Thanks to the digital age, it has never been easier to take great photos—or to lose them. Most of the time our precious files move from flash memory cards to hard drives to online servers without so much as a hiccup. But when something does go wrong—whether it’s a corrupt file or an overly enthusiastic use of the erase button—valuable pictures can disappear into the digital ether, never to be seen again. Fortunately, there are steps you can take now to avert disaster. And if trouble does strike, there are ways to recover from it.
Protect the media
Photographers tend to overlook the most obvious booby trap: losing the memory card itself. Memory cards are misplaced all of the time. Often they’re found by honest people, but if you don’t have your cell phone number or e-mail address written on each card, how is someone going to return it to you?
Start by writing your contact information on every memory card you have. (I affix a small label to my cards.) And don’t stop with memory cards. Every hard drive you own, laptop computer, digital camera, and memory card reader (which could have a card in it) should be labeled with your name and contact information This is your first line of protection against losing valuable data. And I’ve seen this work. A friend of mine got a call from a rental car company informing her that three CF cards full of pictures from Iceland were found in the auto she had just turned in.
Use the “Two Places” rule
As soon after capture as possible, you want your images to reside in at least two places. When you first record an image is when you’re most vulnerable to loss. Once you upload it to your Mac or save it to a portable hard drive, it’s living in two places. Great! But if you erase the memory card right away, you’re back to one place and living a precarious existence.
The Two Places rule says that you don’t erase the memory card until the pictures on your computer have been backed up to a second location. That could be a portable drive, an online storage service, or a second computer. Then and only then can you erase the card.
Delete with care
Once you’re ready to delete images from your camera, you typically have three options: you can erase a single photo, erase all photos, or format the card. Each method has it’s own purpose.
One at a time For the bad shot that you never want to see the light of day, you can usually press a button on the back of the camera to make it disappear. But photographers are sometimes too aggressive with erasing images from the camera. They delete pictures before getting a good look at them on a larger computer screen where more detail is revealed. Instead, only delete the absolute failures in camera, and wait for the big LCD display to decide on the rest. Even if part of the image isn’t in focus or someone in a group shot wasn’t looking at the camera, you may be surprised to discover a gem of an expression or a great little detail elsewhere in the shot. A bit of creative cropping could turn the dud of a photo into a keeper.
Erase all photos The Erase All command is convenient and what most photographers do after the images have been safely uploaded to the computer and backed up. When you press the Erase All button, photos are removed from sight and you’re able to start shooting again with a clean slate. (There is one exception to this process: if you use the Protect Image command on your camera to prevent important photos from being accidentally erased, then the Erase All command will not affect them.)
I say “removed from sight” instead of “deleted,” because, technically, the photos are most likely still on your memory card even after you’ve erased them. Over time they are replaced by new images that you take. This clever system of removing photos from sight instead of instantly vaporizing them increases your odds of being able to recover them later if needed.
Format card The Format Card option removes all images from sight, even those you’ve marked as protected. Therefore you should use this command with care. Some experts recommend that you format your memory cards every few months to clean up the file directories on those cards. That’s not a bad idea. Over time, cluttered directories can affect card performance. But I think it’s even more important to use the Format command on new memory cards so they’re optimized for your particular camera. This is also helpful when you’re moving a card from one camera brand to another, such as from Nikon to Canon.
By the way, when you import photos to iPhoto, the program will offer to erase your memory card for you. Although there’s nothing technically wrong with this approach, I don’t recommend it because of the Two Places rule. You’re more likely to erase the card before properly backing it up when using the computer to delete the images. I think a safer approach is to disconnect the card from the computer with its pictures intact, go about your backup ritual, then when everything is living in multiple locations, use the Erase All command in the camera to start anew.
Media has a life expectancy. For example, SDcard.org says that we can expect a 10-year lifespan for most SD memory cards. High quality DVDs stored in a safe environment—away from direct sunlight or extreme temperatures and stored in archival material—should last about a decade, too. I trust mechanical hard drives for only about three or four years because they have moving parts that can wear out.
By dating all of your media when you start using, you’ll have a better sense of when to replace it. Yes, it’s tedious to copy all of those ancient CDs on to a new hard drive, but if you want to protect your images, that’s what you have to do.
Recover accidently erased images
Even when you try to do everything right, sometimes things go wrong. Perhaps you erase your memory card before you remember that you haven’t downloaded the most recent shots to your Mac. Fortunately, there is software that can recover deleted photos from your memory card.
To ensure the best results possible with recovery software, make sure you don’t shoot any more photos with that card. Chances are good that most of your erased photos are still there. But as you take more photos, the older ones that are hidden are removed. So, turn off your camera, eject the memory card, and insert a different one.
When you get back to your computer, put the accidentally erased memory card in a card reader and run data-recovery software. I’ve used DataRescue’s $29 PhotoRescue, JoeSoft’s $30 Klix ( ), and Disk Doctors’ $69 Photo Recovery and have found them each to be effective at recovering photos and videos. All three applications offer demo versions that you can download for free and use to see which images are salvageable on your memory card. If you find what you’re looking for, then you can buy the full version to actually save the photos to your computer. Even memory cards that fail in the camera often have savable images that can be recovered with this software. So, don’t give up hope until you’ve given it a try.
If you’re mindful as you move your images from your memory card to the computer and you back up your photos immediately, the odds are good that you’ll be able to recover from just about any type of mishap. And isn’t that a beautiful picture?
[Senior Contributor and professional photographer Derrick Story teaches iPhoto on Lynda.com and runs a virtual camera club at The Digital Story.]