Data Loss; Not if, but when.
Last night before leaving the studio, I transferred my latest shoots to a San Disk Extreme SSD external drive. When I got home, none of the files were there. I thought maybe I failed to actually transfer the files over so I drove back to the studio only to realize, my external drive had failed! I lost 3 shoots. All paying clients who were not local. Each had driven over 2 hours to shoot with me. Refunds or reshoots were not an option.
This wasn't my first encounter with this issue, and likely wont be the last. The reality is that if you're a professional photographer, you will deal with data loss. Either due to a mistake on your end, or drive failure. Either way, it's something you WILL have to deal with at some point. So we should probably have a game plan. Here are my tip and tricks to data recovery!
Tip #1: Don't touch anything
The single most important thing you can do to recover your data is to leave it alone! When a hard drive fails, or if you delete a file, or even if you delete it AND empty it from the recycle bin, the data is not actually deleted. What really happens is that the files are just marked with a tag that allows your computer to over write them with new files. So as long as you leave the computer, memory card, or external drive alone, your data wont go anywhere.
As soon as you realize you've lost files, set the laptop aside and collect any memory cards or external drive that had the images on them and set them aside. If the recovery process get's ugly, you might need them later on.
Tip #2: Get Good software
You have plenty of options for data recovery. Some are even free. We're going to skip that stuff and deal with intermediate level recovery software. The kind of software a professional photographer should have when a wedding disappears from their drive. Here are some options for you.
Recuva (link here) is a professional data recovery software that appeals to a lot of photographers because of it's low up front cost. Recuva Professional is only $29.99 to download and offers a 50%-70% recovery rate. There's even a free version but at a recovery rate of 30%-65% we're going to advise against it (check the stats here). The issue with Recuva is that it has hasn't been updated since 2016. Because of it's low recovery rate, we dont recommend Recuva for professionals.
Stellar (link here) is a professional grade data recovery software that even has a Technician version to recover from hard rive arrays like Raid 0, 5, 6. It has a solid recovery rate and is reasonably priced at $79.99 for the professional version. Our main gripe with Stellar is that the license only allows the user to install the program on a single machine. While this might be just fine for a lot of photographers, the fact that there are equally capable programs out there that will allow more than one installation for the same price meant that we also passed on Stellar.
For $89 Disk Drill (link here) offers a fantastic recovery rate (we experienced 95%), unlimited recovery, and 3 activations. The software is clean, small and easy to use. Our only complaints about the software is that navigating and filtering discovered lost files is not intuitive and the search methods are a bit of a mystery. Still, we just poked around and ended up recovering almost all of our files on the first try.
Tip #3: Set aside a day
We lost about 3,000 images from a recent shoot. Even with a very capable computer, it took Disk Drill about 7 hours to find the lost files and another 3 hours to write them back. It was a very long process that took our water-cooled Intel i7 six core 3.8gz processor a whole night at 100% to get done.
Tip #4: Use a different PC
Because the recoverable files are so fragile, it's best to use a different pc than the one that contained the files. If possible, remove the hard drive from the problematic pc and add it as a secondary drive on a different pc. That way the drive is not actively being written on while you're running the program. At some point, if the recovery process get's ugly, you may need to run the software on the original pc.
Tip #5: use all sources
Sometimes recovery doesn't go well. Out of 3000 photos, you might be down to 200 recovered. This can happen if you waited a long time to use the recovery software and have been using the drives that the images were on. If that's the case, remember to run the recovery program on all the memory cards, external drive and computers that contained the images you're trying to save. Even if you deleted the photos off the memory card, they could potentially have some files left to recover.
Unfortunately, data loss is a real thing. It will happen. When it does, just be quick and calm. Go through these steps carefully and you might be able to save most of your files with only a little heartache.