via distributed risk theory.
The same risk analysis applies to your hard drives once you get safely home. As soon as you have copied the data onto your hard drive you now have a more secure copy and two of them. Make a backup copy to another drive or preferably to another computer and you have yet more security still - and probably as good as you can do in the initial stages. Making a copy CD or DVD improves your risk assessment further, making two copies and storing one of them at a different location gives you security against both burglary and fire - you would have to be very unlucky to have both venues burned down the same night for example. In the same way that more cards equals less risk, CDs mean less risk than DVDs - if you roll your chair over a DVD you lose more images than if you do the same thing to a CD (and yes we have done that!). Some people like to use 512MB CompactFlash cards because each may then be backed up onto its own CD.
How secure are CDs and DVDs?
Anybody got a 5-inch floppy reader? Although CDs are universal today they may not always be so, 3½ inch floppy drives are no longer fitted as standard, but they used to be. Our experience teaches us that fast CD drives do not always read as well as slow ones (we always keep old drives in new machines) - it is sobering to find that 25% of competition entries using CDs fail to open (in amateur competitions - I would like to think SWPP/BPPA does better - but you should see some of the things we get).
CDs and DVDs should be stored carefully, protected from dust and light. If you have cause to take an archive disc out of its case, treat it with much more care than your Best of Operatic Arias CD, it may be far more difficult to recreate and the arias are not part of your pension!
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