Equipment Fails…And Sometimes Your Process Does, Too

(Or just learn from my mistakes)

What are your strategies to minimize catastrophic loss?

I just got back from a weekend in Oregon shooting waterfalls and seastacks and generally having a really great time.  More on that later, because what every photographer needs is a solid workflow and backup procedures.  Equipment fails. Not all the time.  Not every day.  But it does.  Having a repeatable workflow and back up can minimize the loss of your creative juices.

I seem to be riddled with failures, and I’ve learned a few things along the way to minimize the loss when I fail, or when my equipment fails.

In 2006 I took that trip of a lifetime to Antarctica.  I had just purchased my first dSLR and a couple of lenses for the trip.  I don’t remember how much it cost, but between paying for the trip and buying the camera, my wallet was feeling a little thin.  I bought two CF cards.  I knew I’d need to transfer files, so I brought along blank CDs and planned to transfer to the CDs when I filled the cards.  The ship had a laptop we could use for this purpose.  I shot the first 2 1/2 days before filling up my cards.  Needless to say, I screwed up the transfer process and I never closed or  wrote the data to the CDs.  I thought I’d done it right and cleared my cards right away to shoot the next few days.  End result: I lost the first few days worth of pictures.

Lesson #1: Use a Process and Equipment You Know

I now carry my own laptop and external drive on every trip.  I know the programs and I’m confident I’m transferring data appropriately.

Exploring Antarctica - by Sandy Gennrich

While I’m crushed I lost several days worth of images, I still have most of the images. Here is one from the Antarctic Penninsula.

In 2009 I went to Ireland.  Having learned about backups on the Antarctica trip, I brought my own laptop and external drive to Ireland.  Nightly I transferred files from the card to the external drive.  There were one or two moments that the drive seemed to be acting funny or running a little slow, but I didn’t think much about it.  When I got home to work on the pictures, the drive just stopped working.  I could see files in the directory, but I couldn’t access them.  My technical support team, aka Shamik, downloaded every application known to man in an effort to pull the files of the drive.  I eventually took the drive to a corporate file recovery business, but the drive was so badly damaged even they couldn’t retrieve anything.  End result: I lost days 2 – 6.  I have day 1 and day 7 because I still had pictures on the CF cards for those days.

Lesson #2: Storage is Cheap

Buy a bunch of cards.  I now try to carry enough cards to cover the entire trip.  I do not format the CF card until the pictures are 1) on my external drive of choice AND 2) backed up to the RAID at  home.  Your pictures are not safe unless they are in two places.  Frankly, they aren’t safe until they are in two different places.  If your external drive and RAID are both at home and you have a fire or a burglary…poof.  All your hard work and creativity is gone.  Many people store a third external drive in a safe deposit box and swap it out monthly.  (Cloud storage may be an option in the future, too.  I’m just waiting for the
prices to come down.)

Brandon Creek Road - by Sandy Gennrich

Interestingly, I have three images I posted to Flickr during the trip. I only post low-res to Flickr, but at least I have something to remember.

All of this brings me to the Oregon trip this weekend.  I had a fabulous day shooting waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge.  After downloading my pictures that first night, I realized I made some rookie mistakes shooting waterfalls — I wasn’t keeping the lens clean enough and I had a lot of water spots.  Our schedule was flexible, so we went back the next morning to try again.  I grabbed a brand new CF card and popped it
in so I wouldn’t have to swap cards in the rain and mist.  It was behaving poorly and when I looked at the pictures on the back of the camera, several could not be displayed at all.  I realized I didn’t format the card
when I got (remember, it was brand new), so I formatted it in the field and re-shot the handful of compositions I liked the most.  The card was still slow to write, but I could see the jpg previews for all the images I took.  When I got to the hotel, I immediately downloaded the images.  Nada.  Every single RAW file was junk.  End result: I lost 25 pictures from that morning only.

Lesson #3: Sometimes Life Just Sucks

OK, I should have had an extra card with me.  I went light that morning knowing how wet it would be and that I’d be wading into the river.

Lesson #4: Test All New Equipment Before You Leave Home

It seems really obvious, and it also seems like a hassle.  But this one will be added to my new equipment workflow in the future.

I’m sure there are many more lessons to be learned.  Please share any failures you’ve had and let me know how it changed your process.

by Shamik Ganguly

It’s nice to shoot with other people. At least there is photographic evidence I was standing thigh-deep in freezing cold water to get “the shot.”

Parting thought:  Why is it the “best” image always in the set that got lost?

  1. Very good post. I can totally relate to not testing equipment before leaving. I ended up shooting on a disposable camera. Not a good result. Coming as this post did a couple of days before a Europe trip this is very timely.


  2. Mary and Neal Ruedisili June 1, 2011 at 11:23 pm

    Very interesting essay, Sandy–thanks!


  3. Love it. Great site.
    We all have learned lessons we should share with others so they don’t miss that once in a lifetime shot. Thanks for sharing some of your embarrassing moments so we all can avoid some of our own.


  4. I had a card fail, after I’d shot a canine competition event. I’d expected to see about 800 shots, but my download only showed 200. Can you say “panic”? Luckily, I was able to get a recovery program that — finally, after some doing — found and restored all the photos. now, I always back up, first my RAW files, then my finished TIFFs, to external HDs and my NAS. I haven’t gotten into the habit of off-site redundancy, yet, though. I know I should! I’m also looking into cloud storage. Maybe just for my “best of the best,” for now…


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