If you’ve been shooting for any length of time you’ve probably had the extremely unsettling experience of having something go wrong with image files somewhere along the chain. It can ruin your whole day! Sometimes you can recover from the glitch, and sometimes the data is gone forever. Either way, it’s a reminder of how fragile that little dose of electricity from sensor to memory card to computer can be and how complex the underlying processes are that we pretty much take for granted. While both hardware and software have been much improved over the last decade, there are still a few “best practices” that will help avoid most of the problems. While some of these steps seem awfully basic, it doesn’t hurt now and then to review the principles.
Start with memory cards. There are many brands out there, most of which work just fine most of the time. I like to stick with Lexar and SanDisk, partly because of my positive personal experience with them and partly because they’ve been in the business for so long. Any card should be handled carefully and formatted in-camera before use; avoid formatting the card in your computer as there’s a chance you may not apply the proper formatting protocol. When shooting, let the camera finish writing all the data to the card before you start reviewing images, and whatever you do, avoid opening the card bay and removing the card before the camera has finished writing to it—this is almost a guaranteed way to corrupt files. Additional tips on care and feeding of memory cards can be found here and here.
If you do experience a problem with a card, such as having images show up on the back of the camera but not on your computer, don’t panic. Put that card aside and use one of the many image rescue tools to see if you can’t recover images from the card. Among the well-regarded is PhotoRescue. This is a relatively low cost program for both Mac and Windows that has a high success rate, recently corroborated by a friend of mine locally. Lexar, SanDisk, and others also make image rescue programs and some companies supply the programs along with certain versions of their cards.
Of course the other big potential for data loss is in your computer. Everyone preaches data backup and most practice it to some degree, but it’s very easy to get lazy and backslide and only your personal work ethic and discipline will determine your degree of success in this arena. Cloud services also now offer to protect you, though transmitting thousands of high-resolution image files to and from cloud-based data centers is still a serious bottleneck, and the whole idea is only as good as your faith in the concept. Anyone remember Digital Railroad? I know I wouldn’t sleep very well at night without maintaining multiple local copies of my most important image files.