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Weighing up the risks of data loss for a photographer’s workflow – from a data recovery engineer’s perspective

Guide for photographersIf you take all the precautions possible to prevent losing photo images you will soon find out that the process is slow, expensive and unless you are really ruthless with the delete key when reviewing your photos, you will have the additional task of managing a large photo library.

There are many ways to streamline the process of moving images from camera to permanent storage and the key considerations to whether you use them depends on the benefits they give, i.e. time saved, versus the increased risk of data loss and additional hardware costs.  The risks vary for each time-saving activity, but, in most cases can be quantified so that a more informed decision can be made.

The highest risk decision in the process is when to prepare the memory card for reuse – the risk is how sure are you that the photos you want to keep are safely stored on another device.  Did your import/copying process complete correctly? Can you be sure?  What are the consequences of making a mistake? If I made a mistake can I get the photos from the card? Understanding the consequence of each action is the key to deciding what workflow you chose to adopt.  The extreme would be to only ever use the memory cards once and never delete or format a card. Almost treat it as if it were film. This, of course, would be prohibitively expensive and a management nightmare.

Therefore, there are two options for making space on a memory card for more photos: deleting or formatting.

Deleting images on the memory card

Camera cards use a standard format for saving files which is based on a FAT file system,  meaning when a photo is deleted it is only marked as deleted in the file system and the photo data still remains. What this means is the photos can be recovered up until the card is used again and new photos (or other data) overwrite the deleted ones. If the photos are copied to a computer then edited and deleted, the computer has the additional protection of the recycle bin and is usually much greater in storage capacity than a standard memory card.

If photos are accidentally deleted on a memory card and require recovery there are many software programmes that can do this, like Ontrack EasyRecovery. However, not all programmes will be compatible with the latest RAW image file formats, therefore quality of the recovery will be affected if more photos have been saved to the card since the photos were deleted.

Formatting the card in camera

Depending on the camera, the command name changes in the menu.  Sometimes it is called format, low level format, erase or prepare card for use.  All are destructive writes to the card and will overwrite any previous images on the card.  For example, on a Canon S100 the command is “Format” and it has a “low level format” tick box followed by a confirmation message saying “All data will be erased”.

It should be made clear that no data recovery is possible if a card is low level formatted as all the data is overwritten.  This can be confusing as the command to delete individual photos on a Canon S100 is named Erase, but only marks the photo to be overwritten at a later time.

If you are not sure of what your camera is doing either assume the photos are unrecoverable or do some test recoveries after the different commands.

Reducing the risk

Having a methodical process for importing photos is probably the most important thing you can do.  Importing each time you return home or to you base and delete/format the card after each import.

Workflow process

This is my non-time critical process using Apple Aperture software:

  1. import photos from card library on laptop
  2. delete photos from the card
  3. delete to recycle bin all unwanted rejected photos
  4. rate and edit keepers
  5. import laptop library to main archive library on mirrored 2 hdd external HDD
  6. upload best photos to cloud storage (SmugMug.com)
  7. Periodically make a backup copy of the main archive library to another HDD and keep at my workplace.

This process works if I am at home or away.  I also have the option to turn on photostream and photos are automatically uploaded to Apple’s iCloud.  Other alternatives are Dropbox, Google Drive, local backup to small external drive or SSD using a drive cloning software.

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