Friday, August 8, 2008

When your camera’s memory card fails, can it be saved?

I’ve seen it happen over and over again to travelers. Digital camera memory cards become corrupted and unusable. Worse yet, a traveler’s best photographs become trapped on those corrupt cards, such as a family photo in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, or a photo of the July 4th fireworks at the Statue of Liberty. Can you fix the card, or recover those priceless photos? Well…maybe.

The world of photography has radically changed in the last decade. For amateurs and professionals alike, the biggest change for most of us is yesterday’s film is today’s memory card. When I’m out on a shoot, or just taking photos for myself during my travels, I’m often asked about photographic problems and techniques. By far, the number one question is, “My memory card’s gone bad, and I have so many good photos on it. Can you help?”

It doesn’t matter whether you have a Point & Shoot or a DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) camera. They all use memory cards, which are much the same as the memory sticks and usb flash drives. Digital camera users must take precautions to prevent photo loss when using their compact flash, SD, or other memory cards.

The Galapagos Islands may have more opportunities to photograph spectacular landscapes, and unusual wildlife, on the ground, in the air and under the water, than anywhere else on Earth. I spent a week cruising in the Galapagos last December, which included zodiac explorations, hikes on many islands and numerous snorkeling outings.

For photographers, the isolation of the Galapagos, like other locations in South America, Africa, and even in US National Parks, is a two edged sword. While the photographic opportunities are almost limitless, the immediate availability of replacement equipment and supplies, including memory cards, is almost nil. While out on a trail in Crater Lake National Park, for example, if a memory card fails, and can’t be immediately rejuvenated, you better have a back up, or those upcoming, once in a lifetime photographs, will only be a dim memory of an opportunity lost forever.

The best ways to avoid memory card catastrophe is to have a spare memory card, use high quality cards, take precautions to prevent their corruption, and have digital image recovery software available, which may be able to extract your photos from a corrupt card.

Even if the memory card in your camera can store hundreds of photos, every photographer should have at least one spare, in case of card failure. I always suggest using high quality memory cards. While you may be able to save a few dollars purchasing cheap cards on eBay or at deep discounters, I don’t recommend it. I use only high quality cards for my photos. I don’t think saving just a few dollars is worth losing your priceless photos, like some I took not long ago of incredible sunsets at the Grand Canyon.

There are specific actions which can cause memory cards to become corrupt and fail.
More often than not, the corruption is due to: turning off your camera before photos are completely written to the card, removing the memory card from your camera while photos are being written to the card, formatting a card in a computer instead of the camera and deleting individual photos from the card in the camera, especially when the card is almost full.

When I give advice about memory card use, I suggest three major rules. Never delete a photo from a memory card. Always format a memory card only in your camera, never in your computer. After copying (never use move) your photos to your computer, format the memory card in your camera before you use it again. Following these rules and your common sense, you will likely prevent most memory card corruption problems.

Sometimes, despite your utmost care, memory cards fail. When that happens you may be able to recover your photos. Some high quality memory card manufacturers have their own recovery software. Sandisk’s RescuePRO Deluxe has saved me a couple of times. Digital Inspiration has two other program recommendations which are often successful. Every photographer should have a quality recovery program ready to go in case it’s needed.

Once you’ve done your best to recover your photos and store them on your computer, you can try to restore your memory card. First, try formatting the card in your camera. If that fails, even though above I said not to do it, attempt formatting the card in your computer using FAT formatting, and if that works, reformat it in your camera before using it. If that doesn’t work, see if the manufacturer will replace the card.

Good luck.