Preparing for and recovering from disaster

When things go wrong...

One of the greatest nightmares associated with digital cinematography and photography is that of the specter of data loss. The very notion that your carefully planned shots or footage could disappear in a single instant can be Earth-shattering, since it may not be possible to reshoot (or may be prohibitively expensive). The best defense is to be prepared, not only for the possibility that you may lose data, but also to safeguard against that possibility through preventitive measures.


There are a number of things you can do to try to protect against data loss, both before and after shooting has taken place. Here are a few of them:

Don’t use dodgy or off-brand memory cards. This may seem pretty obvious to those who have been down this road, but really crappy cards tend to have dodgy QA processes involved in their manufacture, so although you may get a good card, you’re just as likely to get a dud – which could end up with your data. I’ve found that “Amazon Basics” and “KomputerBay” cards have failed me pretty regularly. Even “Transcend” cards have been pretty dodgy for me, on occasion. I tend to stick with “SanDisk” branded cards, when I use SD media, and there are a few decent manufacturers of CF media (Lexar, SanDisk, etc), which tend to produce quality cards, in my experience.

Storage media doesn’t last forever. Every piece of flash media has a certain number of R/W cycles before it becomes unstable and/or unusable. After a period of time, you might want to start regularly replacing your media cards to avoid the possibility that errors will begin to occur. It’s also a good idea to low-level format the cards in between uses, which supposedly increases their lifespan.

A single physical copy of your product is a bad idea. If you just move files off to your laptop harddrive, you’re practically expecting something to destroy your media. A single SSD or spinning platter in a laptop is a prime target for an accident to wipe out your data. Ideally, a RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks) array would provide a good tradeoff between inexpensive media and redundant storage. I built a pretty inexpensive one with the following components:

A single physical location is a bad idea. Consider off-site backup. If you don’t have the money to store your data in S3 or a similar service, consider using something like Bittorrent Sync, with a friend or two providing remote backup locations. If this isn’t feasible, periodically backing up to DLT or another backup tape, then storing that offsite, may be useful. If you are questioning “why do I need off-site backup”, just remember that a single fire or natural disaster can destroy all of your hard work…

Camera-based writing solutions. Certain cameras (the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, for example) have multiple media card slots, and have the ability to write multiple copies of the same media. This can help circumvent the tragic circumstance (to which I have fallen victim) of a completed shoot with the inability to read any of the captured data later on. To understand this, read more here. It should be noted that there are some performance limitations to this, but if you’re not shooting RAW video and your camera body can handle this, you might want to seriously consider it.


There is a pantheon of free and open-source software suites which provide recovery of lost files, deleted files, destroyed partitions, etc. The true nightmare scenario would involve a piece of damaged media, from which the data cannot be extracted – but never assume this unless you have exhausted all other avenues of recovery.

  • PhotoRec/Testdisk (Open source, Linux/Windows/Mac/DOS/etc). This is one of my favorites, although it may potentially require some fairly in-depth technical expertise to fully exploit its potential.
  • Recuva (Freeware, Windows). Recovers deleted files.
  • Hiren’s Boot CD (Freeware, Boot Disc). Hiren’s is a classic recovery and utility boot disk, which can be booted on any Intel-based computer. The download is free, and it has a very comprehensive suite of recovery tools. If you don’t have a copy of this disc hanging around your studio or house – why not?
  • Wondershare Photo Recovery (Freeware, Windows/Mac). A semi-commercial digital media file recovery suite.
  • iCare Recovery Free (Trialware, Windows). This has a 2GB maximum data file recovery limit with the trial, otherwise a license has to be purchased.
  • saveimg (Opensource, Linux/Mac). Extracts JPEG images from raw disk devices. Requires some expert knowledge to use properly.
  • Foremost (Opensource, Linux/Mac). Digital forensic tool to recover files based on headers, footers, and internal data structures.
  • SanDisk RescuePRO (Trialware, Windows). SanDisk’s recommended recovery software.
  • ddrescue (Opensource, Linux/Mac). A data recovery tool. It copies data from one file or block device (hard disc, cdrom, etc) to another, trying hard to rescue data in case of read errors.
  • Stellar Photo Recovery (Trialware, Windows/Mac). Another digital photo recovery suite. The trialware shows what can be recovered, with previews.
  • PC Inspector (Freeware, Windows).
  • DataRescue (Mac).
  • Camera Salvage (Freeware, Windows).
  • PhotoRescue (Windows/Mac).
  • CF Card Recovery (Trialware, Windows/Mac).

Hopefully, this will either make it easier to avoid potential data loss, or at least help to minimize the impact, if and when you end up losing data.

As always, good luck!