How do I retrieve lost or damaged files?

This article contributed by Channon Williamson.

"HELP! My computer won’t read my card!"

"HELP! There are strange lines on my photo when I try downloading them!"

These are 2 of the most common non-editing related questions we get, so we’ve gathered all the information from all the threads and collated it into something that will hopefully help should this ever happen to you.

Whatever you do – STOP and take 3 deep breaths and DO NOT attempt formatting the card.

Sometimes the card reader is faulty – if you’re using a card reader, try hooking up the camera directly to the PC to diagnose whether it is in fact the reader or card thats causing the problem. We don’t recommend using the camera cord as a standard method of transfer, ONLY for the purpose of diagnosing the card reader.

But WHY? you might ask. Brian, our tech guru says this:

Speed is the primary reason. You need to have charged batteries in your camera – if your batteries stop working or the camera goes to sleep corruption can occur. Plus, wear and tear on the internal camera USB port. Just think of how many times you have used that port and now it’s worn out. Instead of just replacing the reader & cable, your whole camera has to be sent out for repair. THAT is inconvenient and stressful, unless you have a backup camera. In addition, with Macs, you need software to get the images off the card that’s in the camera. So software updates / corruption becomes a factor.

How can you recover your files? Well, there are various programs out there. Here are some that we have been told people have had success with:

If you have some spare cash laying around, it may be best to pay someone to do it for you. They will use very similar software to the software you can buy. But the pros count on your fear and charge you for it. If you’re unsure and its a matter of life and death – it may be worth paying for. Know this though, its not 100% foolproof, Channon lost 6 months work off an external that could not be recovered. Hard lesson.

IMPORTANT STUFF to prevent corruption or loss of files:

  • Simple but important reminder
  • Always format the card in camera before a session
  • Use a card reader to transfer files
  • Try to avoid taking the card in and out of the camera constantly
  • We strongly recommend shooting each session on a separate card and having spares on hand at shoots. It can save the day in a situation where a card fails.
  • Do not use a single card for multiple shoots
  • I also wouldn’t go above a 16gb card per shoot. If a card fails, then you’re only losing 16gb worth of work versus a full 64gb (4x MORE) loss.


For goodness sake, please back up your work – technology can and does fail. Even brand new cards can fail.Everyone has different setups to suit their needs – internal drives, external drives, RAID, clouds, DVDs, etc.

The golden rule of file management is: Always have your files in at least two places at once. All digital media can fail at any time – don’t think it won’t happen to you. Keep yourself safe.

There have been a few discussions about this recently, so here's a reference of what some of our members do.

Amanda Papay

While I am working on things, they are on the lap top hard drive. After they are finished I transfer them to our server. Our desktop has an extra hard drive that backs up the server once a month.

Karen Johnson

After a session I upload the files to my main pc then copy to 2 external hard drives, after proofing those files are also copied over to the 2 externals so I have 2 full backups plus the photos on my main pc after ordering I delete from my main pc.

Meghan Terry

I do the same as Karen Johnson above. Additionally, I burn a DVD of all edited files (with the PSD files) and store it outside my home once the job is complete.

Kim Howells

After a session they are copied to my computer. I have mirrored drives, so I immediately have two copies. If I need to format my cards straight away, I also make a copy of the raw files to external drive, and I call that folder by its name followed by the word "initial" so I know it’s just a partial backup of the completed job. If it’s a big/lengthy job, I back up during editing (eg for a wedding, after the raw edits are complete). When the whole job is complete, I back up to three EHD’s, and delete off my computer and cards. I would love cloud storage, but given my poor internet connection it’s not a viable option. I am going to look into cloud storage for just our family photos.

Cheryle Kupsch

I have 2 2 terabyte external hard drives. One has my original RAWs stored in a Lightroom catalog and I back everything up to the other external hard drive. After a session has been edited, I upload all the original edits to a private flickr album as well. (I pay just over $20/year for a flickr pro account which has unlimited storage). I don’t keep any files on my hard drive with my programs on it because even with 8 GB working RAM, once the hard drive memory starts filling up, my programs don’t work efficiently anymore.

Meghan Gonski

After I shoot, I upload them onto my PC but still keep them on my memory card for a long time. I have two memory cards so this isn’t trouble for me. After looking at the photos I do a "first-impression delete round", after that I will make some tweaks to photos, then move the file onto my two external hard-drives and delete them from my laptop. This keeps my laptop running faster. When I have a lot of time I will open up the file and make more changes or deletions and then put a copy overwriting on the other external hard drive. Then delete the photos from my memory card.

Rob Walstrom

We have a HP DataVault server with 3x2TB hard drives. I have it run nightly backups on both PCs automatically, the Windows Home Server software wakes up the computers at 2 AM to do the backups and puts the PCs back to sleep when done. It also tells me if the backup failed for any reason. I like that they are incremental, so I can have backups go back as far as 6 months and it only keeps track of the changed and new files. I’ll keep up to 3 monthly backups, 3 weekly backups, and 5 daily backups. This daily backups are nice for the time when you accidentally clobber a file or your Lightroom database gets corrupted. Open up the server and restore the previous day’s version in just a few minutes. I also use a couple external hard drives to back up the most critical data, which reside in a fire safe when not in use.

Lisa Rappa

Pretty basic…I upload to my computer, but don’t delete from my card till I have completed and copied to a dvd the final images (edited and raw) I plan to keep. In the final stage, I also delete the ones I don’t plan to ever use, but then transfer the rest to the external hard drive(in addition to the disc mentioned). I also use backblaze as an online back up for peace of mind. I believe it’s a few days behind though. (side note- if I do need a card before I have completed a session,as I have recently, I will keep a full copy of everything on the computer and the external before I delete).

Laura Dilley

I have an external HD that I make a second copy of my RAW files to when I upload from my card. I also use backblaze that backs up my external and internal HD. When I am finished with a session I make DVD copies. I am wondering now if I don’t do enough.

Jason Northcutt

Let's say you are working on an older system, and you need to upgrade but funds are tight, etc. As the cost of storage has come down, now is a great time to get that external and set it up as your back up. I would, and this is how it is at my office, get a hard drive you can network. Why? Because of several reasons.

  1. Its back up that is not associate with your computer.
  2. In most cases you can connect to your network printer from anywhere depending on your settings and set up
  3. Its a good habit to plug your computer in at night and back your computer files couple of times a week.

Kevin Galbreath

I use the following system:

  • Import to Lightroom as DNGs while also backing up to external drive the original RAW files
  • Once I’ve done my initial culling/edit process I backup that Lightroom Catalog/Folder to external drive
  • I export web versions (ie-standard resolution and smaller size) to HD. Then back those up
  • Open in Photoshop for final edits/cropping
  • Upload edits to proof site for feedback and orders.
  • Create any flash drives/DVDs requested by client with soft copy of release on disk
  • I do not clear the memory card until the initial order or prints etc have been delivered
  • Format card in camera for next use.

There are also copies of the edits posted to sites such as flickr, google+, tumblr, 500px etc

Sedg White

I usually upload directly to my PC from my cards. I then copy everything to two external hard drives which are turned off afterwards and kept in different locations. Another copy is also made to a 64GB USB stick and when I get to work, copy that on to another external hard drive which is kept in a fireproof safe. I can then re format my cards and USB stick and start editing on the PC copies. Any edited copies are also transferred onto the 3 externals as well. I would also like to have enough memory cards so that I could rotate them that way enabling me to have the original photos kept on cards for a certain period as well but maybe I am getting paranoid now. Lol.

Damien Symonds

Summary: Two internal hard drives, one external, and a library of DVDs.

Explanation: While I’m working on jobs, they’re saved on my main hard drive (SSD). Once they’re finished, I move them to the secondary internal hard drive. I do a daily (or even twice-daily) backup of both of these drives onto an external hard drive, using the Microsoft SyncToy program.Every month or so I archive the completed jobs onto two DVDs (-R and +R), then remove them from my hard drives. I use a handy little free disk catalog app, which means that I can find any file at the drop of a hat.

Note: I am a retoucher, not a photographer, so my workflow is geared to smaller numbers of very large files. As such, it may not have much relevance to everyone else.


If you have a question about this article, please feel free to post it in Ask Damien.