Commentary # 42: June 2010
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Getting Dealt a Bad Card:

It Could Happen to You

June 2010

- by Craig Wassel

There is a first time for everything. That is cliché to say, but then again how does a cliché become a cliché? My “first time” experience this month was having a memory card go bad on me. As luck (the bad kind) had it, it was my largest card – an 8gb SanDisk Extreme III. Eight gigs is not large compared to the 32, 64, and 128gb cards that are now available, but is when you have a couple hundred important images on it.

The trouble began when I was offloading all my cards before reformatting them for an upcoming shoot. As I habitually do, I checked to make sure that the files copied successfully to my server, and that their thumbnails displayed correctly. I quickly noticed that photos from a recent and important shoot were missing. I assumed I lost track of which cards I had offloaded and had skipped over one, so I went back through each card to find the missing files.

When I reached the 8gb card, I was alarmed at what I found. It was filled with files that had random alph-numeric names, and file sizes that all read “48kb”. I worked for several hours using several different recovery tools, but it was futile. The image files were unreadable. After resigning to the fact that my work was lost, I put the card in a camera and formatted it; it reported only 4gb of available storage – half of its 8gb capacity. I knew there was something seriously wrong and corrupt with the card and that it could not be trusted any longer. I broke it with a hammer and threw it in the garbage.

It could have been worse, though – much worse. I was thankful to not be a wedding photographer at that moment, and put in the position of having to tell a bride that I lost a good number of once-in-a-lifetime shots. One of my clients was very understanding, and worked with me to schedule a re-shoot. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise since it gave me the opportunity to gel the shot much better, and the result was a much more successful photograph. Only one of the shoots that was on the corrupt card could not be redone because of a good-to-print deadline.

A couple of thoughts followed this whole episode. One was prompted by a non-acquaintance phototog who overheard me talking about losing a card for the first time. He said, “learn how to shoot film and that kind of thing won’t happen to you.” I have been noticing lately that so often it’s assumed that if you shoot digitally that you just picked up a camera in the last three years and have little experience. I swiftly sized him up and decided I didn’t care to have a photographic coffee clutch with him, so I simply replied, “Have you ever lost a roll of Tri-X?”. He gave me a blank look and didn’t answer, so I took that as a “yes”.

I don’t think anyone who has shot film for any length of time can claim they have never lost a few frames or – more honestly – entire rolls. I sure have. Just like others, I have lost frames because I did not feel that a winder lost hold of my roll and that frames were not advancing. Just like others, I have had static discharge from advancing film in cold, dry weather ruin frames and rolls. Just like others, I have popped open the back of a body and found out I did not have a full rewind or that I forgot I even had a roll loaded. Oooops. Just like others, I have had labs ruin my rolls. Arrrhhhg. I have ruined my own rolls in the darkroom.

There are plenty of ways to ruin film. Yet in nearly 100,000 digital frames in just the past three years, the 8gb card was the first time I ever lost anything. That is a very good batting average. I don’t think I could go through the equivalent of more than 3,300 roles of film and lose so little. This is not to say this makes digital superior; it is just to say that no photographic medium is invulnerable to loss, damage, or human error.

The second thought I had concerned replacing the 8gb card I had to disavow and discard. Prices continue to drop, so should I buy an even larger card? I read just last week on another photographer’s site that he had been shooting all week on his 32gb card, and still had room for 26,000 more images (shooting .jpg/normal). A few weeks ago I would have thought of that as “amazing” more than I would “risky”. Today, I think of it as unwise to even mildly suggest buying a large card for the convenience of shooting thousands of images without changing cards. To me, that is like backing up data only twice a year or less.

Think of it: If I had my images spread across two 4gb cards instead of the one 8gb card, it is very likely I only would only have lost half as much work and would have thrown half as much bad memory in the garbage. With that in mind, I will probably buy two or more 4gb cards instead of even buying another 8gb card.

I have heard the argument before that larger cards – although very convenient - mean the potential to lose more images. It made immediate absolute sense, of course, but I never gave it much consideration until it happened to me. It’s still probably not likely to happen often or again anytime soon, but it has taught me to minimize risk by handling my cards as carefully as possible, and offloading often even if a card is not yet full.

I hope you never have a card go bad, but if it happened to me it could happen to you. I have come to the conclusion that bigger is not necessarily better - at least when it comes to memory cards. I will not mind at all spreading work across a few smaller cards rather than one ginormous one (is that an official adjective now?) to minimize the chance of loss. Even with RAW files, I can fit nearly two hundred images on a 4gb card.

I have read some photogs comment that smaller cards mean more inconvenient card changes, but I still remember very well the days when a long roll of Tri-X only yielded 36 exposures. If you loaded your own rolls and were careful with your wind, you might even squeeze out 38 - unless you started your wind too close to the tail of the roll, your winder didn't grab well, and you didn't notice until you opened the shutter 38 times to a platten that wasn't holding any film.

It's all relative.

" . . The best light and the best shot happens when I least expect it . . "

~ Peter Kervarec ~

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" . . . I don’t think I could go through the equivalent of more than 3,300 roles of film and lose so little. This is not to say this makes digital superior; it is just to say that no method of shooting is invulnerable to loss, damage, or human error . . . "

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