What’s Your Backup Plan?

Jeff Smallwood

Posted November 13, 2010 in: Announcement  Education  How To  Opinion  Reviews  Techniques 

When I attended the club?s photo trip to the Calvert Marine Museum a couple weekends ago, I decided I would come prepared and really make an effort to get some unique shots. My kids were coming with me and my parents were down visiting too, so getting some portrait and family shots would be one of my goals as well.  I loaded up my camera backpack with a wide variety of lenses, grabbed my bag of fully charged batteries, tucked my monopod and tripod into the bag, flash…check, filters…check. All loaded up, we headed out.

Little did I know how unprepared I actually was.

Let me say that I started the day really happy with how things were turning out in the camera. I took some shots I was really happy with.  We lucked out and were in the discovery room at feeding time so I got some great closeups of the animals feeding and I took some really unique photos of the kids too. You know those days where you can?t wait to get the card unloaded onto your computer so you can see the photos full-screen because you know there are some gems? That was how the day started.

Memory Card mixtureThe day ended with my Canon telling me that the memory card wasn?t recognized and asking me if I wanted to format it. Huh!? I?m not sure about anyone else, but when that happens I feel like I?ve been split in two. The first side says ?no, this isn?t happening!? and the second side says ?relax, there?s probably a temporary glitch and the memory card is fine, don?t freak out?. Well, the former ended up being reality. I keep a spare memory card with me, so I was able to get some shots toward the end of the day, but nothing like the shots I had when the day started…those lost images will only live on in my minds eye.

I?m a very diligent (some would call draconian) when it comes to backups, but I hadn?t experienced a memory card failure in a long time. Unfortunately, the last time I experienced this problem was on holiday in Ireland in 2005. When it happened before I was able to recover most of the shots using recovery software. This time was a different story, so I thought why not use this lesson as an excuse to remind everyone how important backups are (not that a backup would have helped me two weeks ago) and make sure everyone knows that you can sometimes recover images from faulty cards.


As soon as I saw the card error on the camera screen, I turned off the camera. I took out the card and reseated it in the slot. Sometimes a card error can be as simple as a piece of dust getting in the way. That didn?t work, so next I took the card out and wiped off the contacts (I?m using an SD card, so the metal contacts are visible) and again, reseated the card. Nothing. From my experience before I knew that recovery software is where I?d have to turn next.

I?m on a Windows PC and when I put the card into the computer, it wasn?t even recognized as being there. I might has well have inserted a rock into the card slot because there was no response, nothing, nada. Trying to open the drive in Windows just prompted with the ?Please Insert a Card?. Time to bring out the heavy guns.

The two pieces of software I?ve used in these situations are CardRecovery and iCare Data Recovery. Both pieces of software were able to find the memory card and scan it (an 8GB card), even though Windows couldn?t, so that?s a plus. The negative is that neither piece of software could recover a single photo. In this case I do not blame the recovery software though, I think the memory card was just too far corrupted (every single sector scan came back as a bad sector). I?d been using that card for over 4 years, and to be honest, I probably should have taken the card out of regular rotation and replaced it with a newer card sooner.

I?m not going into a thorough review of these software packages here but I did want to note that each package has a trial mode where you can see if something can be recovered or not. Then you can buy the package if it looks like it will fit your needs.

Some other benefits are that these software packages can sometimes recover photos that have been deleted from your memory card and from your computer?s hard drive. They can also sometimes recover images from memory cards that you?ve accidentally formatted too. So if you?re missing photos because you had a momentary lapse of reason, all hope is definitely not lost.


Keeping backups in this case wouldn?t have helped because this issue occurred while shooting in the field, but I wanted to touch on how we do backups in my house in case the information is helpful.

#1 You shall Backup (1/365) I can?t stress it enough, if you aren?t backing up your photos (or your entire file collection for that matter), do it now. Figure out a solution that works for you and start doing it today or tomorrow. Murphy rules here and failure will strike when you least expect it or could afford the loss.

My wife?s backup solution is Memory Manager which is a software package by Creative Memories. It handles all the photo organization and categorization tasks, but uses the concept of a memory vault and makes it very easy to backup and restore photos, both all at once and incrementally. It also does a good job of automatically reminding you when it?s time to do another backup.

I?ve used other photo organization tools that offer backup capabilities too, but I?m a geek and a power user, and although those software package are good options, those solutions don?t work for me. When it comes to backup, I want 100% control over what happens and my personal backup solution is a little program called SyncBackSE which I?ve been using for about 6 years now.

SyncBack can be used to backup anything, not just photos, and I use it to backup my entire PC. But I have a specific ?job? setup in SyncBack that keeps a synced copy of my entire photography folder (as well as my music, documents, etc) on two external hard drives and I run that backup job every week. Two hard drives? Yes, two, and here?s why.

Why Double the Backup?

First let me say my entire backup solution cost me about $230 over the last 3 years, but that?s only because I have a LOT of data to backup. Two 500GB external drives and the SyncBackSE software total about $170 if you bought them today.

The first backup I make is on an external hard drive that I keep disconnected from the PC until actually performing the backup. Keeping it disconnected and turned off protects the backup content from the typical computer threats, like virus, accidental deletion, power surge or regular hardware failures (although I do have preventative measures in place for all those threats).

Off-site backup for Dallas companies The second backup is another external hard drive that I keep disconnected from the PC, but this hard drive I keep at my office, outside the house. I bring it home once a week, do a backup, and take it back to my office the next morning. This second copy is my disaster recovery and protects the data from catastrophic threats like flood, fire, or theft.

Sound excessive? Maybe for some people it sounds excessive, but look at it this way. People have been taking photographs and documenting their lives and creativity for a long time. Never in human history has it been simpler to protect those irreplaceable artifacts with about 10 minutes of work. When I was a kid we couldn?t copy our film, music albums, tapes (8 track anyone?). We couldn?t keep a backup of our wedding photos or kids birthday shots. When you?ve got thousands of shots, documenting years of events and countless memories, having a disaster recover for your photos (and other files) is a no brainer.

One last note, there are now online services that provide a more turnkey disaster recovery type backup. These services backup your data to an online server and keep it synced so that if your computer crashes or is destroyed, you?ve got a recovery option online. My in-laws use Carbonite backup, which costs $55 a year for unlimited size but it does have a few limitations (only backs up certain file types, only works on your internal hard drive, no files bigger than 4GB). Again, my goal is not to review any product offerings but rather wanted to mention that online backup services do exist should that sound like a solution that fits for you.

  • When it comes to memory cards, you usually get what you pay for. Cheaper memory cards are usually, well, cheaper and may not have the long term reliability you want or expect.
  • If your card fails or appears corrupt, don?t assume all is lost. There are recovery options that may be able to salvage the photos. After the card does fail, it is best to do a low-level format and test the card to see if it?s still usable. For me, even if the card appears ok, it goes into the emergency-use-only bin.
  • Get your photos off the camera?s memory card and onto your computer or other backup solution quickly. The longer you keep photos on the card, the more likely they are to be lost forever.
  • Make a backup. Whether you want basic backup software or a geek level solution, pick one and use it.
  • Make another backup.
  • Keep a schedule so you remember to make the backups.
  • Did I mention make a backup?


About Jeff Smallwood -

Jeff shoots for fun and as a personal creative outlet. From his first Polaroid Big Swinger 3000 Land Camera to the digital SLRs of today, he enjoys experimenting with many different types of photography ranging from still life and astrophotography to portraits and black & white.

He maintains a blog and photo website at


Great article Jeff! Sorry to hear about the shots you lost, but it sounds like you have a very good system in place. I use a Drobo locally as a backup and a service called BackBlaze ( as my offsite backup. I currently have over 1.7 terabytes on Backblaze and it is only $5 a month. This article does make me wish I had a camera with multiple card shots. Guy

Comment from Guy on November 13, 2010

Great article, Jeff, with some great ideas for backup and recovery. I take my shots off of my card(s), and burn them straight to DVD, which I then mark and catalog. I also upload them to Shutterfly for safekeeping outside of my home (they advertise image storage with no expiration date). See you at our next meeting, in December! - Lisa

Comment from Lisa Snider on November 23, 2010

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