By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter
Writing a witty lead paragraph for this week’s article about protecting photo files and other electronically stored data was simply too elusive. What can I say? I’m at a loss. But hopefully your data won’t be.
Memory cards and apparently lost photos are a common cause of severe heartburn. The digital memory used inside photo memory cards, flash drives and other solid-state media is not bulletproof. Far from it. Memory cards fail fairly regularly, perhaps even more often than spinning mechanical hard disks. However, as with all electronic file loss, user error, rather than hardware failure, is the most common cause of lost data.
Never use memory cards as the primary storage for important photos or data. Promptly copy all important photos and other data files to a hard disk that’s backed up regularly. That way, you’ll have at least one copy.
Some cameras, such as the Pentax K-3 and some upper-tier Nikons, have two SD card slots and allow you to simultaneously write each photo to both cards, providing an extra measure of protection against hardware failure. Still, even that feature doesn’t protect you from user error and accidental file deletion.
After you’ve finished using a memory card for any important photos, remove the card from your camera and immediately slide the small tab found on all SD cards to the locked position. Locking the card is an extra protection against accidentally deleting files or formatting the card. Do not unlock the card until you have assured yourself that all important files have been saved to a different primary location. A memory card can be read when locked, but no files can be saved to it.
Memory cards are small, easily damaged and often lost when casually placed in a pocket for a few days. Rather than trusting to luck, immediately put a used memory card back into its plastic case and then put that case into a larger envelope that won’t be misplaced or easily lost when pulling something else out of your pocket. Label that envelope by date and subject.
If you’re working remotely for an extended time, you can email files to yourself if you have a camera with wireless capabilities and are within cell range. Another useful way to save and back up photo files in the field would be a battery-powered portable hard disk enclosure that includes a memory card reader. Western Digital, a highly regarded hard disk manufacturer, makes some cutting-edge, battery-powered portable hard disks that allow you to directly upload photo files from your SD cards to the independent hard disk without any external wires, computers or Internet connections.
Amazon sells Western Digital’s 1 terabyte (1,000 gigabytes) version for $162, and the 2 TB version for $219. Search for “WD My Passport Wireless 2 TB Wi-Fi Mobile Storage (WDBDAF0020BBK-NESN).”
These products include not only basic hard disk and memory card operations but also network routing, multiple external connections, network-attached storage for your home or business computer network, and Wi-Fi hot-spot Internet capabilities.
This requires some firmware updating for reliable operation. As this time, I would not totally rely on such a device as the sole storage of important photos or other data. Still, it’s potentially very useful and an exciting mixture of useful functions, especially for someone frequently working away from home base.
However you save the files on your camera’s memory cards, do so promptly. Memory cards can fade over time, particularly if exposed to excessive heat. Although long-lasting, memory cards do wear out over time and may fail unexpectedly, likely at the worst possible time. Murphy’s Law, after all, seems to be a fundamental law of nature.
When you first get a new memory card, format it using the camera in which that card will be used. There’s usually a menu item to format memory cards. Remember that most electronic gear that fails usually fails during the first few uses, and memory cards are no exception. Don’t use a brand-new memory card for important photographs without first using it successfully and reliably several times. Similarly, avoid old, heavily used memory cards for important events.
Be cautious about deleting files in your camera. That’s the most common way that files are accidentally lost, through overly hasty deletion.
After you have assured yourself that all photos from the memory card are securely stored elsewhere, you can unlock your memory card and reuse it. Periodically reformat the card before reusing it. Don’t forget, though, that reformatting a memory card, flash drive or any other electronic media seemingly erases everything on the card or other media, enabling you to start fresh.
I used the word “seemingly” because a simple reformat does not really erase every bit. In fact, most files are still there but merely invisible to the user. That’s also true when individual files are erased. That can be a salvation in case we’re careless or a bit too eager.
When a memory card, or a hard disk for that matter, is reformatted or individual files erased, the directory entries are deleted but the data’s still there until other files are written over top of the old, apparently erased data files. Erasure or reformatting simply tells the device that files can be written on the sections storing the “deleted” data.
Should you accidentally erase important files from a memory card, flash drive or regular hard disk, stop using that media immediately. The data is likely still there, if invisible.
If you keep using the card, flash drive or hard disk, then you reduce your chance of recovering the deleted or otherwise lost files. If recovery is started promptly, it’s relatively easy to recover files erased from a traditional spinning mechanical hard disk, and that’s been done routinely for over a decade.
Solid-state electronic storage media stores data in a slightly different manner and data recovery seems less straightforward. However, most SD card and flash drive vendors often offer data recovery software that seems to work reliably. Some provide free downloads while others, such as Sandisk, offer a higher-level product but charge for the program. Data recovery services, while an expensive last resort, provide the highest probability of successful recovery.
Most importantly, stop using the memory card, flash drive or other data storage media immediately if you have accidentally deleted files or otherwise apparently lost data. That provides the best chance of later successful recovery.
Local attorney Joe Kashi received degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.