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Best Practice For Digital Acquisition To Memory Card – And What To Do If Your Card Fails

When the worse happens

If you do something long enough anything that can go wrong, no matter how unlikely, will go wrong. I have shot many hundreds of weddings, nearly every one of them digitally, and in all that time I have never had a memory card fail; until Last January.

Worst nightmare
It’s every professional’s worse nightmare. You get back from the shoot and insert the memory card in your reader and nothing happens. You take it out and look at it. You put it back in and still nothing happens. The computer can’t see the card. You try it in a different computer – no change. You try 2 more – no change. If you were talking your voice would be at least an octave higher. You remember that software program that came bundled with a compact flash card you bought.

Success! It can see the card.

Failure – even after a deep scan it sees no files.

Your heart rate is through the roof – you’re desperately working out what you’ve done wrong. You know the data is on the card because you reviewed images and clips on the camera at during and after the shoot.

Then you realise. The card has failed. And so have you.

All you have left is your professionalism and commitment to your client. At this stage every decision you take is critical. It’s easy with the benefit of hindsight to make these calls. In the heat of the moment it is not.

It was clear to me that the only thing that mattered was that the couple got at least some pictures from their wedding day. If it was going to become an issue for our professional indemnity insurers then so be it. But what I was sure of is even if we had to pay to restage the entire day the pictures would never be as treasured as those of the couple on the day itself. The bride in her dress – on her day.

The one phrase that guided me throughout this experience was “best practice”. What decisions and actions can we take to secure the best outcome for the given circumstances?

Action and no action
I knew the likelihood of recovering data from the card would decrease proportionately to how much I tinkered with it, so I put it in and envelope on my desk with large red letters declaring “Failed Card – Do Not Touch”. I’ve been around IT long enough to know that any chance of getting that data back lay with a specialist forensic recovery service and not with me.

I immediately texted my assistant who had already left and was getting changed for a Saturday night out with her friends. “The world has ended – the CF card has failed”. Within an hour we were outside the banqueting suite at the wedding venue. The bride and groom were enjoying their desert and I was about to spoil the party.

There’s no easy way to give a bride news like that. She cried. The whole top table watched the process. This was without doubt the worse experience of my career. At first they didn’t want us to shoot any more pictures but after gentle explanation and persuasion the bride agreed and after the speeches we managed to (re)shoot quite a lot of the groups, candids and couple shots. We worked quickly and managed to complete the work while the band were setting up so it had little effect on the flow of their day. Fortunately their Best Man was a successful IT consultant and he was confident that the images could be recovered, so by the time we left the couple were anxious but reassured that we at least had some key images shot again with a fair chance of a positive outcome from the data recovery.

I wish I had felt so confident.

Digital acquisition
I have never had any particular loyalty to a memory card manufacturer. I have San Disk and Lexar 8 and 16Gb UDMA Compact Flash cards, but over the years I’ve bought branded and non-branded, cheap and expensive. The one thing that’s been a constant is their reliability. No card had every failed. A few summers ago we had our family summer holiday in a cottage in France. One day I put my shirt in the washing machine only to discover the next day that I’d left a CF card in the pocket. It worked fine and is still in our family point-and-shoot camera today.

I’ve shot a lot of pictures and video to memory cards in the last few years. As a business we are shooting around 350,000 images per year and a fair bit of video too.  With such a large sample I think it is fair to claim that these devices are pretty reliable.

I am aware that some people prefer to use multiple, smaller capacity cards at shoots but I am unconvinced. While the effect of an individual card failure is diminished the risk of simply misplacing a card must be at least equal. I hate the idea of having to walk around a wedding with blank and recorded cards in my pocket. Every time you open the camera’s memory card door you also allow a little more dust inside. Perhaps a better option is to use a hard drive backup device to make on-location backups of your cards and for many users this may provide the best solution. However the true solution is one only available on high-end cameras like our Canon1DsMkIII’s. They have dual internal card slots can be set to record all data to both cards simultaneously. We now shoot all work like this.

I chose a data recovery company I had used to recover data on a failed hard drive 3 years ago. They managed to recover all the data and were quick and reasonably priced. I checked with my insurers to see if they had a preferred supplier for this work but they were happy with my choice. The card was sent to Datatrack Labs Ltd in Cardiff.

You have to feel for the team at Datatrack. They must spend their lives dealing with phone calls from incredibly anxious people worrying about their lost data. I must say they have been incredible throughout the process they have been realistic have managed my expectations and in every case over delivered on their recovery forecasts.

I received a call within 24 hours informing me that the card itself was faulty and that would have to be disassembled and the component memory chips individually addressed. It turns out that memory cards are very like a Raid arrays and the data is written sequentially across the individual chips – rather like multiple hard drives in a single enclosure. No wonder they tell us not to try and recover the information ourselves!

I learnt more about the workings of data cards in one discussion with Datatrack’s Michael Owen than my entire professional career as a photographer and videographer.

Copyright All rights reserved by RickDrew

Advice from the people who know
Realising I was in the presence of expert I asked Michael some of the questions we all need to know. But first a little background on Michael and his company.

Michael Owen is the founder and joint owner of Datatrack Labs Ltd. He has many years of data recovery experience and generally deal with the most complex cases they receive.

He founded Datatrack Labs Ltd after leaving one of the world’s largest data recovery companies. Having implemented many of the recovery procedures which are used around their global network he decided he needed a fresh challenge and formed Datatrack Labs Ltd.

Datatrack have completed over 5000 recoveries and offer a free 4 hour evaluation service with a fixed price no obligation quote. They also offer a no data no fee policy.

They have some of the most technically advanced data recovery technology available anywhere in the world and have an average success rate of 95%, and although their customers include some of the biggest companies in the world their pricing structure is still accessible to those of us with more modest budgets.

Q & A

What causes cards to fail? What are the most common causes?
The most common causes of an SD card failure are probably manufacturing frailties. The price of SD cards have come down considerably over the past few years due to low manufacturing costs, this inevitably leads to lower quality control as they are mass produced in greater and greater quantities. At the same time new technologies have allowed the capacity of the cards to also greatly increase which in turn leads to more complex chip sets and yet more things which can go wrong.

The most common failure is the controller chip which controls how the card operates and how the data is stored on the memory chips, this is in fact good news as the data is often recoverable when the controller chip has failed. Both are factors which cause SD cards to fail.

Are Compact Flash cards any more reliable than say SD or any other Cards? And If they do fail are there any particular card formats that are easier or harder than others to recover from?
Compact Flash cards are much larger in size to SD cards and generally contain more separate memory chips. This does make things a little more complex when dealing with a data recovery as the data is written across the multiple memory chips.

In terms of failure rate both formats are extremely similar so it’s difficult to recommend one format over another.

What would be you advice to a photographer or videographer who experiences a card failure? What are the do’s and don’ts?

The first thing not to do is panic. There are companies such as ourselves which have the knowledge and capabilities to recover the media content in 95% of cases. The first thing you should so it remove the card from the camera and store it securely. You should then contact a data recovery specialist and ask for immediate advice.

You should not continuously attempt to read the card in different readers, if the camera cannot read the card and another external reader cannot identify the device then it is not going to magically fix itself.

You should NOT attempt to run downloadable data recovery software on the card, doing this on a card with a malfunctioning controller could render the data unrecoverable.

What are the stages you go through to recover data from a card?
The first stage is to identify the fault. The fault could be logical (for example a corruption to the file system), electrical (for example a fuse of diode could be faulty) or a hardware defect (for example: one or more chips has read errors, unreadable memory cells or controller failure). Once an accurate diagnosis is completed, the correct recovery procedure can be implanted from a basic software recovery to the complex procedure of extraction of all memory chips and the reading of their contents into an external reader followed by a manual controller emulation to extract the data in a usable format.

What range of costs and turn round times should people expect?

The costs of a recovery from solid state media is dependent on the complexity of the case, a very basic software recovery could be as little as £60 but a severe failure of a high capacity card could be anything from £200 – £500. On average the turnaround is 2 – 5 working days but if the data is urgent we can offer an emergency round the clock service for a premium.


The view from the manufacturer
In the process of writing this article I spoke with Gerry Edwards who is a senior product marketing manager at SanDisk Imaging. Before I go the details of the discussions I had with him I’ll mention something interesting that he said in passing. In his five years with SanDisk he is only aware of two memory cards that had failed. While in his role as a marketing manager he might not come into day-to-day contact with users, I still think it gives a good indication of the level of reliability these products provide.

There are just a handful of fabrication plants in the world producing flash memory and SanDisk’s is run through a joint-venture with Toshiba.

As I researched this article the recurring message is that two things really separate the range of flash memory products available in the marketplace: Component quality and Controller technology. SanDisk call theirs PowerCore Technology. It’s the controller that decides what data is written to what parts of the flash memory. This is partly benefits speed and partly what is known as “wear levelling”. Flash memory can only be written to a set number of times and it is the role of the controller to make sure that each memory location gets the same amount of use as every other. It also does error correcting, so removing a card or allowing the battery to run out while the camera is writing data doesn’t kill the card or the data on it.

In broad terms it seems that both CompactFlash and Secure Digital formats are likely to be with us for some time. The smaller size of the SD card lends itself more to consumer products, which on the whole tend to be smaller, and CompactFlash to larger, more professional products. The bus speed of SD is set at 20 Mb per second however SanDisk and some other manufacturers push this to 25Mb. The new and recently agreed UHS format will eventually raise that bus speed to 104Mb per second. CompactFlash has no limit for its bus speed and is the clear leader speed terms by some margin. SanDisk’s latest products the elite pro range boasts speeds of up to 90 Mb per second around three times faster than the best SD cards available. The main driver for these high speeds is for high-definition broadcast quality video where a 50Mb per second constant write speed is mandatory. Right now the only way to achieve these speeds is with proprietary formats like the SXS cards which are both large and expensive.

Q&A with Gerry Edwards, SanDisk Imaging Senior Product Marketing Manager

What makes one CF card different from another?
Memory cards can be differentiated by capacity, reliability, durability and speed. Many companies offer high capacity cards, but combining this with a reliable and durable product is where it gets challenging.

Capacity is important to help store all of the content you want, but it’s irrelevant if the product is unreliable and your content gets lost.

Is CF more reliable than SD?
Not at all. These are completely different formats that work with different cameras. Although CF is slightly more common than SD, both are built to work effectively and efficiently with their corresponding device and to the same level of durability and reliable. In fact the SanDisk SD card for example is waterproof for 73 hours in salt water.

Does higher capacity mean less reliability?
Capacity has no impact in our products performance or reliability; a 64GB Card will perform the very same as a 4GB card. The key to producing professional products such as ours is combining not only high capacity with reliability, but also speed and durability. For example, our Extreme imaging cards can be frozen in ice, dropped in water and can withstand temperatures ranging from -25°C (-13°F) to 85°C (185°F).

What’s the state of the art in terms of speed and technology?
Our 128GB Extreme Pro CF cards are incredibly fast with read/write speeds of up to 100 MB/s. We also launched a 64GB SDXC card earlier in the year. SDXC is the now the highest capacity SD card available, which can hold eight hours of HD videos and 5,000 RAW images, and can reach 2TB of capacity.

How fast transfer speeds can we expect to get with your latest products in real world tests?
As mentioned, the 64GB Extreme PRO CF cards reach 90 MB/s. When combined with our Extreme Pro Express Adaptor, which is designed for High Performance CF Cards, users can transfer their files to the PC at lightning-fast speed. (PN: For most of us USB2 will be the bottleneck preventing us from downloading the pictures any faster. USB3, with full OS and motherboard support, will be with us in 2011.)

How are cards likely to develop over the coming years?
Higher capacity and faster read/write speeds. CF will remain at the high professional level while SD seems to becoming the de facto format of choice for consumer and increasing the video products.

Finally, what should we do if we ever find the card has failed?
In a highly unlikely circumstance that you should have one of our cards now my advice would be to ring out tech support department immediately. This service is available to purchasers of our professional products and should absolutely be your first port of call.


In the end Michael and his team at DataTrack managed to recover 97% of the files on the card. It cost the best part of £600 but, in the words of the Barclaycard advert, was priceless. The client was relieved however the fact remains I put them through a level of stress that is completely unsatisfactory. And on their wedding day too.

So here’s my five top tips for what to do when the worst happens:

  1. Don’t let it happen in the first place by using a professional camera allows you to write to 2 flashcards simultaneously
  2. Backup your cards immediately after you have finished shooting, ideally on location to a laptop or a hard disk backup device.
  3. If your card won’t load you have probably got a hardware fault. Do not try and fix it yourself. Assuming you’ve been wise enough to purchase a professional memory product, contact the manufacturer’s technical support helpline.
  4. Contact a reputable and established forensic data recovery service. They deal with other people’s crisis for a living and their calm and practical advice is absolutely what you need at this time. Trust me.
  5. Be completely honest with your clients. Don’t try to hide it or cover it up. Sooner or later hardware failure will happen to you. Be professional, be calm and work through the problem.
  6. Inform your insurers. They will almost certainly ask you to complete a pre-claim form. Your professional indemnity insurance should cover you as long as you have followed best practice in your workflows. They may even pay for the cost of the data recovery. It goes without saying you need to discuss this with your broker or insurer as policies vary. You could of course be liable for the entire cost of restaging a wedding and this can easily run into many tens of thousands of pounds. If you’re shooting a wedding without professional indemnity insurance or for that matter public liability insurance you might be committing financial suicide.

Special thanks to Michael Owen at DataTrack, Gerry Edwards at SanDisk imaging and Tara Walker-Rapley and Clare Lawson at Text 100 for their help in the process of writing this article.