All is not lost - A Photographer's guide to data recovery
A photograph captures a moment in time, a permanent record transported through a lens and stored for us to revisit or share with the world. But just how permanent is that and what can you do when a digital disaster strikes?
The truth is data loss can occur wherever data is stored, it’s that simple. Whether it is an SD card, compact flash or a Microdrive on the camera, a hard drive on a computer or external USB storage.
A transparent guide to Data Recovery
All these devices have a limited life span and there is no way of knowing when disaster could strike. Even with a great backup solution in place things do go wrong, so we are here to give you a transparent and honest guide to data recovery and how to get your lost photos back. So don’t panic those moments may not be lost in time.
I have worked in the data recovery and drive industry for most of my career, and understand the devastation data loss can cause both personally and to a business. A high percentage of our business is from freelance photographers and photographic studios, whose entire business is digitally stored photographs. I hope this article will help to remove some of that stress if the worst does happen and provide guidance to give you the best chance of rescuing the data.
This Macbook had suffered a sugary liquid spill and required specialist work to remove the corrosion, replace components and finally access the data.
What goes wrong and what you can do
The obvious and best way to limit the chance of needing data recovery is to make regular backups of your files and photos, meaning you have the data in multiple places. However even with greatest of intentions backups don’t always happen and with a greater reliance on portable devices which can easily get damaged, losing data is more common than you would imagine.
The main causes that lead to data recovery are physical damage, deleted files and photos, inaccessible files due to hardware or software failure and corrupted files. Although we are seeing more fake SSD and SD card coming on to the market causing huge issues.
This was bought as a 2TB (2000gb) M2 drive but inside is just a 64gb USB stick with a USB-C connector soldered on. These fake drives have been modified to ID as larger capacities, which means that the data will keep writing to the drive and will overwrite and corrupt data as they pass the original real capacity.
Be very careful buying devices online via non-approved manufacturer re-sellers. We are seeing more and more coming into the data recovery lab.
The most important piece of advice I can offer is that as soon as you realise a data loss event has occurred, turn off the device and do not switch it back on or attempt to access the data again. I know that it is tempting to have another look to see if you can fix the problem, but in the event of a mechanical or electronic failure this could increase data loss or even make recovery impossible.
There is a lot of data recovery software available on the internet, whilst some of these are really good products I would approach them with caution. As mentioned previously, trying to access the data in any way could cause further data loss, even on devices without mechanical components. It is common place to see devices were the precious data has been overwritten as part of a home software recovery attempt.
Basically at the point of data loss, try and step away from the situation make a strong cup of English tea to help collect your thoughts, and find this article to re-read.
How data recovery works
There are numerous approaches and techniques that can be applied to the wide range of devices that we see. We assess each item with an open mind, taking precautions at every stage to ensure the best chance of recovery. We don’t take risks or make short cuts for a faster turnaround, the recoveries take as long as required to do the best job. Like taking a great photo, some things cannot be rushed.
Whilst we look at each recovery on a case by case basis, the process generally falls into one (or a combination) of the following categories.
- A standard software recovery uses specialist recovery software to retrieve data from the device. It can be as simple as recovering deleted files or as complex as acting like hardware to communicate with a damaged device. This software is continually being updated to support the latest products and technologies on the market.
- Extended engineering is required to perform advanced circuit board repairs, micro-soldering and other physical intervention.
- The third level is when replacement components, donor read/write heads (on hard drives) and chip level recovery is required. Chip level recovery is called virtual NAND recovery and uses some of the most cutting edge techniques in the industry. The microchips are actually removed from the device in question and interacted with directly using engineering tools and software.
Although data recovery can often result in fixing a problem on a device, we would always advise that that the device is either repaired by a specialist or replaced. Very few data recovery companies will aim to fix the device, their job is just to get the data back. Once the device has been damaged or suffered a fault there is a good chance that will happen again.
The hard truth about data recovery
Data Recovery is not the mystical art that some would have you believe. It is a combination of engineering, technical skill, and experience that can only be obtained by continuous R&D.
Please be careful! The data recovery industry is rife with companies charging huge sums of money, and even those who prey on people’s desperation who essentially ransom you for your data. However delve past this layer and you will find a number of highly skilled (usually independent) recovery labs, who actually care about you and your data. These labs will understand data recovery can have fixed reasonable prices whilst maintaining the highest level of engineering standards.
I’m afraid that the general rule of spend more and get a better product does not apply to data recovery. Of course there will be specialist services like expert witness work for court for example that will have a heftier price tag, but for normal commercial and home user data recoveries this should not be the case.
I could not believe this quote for a 6 drive RAID, we recovered the data in 1 week for £1,500:
How do I find a good data recovery company?
- Don’t panic and rush this decision it could be the difference between getting you data back or not and spending thousands instead of hundreds.
- Speak to your friends and colleagues. Don’t be embarrassed, data loss is more common that you think and a personal recommendation is generally the best way of finding a good company.
- Take your time to search through 3-4 pages of an internet search. Coming top of google does not mean they are a good recovery company, it just means they have the resources to do so or a large budget for paid advertising.
- Talk to them. Any recovery company that truly cares about getting your data back above making the sale will ask you as many questions as you ask them. If the company is happy to engage with you, you will quickly be able to see if they are a company worth considering. Speak to a few companies and compare the responses you get, it soon becomes clear who your best options are.
- Check the reviews. Facebook, Google and local listings are fairly reliable. However some review sites contain forged reviews which have been paid for to boost a company’s profile and will often contain very weak content. You can tell if a review is genuine by the tone and sincerity. Beware if there are large numbers of short reviews, or lots of reviews posted in a short period of time, these could have been generated for deception. ‘Which?’ has a great article on spotting fake reviews.
- Credibility. Have a look on their website. It is easy to add fake information online and create a misrepresentation. If their site looks good and has great content it shows that they care about their customers and want to answer questions that may be asked.
- Cost structures. This is a difficult one because there are a number of different pricing models out there. Be wary of sites that want you to contact them for a quote. Whilst every recovery is different it is still possible to provide a price list up front and to be transparent about that.
For more information read our article "choosing a Data Recovery company"
A spider board used that is used to find data points on micro-SD cards without having to micro-solder each one, instead the arms are placed onto the points under magnification for accuracy. A valuable piece of equipment in a lab.
SSD or HDD or Cloud?
Solid State Drive (SSD)
Pros: Very fast, small, no mechanical moving parts, can be moved around without fear of damage.
Cons: Still expensive, susceptible to power fluctuations, if they fail it is usually more difficult to extract the data than a HDD, lots of fakes online.
Conclusion: If your device is moving around a lot (commuting or out in the field on shoots) then I would go for a good quality SSD every time, however I would always use a surge protector on the device the SDD is in or plugged into.
Hard disk drive (HDD)
Pros: Large capacities, relatively cheap, a greater tolerance to power fluctuation, and are easier to extract the data if they do go wrong.
Cons: Mechanical moving parts are susceptible to damage from knocks or being dropped, they are big and heavy in comparison to SSD.
Conclusion: If your device is sitting on a desk and doesn’t move I would go for a HDD, the greater capacity really is the huge selling point. I would tend to have multiple HDD’s inside of a device rather than external cases as this offers greater protection.
Pros: Someone else is looking after your data, accessible anywhere in the world as long as you have an internet connection, easy to use, no physical drive to worry about, small amounts of data are usually free or very cheap.
Cons: Someone else is looking after your data, moving large amounts of data can be slow and get expensive.
Conclusion: You should have a cloud account but look very carefully at what you actually get and make sure it has been set up correctly. Internet speeds are a limiting factor so a combination of physical drives and cloud is the best way to go. Nothing is fail safe we have done too many recoveries for data centres to trust cloud on its own.
Pulling it all into focus
The reality is there are no guarantees with data recovery, so the best way to avoid it is to have multiple copies of your data in multiple places, however the recovery tools and engineering skills are keeping up with technology and make all types of recovery much more possible. So if digital disaster does strike, all may not be lost.
- Don’t be tempted to try the recovery yourself unless you can accept the risk of losing the data permanently.
- Do your research on which recovery company to choose.
- Don’t be drawn into paying extortionate prices by an industry that should know better.
We don’t win them all, but there is no better rewarding feeling that recovering someone's data.