I broke out instantly in a cold sweat. My heart pounding, my brain panicking, I replayed the last hour in my mind. Had I really seen any photos on the back of the camera? Yes. Had I grabbed the correct card to download? Emptying my pockets, the answer was unequivocally yes. Was I really going to be the victim of losing several hundred photos for a charity event, and wasting seven hours of my life in the process? Yes! At least, that’s what I thought.
Thanks to flash media data recovery software, I was able to retrieve every single one of my photos and deliver them to the client as if nothing at all had gone wrong. It reminded me of the importance of a plan B. These programs don’t get much coverage, but when they save your bacon in a pinch, they become the best investment you’ve ever made. So here’s a rundown of everything you need to know about data loss with flash media cards: how to avoid it, and a few options for your own “Plan B” which, if you’re lucky, you’ll never have to use.
AVOIDING CORRUPT MEDIA IN THE FIRST PLACE
One of the best ways to lose data on flash media is to damage the card. CompactFlash cards may be thicker and a bit more robust when compared to SD cards, but all of them benefit from being stored in their plastic cases, and from avoiding abuse from impact, static electricity, dirt and moisture. Assuming you take good care of your cards, the scenario I described above—improperly ejecting a card—can make data unreadable.
Another surefire way to make a card unreadable is to never format the thing. Over time, erasing and re-rerecording to the same card without formatting is a recipe for disaster—particularly if it’s used in different cameras. Erasing files leaves the file folders and structure intact on the camera. Formatting the card wipes the slate clean. The theory, at least, is that the latter approach—the clean slate—allows for a more stable environment in which to store your image files. Formatting in camera, too, is better than formatting in computer, as it structures the files in a way you can guarantee the camera will understand.
Another method for avoiding bad media is to buy name brands. Now, that’s not an indictment of all those less-than-famous cards. Not at all, in fact. But in general I find that products for which you pay a premium, whether in the photography world or elsewhere, tend to back up those premiums with higher quality construction and more reliability. This can be as simple as a better quality control process that catches defects before they leave the factory, and is exactly the time of corner that gets cut with discount products of all types. I find the same is true with flash media. You may pay a little more up front for a card from a well-known brand, but it’s more likely to pay off in the long run with longevity and stability. In some cases, this is because they use better methods of moderating wear and errors, which can increase over time. Even though flash media doesn’t have moving parts, it does have a limited life span. If your cards get old and begin getting buggy, consider it a sign that it may be time to replace them with new cards. Whatever brand you choose, perhaps the best lesson is to stick with the kind of card that never lets you down.
Check a card’s specifications. This is especially important if you’re shooting video, where higher read/write speeds and faster throughput of data are essential. Ensuring you’ve got cards that meet the speed criteria of the cameras and file formats you’ll be shooting is a great way to assure that you’ll actually get the shot in the first place, and that you don’t accidentally pull the card out of the camera while it’s still working—another great way to get corrupt files.
Another approach is to understand that corrupt cards are an eventuality, and work to keep it from being a problem—like choosing a camera with multiple card slots. My Canon EOS 5D Mark III, for instance, can accommodate both a CF card and an SD card. I keep them set to record every picture to both slots, in order to generate an instant, in-camera backup. If one card is corrupt, I can turn to the backup. That’s the plan, anyway.
If all else fails, or if you shoot enough pictures, eventually the odds are going to catch up with you and you’re going to find yourself with unreadable data. In these cases, it’s time to call in the pros. First, try using software that can read a corrupt card, or even one that has had the images deleted off of it. How it works is fairly simple: you purchase (or download for a free trial) one of the applications listed below or one of countless other data recovery applications available online, and run the scan on the card. To do this, you generally tell the application the type of file you’re looking for (photos or video files, etc.) and then it works its magic.
SanDisk Rescue Pro is available for Mac and Windows. This is my go-to solution when I have a corrupted CompactFlash or SD card. Unfortunately it’s happened enough—about once a year, I’d suppose—that it’s good to have the application on hand. Available in Standard and Deluxe versions, the primary difference is the capacity of cards that can be evaluated (up to 64GB in the Standard version, 512GB max in the Deluxe versions) as well as increased file format options in the deluxe version. Price: $39.99 and $99.98, respectively, www.lc-tech.com.
Card Rescue was built for Mac users and compatible with operating systems from OSX 10.7 (Lion) up to the most recent release (El Capitan). It’s free to download and try. If you’re able to find the photos on your card, you then purchase a license for the software to carry out the actual photo rescue. This is the way most of these applications of this type work. They want you to know you won’t be wasting your money, which is quite reassuring, actually. The software supports most memory types up to 256GB maximum capacity. A Windows version, branded as Card Recovery, is also available. Price: $39.95, www.cardrescue.com.