When Digital Fails You


It had to happen. It just did. You hear about other’s stories, predicaments and mad rants about it, and hope to God you won’t have the same bad luck, but deep within yourself you just know it’s a matter of time before it strikes you as well.

And it never strikes at the good moment, it’s always when you want it the least. Classic Murphy.
I’m talking about one of the drawbacks of relying mainly on digital hardware for your photography.

2 weeks ago I was in New York. Evidently I brought the dSlr along, with some CF-cards, Speedlight, the usual gear to take some shots. After the second day, for a reason that’s still unknown to me I switch the CF-card that was in my camera for another, empty one. I thought it felt sluggish, a touch non-responsive, but really nothing mindboggling. I could see the pictures fine on the back of the camera and they looked great to me.

I end up shooting the rest of the trip on that second card, and get home in Belgium well.
Once I recovered from the jetlag I decided to empty my cards on my laptop and start with the one that was still in my camera. 260 NEF-transfers later the second card was empty, and Lightroom filled up with the New York Skyline. I hop the first card into my card reader and then disaster strikes.

It makes all kinds of funny noises, and then comes the prompt. ‘This card is corrupt and unreadable. Please format it before use.’ Your heart starts pumping, your blood vessels open up and you feel your fingers tingle. Moisty hands ahead y’all !

Okay, might be a reading error, don’t freak. I retry it in the cardreader, and retry from the camera hooked up to the laptop. Nada.

‘Knock, knock. Who’s there? Murphy’.

I immediately open up Google and type ‘Photo Recovery Software’. 138.000 hits. Greaaat.
Narrowed it down to 2 I tried essential software’s.
SanDisk RescuePro (free with Extreme cards, otherwise purchase)

WinRecovery CardRecovery (28€)

I gather all my courage and boot up CardRecovery. He starts scanning and about an hour later the results show up. Found over a 1,000 files. Great! Right? I start looking over what the card found, and amongst the pictures were pictures of past holidays, other shoots, and the NYC photos. I think I’m saved until I look at the specifications of the picture. Image Dimensions : 128×128 & File Size : 43,3 Kb
It’s even worse than not getting anything back, because now I know there are some residues left of those photos on the card, but they’re just fragments. I try to open up the NEF’s (which were the right filesize) in Photoshop CS4 but again an error. I’m starting to lose my cool, but manage to regain my composure.

CardRecovery failed me so I switch over to SanDisk’s RescuePro software. If you use like my, Sandisk Extreme IV CF-Card’s, you get a this software with your memorycard. I install it, boot it up and scan the card. An hour later again, I look over the results and they look a helluvalot better.
RescuePro managed to get back approximatively the same amount of pictures, but most importantly : IT RECOVERED MY PICTURES!

The freaky thing though is that it recovered the NYC pictures in JPG format. I shot everything in RAW so I don’t know where it got those JPG’s, but it’s better than nothing. They appeared to be shot in JPG BEST FINE so the quality was more than acceptable.

I’m going to share a couple of tips with you on how to avoid this little encounter with Murphy because frankly, there’s nothing more frustrating than coming home after shooting and discovering you’ve been doing it for nothing!

Memorycards operate in the same way as books do. Your individual photos are the pages, and just like in a book there’s a Table of Contents (TOC). When you plug in your card to your pc, or your camera, the first thing it’ll do is try to look up the TOC to see what’s filled on your card.

About 70% of corrupted memorycards are due to a damaged TOC which means your computer assumes the card is empty since it can’t read the TOC and therefore demands you to format the card (which is the last thing you should do)
However ! The fact of the matter is that your photos are STILL there! There’s just no way to look ’em up due to the faulty TOC.

Recovery software like Sandisk’s get past the faulty TOC and just retrieve all the data on the card, so you can do with it whatever you wish.

Corrupted databases can occur due to several things that you can easily avoid :
Avoid shooting with a empty battery, if for your camera shuts off whilst writing to your memorycard it could cause this problem

-Although you camera indicated how much space there’s left on the card to the shot accurately, I like to leave a margin of about 5-10 shots. Why? Memorycards contain information about previous photos even if you think you’ve formatted them, and that info eats up space so if for some reason your last shot overwrites a ‘ghost’ file, and jams the whole thing up it might crash your card.

Use high speed cards for high speed photography. If you often shoot sports, or anything that requires sequences of numerous images shot in full burst you better get a card that’s up to the task (at least x133 speeds). If you shoot bursts and the card can’t follow, it’ll start writing over it’s own photos and you’ll end up with half-and-half shots.

Format in between shoots. However, as I’ve noticed it’s not bulletproof, but it’s better than nothing. I format my card each time I shoot something new but as you’ve read in my story, it’s not bulletproof.

-Cards are still mechanical things, they look simple from the outside but they most certainly aren’t, and sometimes they just break. Most pro-cards like the Sandisk Ultra IV have about 500,000 write/read cycles which is plenty. Other cards can have more or less, but it’s something to keep in mind. Better to spend a couple of bucks on a new card, than to overuse an old one, and end up losing all your pictures.

-If you’re uncertain about the quality of your external card reader, use the in-camera USB transfer option. Some, cheaper models of external card readers can damage CF-cards.

Back Up your work regularly. This is more something for your computer but computers aren’t the most reliable of things again. Back up your work very regularly. It’s a pain in the ass when you have to do, but you’ll love yourself afterwards if you ever come to be in the position where you lose all your stuff. I back all my photos up to 2 external hard drives. Works like a charm.
Check out the Drobo, which is a great backup solution!

Good evenin’ Guys!



3 thoughts on “When Digital Fails You

  1. Maxime says:

    Thanks for the tips on avoiding this. I had a buddy of mine to whom this happened, and unknowingly he formatted his card, and albeit the resuesoftware lost all of his pictures.

    I actually didn’t know about the shooting on very low battery threat!

    As alwats, great reading!


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