It can happen to anyone anytime, you’re chugging along through life and BAM you get a disk error or you can’t download images from a memory card or you simply delete something without thinking …
It just happened to me
I just did the latter, I found a few folders of RAW images that I though I didn’t need, I checked that I had imported the first folder into lightroom, which I had, so I deleted it.
Being me, I didn’t simply hit the delete key I had to hold down the shift key at the same time so not only did I delete them but they skipped the recycle bin and disappeared entirely. Seemed like a good idea at the time, why waste disk space keeping 2.5GB’s of files in the recycle bin when I knew I didn’t need them anymore.
As I moved to the next folder to check it I noticed that the files were original “.CR2” files not the “.dng” versions I convert everything to and it occurred to me to check that I had backed up these files to my original RAW file backup disk. Needless to say I hadn’t and I had just permanently deleted them, not the end of the world as I still have the “.dng” versions of the files that I process but I still wasn’t happy to have skipped a useful step of my backup process.
What to do first
It’s easy to do and not so easy to undo, but it is possible and here’s how …
First and foremost once you realise that you have lost files for any reason the most important thing to do is to “STOP USING THAT STORAGE DEVICE”. Any new information written to that hard disk or memory card will potentially permanently overwrite your data forever.
How a hard disk works (the idiot’s guide)
I won’t go into how a hard disk works in detail but suffice it to say it’s a bit like a warehouse with an inventory system. The warehouse may contain millions of different items all stored randomly on rows and rows of ceiling high shelves. When asked to locate a particular item the warehouse manger simply looks up his inventory system, gets the exact location of the required item and sends someone out in a forklift truck to collect it, easy.
One day the warehouse manager spills his coffee on his inventory system and completely ruins it, it’s lost, dead, an ex-inventory system now relegated to mushy paper. All the items still exist in the warehouse, completely undamaged and usable. However the warehouse manager now has no way of knowing where any particular item is amongst his millions of other items, not to mention how several items may be linked to each other to fulfil particular client orders.
So if we equate the warehouse to a hard disk drive (or memory card) and the inventory system to what is known as the MFT (Master File Table) for NTFS formatted drives or the FAT (File Allocation Table) for older disks and memory cards we can see how the contents of our MFT/FAT is all important. In simplistic terms each file is stored on the disk as a chain of file segments to which the MFT/FAT points (much like a purchase order to the warehouse lists all the individual items required for a particular order) so without the entry in the MFT/FAT a file on the disk is useless.
When you permanently delete a file (shift + del) from your disk its entry in the MFT/FAT is removed and that space is made available again for data to be written to, but your file’s data still exists. Hence the need to stop using that disk to prevent your data from being overwritten. Much the same happens when a disk becomes corrupt, the MFT/FAT loses information about where files exist on your disk but they are most likely still there, so again you must stop using that disk to have the best chance of recovering your lost data.
On the bright side there are many tools around that can attempt to re-create your MFT/FAT and many professionals that have exceptional skills using these tools.
What to do next
When disaster strikes you have several options:
1. Take your disk / memory card to a professional recovery service who will attempt (usually at vast expense) to recover your data. I once lost a 1TB hard disk and was quoted over $2,000 to recover the data from a $200 drive. Note: It is very important to make sure that you will only be billed by such an organisation if they are successful in recovering your data.
2. Find a smaller local business with the necessary tools, & skills to attempt to recover your data. There is a risk associated with this approach so try to stick with businesses that come recommended or have a good reputation.
3. Attempt to recover the files yourself using tools that can be purchased on the internet, you will need a certain amount of computer skills to do this and it may or may not work but it can save you a lot of money and get a faster result.
4. Cry 😥
Which option you take will depend on the value of the data lost and the resources available to you. I have recovered many lost files myself but even the professional organisation I sent my 1TB disk to in Queensland was unable to recover it. Memory cards can be much simpler to recover files from, some even come with their own data recovery tools, but there are still no guarantees.
Option 4 tends to go hand in hand with options 1 to 3 whatever you choose to do 😦
I hope this helps people understand a bit more about what happens when you lose data and what to do about it.
At the end of the day the best remedy is not to lose the data in the first place (prevention is better than cure) so always make sure you have a sound backup strategy and use it, at least that way you are protected from most hard disk errors.
For more info on my Backup Strategy see my previous post Backup on a budget, what you need to know!
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