Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Tip: Protect those precious memories!

Figured it was time to share a photography tip.

 One of my Facebook friends and former photojournalism students recently posted that she accidentally deleted every picture from her camera's storage card – more that two years worth of pictures! ARGH, indeed!

It's a nightmare for those who are prolific snapshooters. It's one of the hazards in this digital age. With all those confusing menus and options, it's an understandable-but-tragic mistake.

There are a few things you can do to avoid losing precious digital photographs. In fact, for all you digital photography aficionados, I'm going to teach you a mantra. Everyone repeat after me ...

Download, back up, and reformat – often!


Digital photography is just so darn convenient! Cameras can fit in your pocket. That little tiny card in your camera stores thousands of images. Problems can arise, however, when folks treat their camera as an all-in-one picture taker/storage device/photo album. The more images you store in your camera, and the longer you store them there, the greater the chances of losing them to accidental deletion or device failure. And devices do fail. Don't be lulled by the promises of technology.

The simplest advice I can give it to download your images – often. If you frequently use your digital camera, odds are that you have a computer, as well. I won't give a download tutorial because there are too many variables. But most computers ship with photo downloading and storage software. Most cameras ship with similar software, as well.

Another option is to utilize on-line photo sharing sites, like Flickr or Picasa. Technically, this is uploading to a web server. But it achieves the same objective – to get images off your camera's card to a safe place where they can be managed, shared, and displayed.

How often should you download? Personally, I try to download my images after every assignment I shoot. That's not always possible, as I sometimes drive directly from one assignment to the next. In other words – as often as it is practical. Don't let two years, or even one month's worth of pictures accumulate on your card without downloading them.

Back up

In today's digital world, backup is one of the most important and most ignored functions. Like I said, devices fail eventually. Internal computer and external hard drives have mechanical moving parts, tiny as they are, and they eventually wear out. They are susceptible to damage if they are dropped or knocked about, as well. Flash memory devices, such as the cards that store digital images in your camera, don't have moving parts, but they contain tiny microprocessors that can be damaged. Both types of storage can become corrupted over time, as well, and won't be able to write new data to them or correctly read what's already stored on them. This is why back up, or redundancy, is crucial.

Technically speaking, downloading is a form of backup as long as you don't erase your camera's flash card. However, the more times you back up your data, the safer it is. Plus, eventually, you are going to fill up that card. Make a simple backup plan and save yourself some potential grief.

One of the easiest ways to accomplish this is to download your images to your computer and to an on-line photo sharing service. Some services, particularly Picasa, can sync this operation all at once. This requires the download of the Picasa software, but it's free. You can set it up so when you download your pictures through the software, it will automatically save your images to your hard drive and upload them to a Picasa web album. In addition, it will automatically catalogue all of your images for easy searches. I mention Picasa because I'm familiar with it. But check out Flickr and other services to see if you can accomplish the same thing.

Another option is to purchase an external hard drive. They come in all kinds of flavors, sizes, and prices, which start at around $40, but you can drop several hundred dollars depending on the features you seek. Desktop models are less expensive and have higher storage capacities, but portable models can fit in a computer bag, pocket, or purse for easy backup wherever you are. You can simply drag-and-drop image files or folders to copy them from your computer to an external hard, or you can use software to automate the process.

One of the easiest and least expensive ways to back up your digital photographs is to burn them to an optical disk. CD-Rs are an option. But DVD-R is probably the best way to go. They have much higher capacities and, over the years, have proven to be more reliable than the CD format. Optical disks are not practical to work on images from. They are strictly for storage. But they are cheap and reliable. Lots of photo organizing software will allow you to automate the burning process as backup so you don't have to manually drag and drop images and folders.

For some folks, a digital camera might be the only digital device they own. For those who don't use computers or go on-line frequently, most all photo labs will burn a photo disk for you. Whenever you go to have prints made of your digital photographs, spend the extra couple of bucks and get a disk made of all the images on your card. Peace of mind is worth the expense.

At the Herald, I download my photographs to a computer hard drive, then back them up on an external hard drive, and burn them onto DVDs. Eventually, I have to erase the files on my computer's hard drive because it fills up fairly quickly, but they still exist in two separate spaces for the future.

Backup, backup, backup. It's an extra step or two, but necessary if you really want to preserve your images for the long term.


If you really want to maintain the reliability of your storage card, I recommend reformatting it every time you download images.

The idea of erasing all those images makes some people nervous. But if you've followed my advice and properly downloaded and backed up your images, there's no need for concern. It gives you a fresh start and you rarely have to worry about filling up your card and missing opportunities for great photographs because of it.

As I mentioned earlier, cards can become corrupted over time. If that happens, you might lose the ability view some images, or even all of them. To prevent this, you need to reformat the card in your camera, at least on occasion.  This not only erases the data on the card, but ensures that the card is set up and structured specifically for your camera.
We rarely think about the memory card in our cameras, but it requires care and maintenance, too. Here's a link for some tips on that: 13 Tips for Using and Caring for Memory Cards.

Still hope

All hope is not lost if you accidentally erase the images on your card. Several companies make data recovery software, and sometimes it's free and comes installed on your card when you purchase it. (You just need to install it on your computer before you start using the card.)

When you erase your card, in reality, the images are hidden from view but the data is still on the card. After reformatting, the old data is overwritten as you make new photographs. However, if you use data recovery software before you start shooting again, you may be able to recover most, if not all of your erased pictures.

Here is quick list of a few programs available:

I use PhotoRescue, so I can vouch that it works. It's saved my behind more than a couple of times.

So remember ...

Digital technology is wonderful, but you still have to take some precautions and protect those precious memories recorded in ones and zeroes, especially during the holiday season when the picture-taking kicks into overdrive.

  1. Download
  2.  back up
  3.  and reformat 
– often!


  1. Good policy Scott. One that I always abide by, but some of my fellow staffers don't. It eventually does cause them a problem when they have 8 gigs of assignments built up on a card and don't remember what they have already downloaded.

  2. Yeah, Brian. I think a lot of newspapers don't consider the importance of proper archiving. And I can't say that what I'm doing qualifies as "proper." It's not just newspapers, either. I think most folks take digital data for granted and are generally apathetic towards its preservation.

    Archiving digital data and implementing safeguards against its loss ain't cheap. But what's the cost of losing that data, particularly digital photographs that document history for future generations?

  3. Nice. It will save me. Numerous people will be thankful to you.


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