In 2008, I went to Machias Seal Island in the Bay Of Fundy to photograph the Atlantic Puffins. Though it feels as if it were decades ago, it wasn't long ago at all. One of the big reasons it seems so long ago is that I've become a much better photographer in that short span of time. I would like very much to go again one day to take better pictures by exercising what I've learned. My images would be sharper, better exposed and composed differently. When I was there, it was the end of the season, so there was very little feeding of young going on; I didn't capture them with mouth fulls of fish. Most of the birds had poop on them messing up their breasts from sliding in and out of the nesting cavities, too. I'd like pristine, white, poop-free birds next time. Machias Seal Island also boasts other types of birds, like Razorbills. I did get shots of one Razorbill, but they had mostly left the island for southern climates before I arrived. Until I had the chance to look back through a few hundred photos, I had forgotten that I had seen even a single Razorbill.
I have a confession to make. Back then, I shot only in just Jpeg format. It's an admission which pegged me as a rank rooky, too. That's not the end of the world, but it does limit how fully I can develop them. Jpeg images are comprised of compressed data, so there are limits to how much developing can be done. Crudely stated, Jpeg images are akin to hard copy photographs, versus negatives. Each time you do something to a Jpeg, then save it, you must then make a copy of that copy to go any further with it. Each time you make a copy of anything, you lose a piece of what it was in the original form. This principle applies to copying anything whether it's photography, painting, or making cars. Ideally, you always work from an original. In the digital world, the negative would be a RAW image. RAW just means that the data has not been processed in any way. You must do everything to it to do anything with it at all, even print it. But, you can do plenty because, every bit of information is there to work with. Back in 2008, I didn't know that, so I only shot in Jpeg. Today, that means that when reviewing any of those images, I'm limited to what I can do to correct the flaws. Any of the photos I took then are what they are and can't be improved on much with post shoot editing.
Today, I shoot in RAW format and Jpeg. This way, I have the digital negative to work with and a quick, working copy, the Jpeg - to use as a reference. Shooting in both formats has several technical advantages, but mostly, it appeases my basest anxieties about not having enough versions of an image to work with. Additionally, double product for every shutter click handsomely fuels my compulsive tendencies. A major disadvantage to working this way, though, is that all of this stuff has to be stored. It's not uncommon for me to shoot thirty gigabytes of images in a day. For you point and shoot photographers, this would be equivalent to a 526 MB card (what most P&S rigs come with) sixty times. To store all of this, and have it accessible while I'm working, I have five external hard drives running and a sixth in a box. That's six terabytes of data. Photographically, this is equivalent to building a garage, putting all your junk in it, then leaving your car in the driveway. Can you say HOARDER?
Now that I've bared my soul on that matter, I'm going to put another one out there. I did not back up the data. You heard me. Now, before all of you smug, techie types jump out of the bushes with your finger wagging admonishments, I want you to know that I thought I had backed it all up. I had however, been sloppy about where I did my back ups. Suddenly, one morning a full terabyte drive quit. Within twenty-four hours, while I was trying to figure out what had happened, a second drive quit. And poof went all the puffins, once in a life time Bald eagle shots, mink, otters, my children.........shall I go on? Hands shaking, palms sweating, I started making phone calls to my techie friends. They all said two things. And, because I can read minds, I know there was a third thing they were thinking, but did not say. What they did say was, "Don't panic!" And, "Where are your back ups?" The unspoken thought, which to me was loud and clear, was "Phew! Glad it isn't me!" They each had words of useful advice and information which I followed. I was told that most likely, the drives themselves didn't fail, just the enclosures housing them with cooling fans and stuff to tell the computer how to read them. Following the advice of my friends, I did not smash open the boxes with a hammer. In the case of one drive it was true that only the enclosure had failed. That was a quick fix and I could easily recover all the data on the drive. In the case of the second drive, the bigger one with double the data, and naturally, all the stuff I thought I had to have, the drive had failed. No fans in the world would give me back my pictures. And this is where me and my friends parted ways. They all said, while backing away slowly and not making eye contact, that data recovery was the twilight zone of computer geekdom. They could not help me; I was on my own.
I, of all people, now know just how tedious this is, so I'll cut to the chase. It took weeks, and lots of money and cortisol-belly-fat-stress-producing hormones, but I got my pictures back. At least, most of them. After the drive manufacturer announced that it would cost $1,200.00 to recover the data, I set out on a mission to do it cheaper and I won. I downloaded a data recovery program that worked. As the files were resurrected from the busted drive, thousands of photographs swam up before me like drowning victims from the deep. I revisited my puffins, a Razorbill I didn't know I had, goofy photos of my husband at a wedding I didn't remember we had attended, and more. I have posted here more than necessary pictures of the Puffins, simply because I can. They aren't good, but I'm so happy to have them that doesn't matter. Each of them is a reminder of survival of our near death experience.
What I learned from this harrowing event was to back up the data. I know that sounds cliche and so simple as to not be worth taking up air time, but that's just the very hazard of it. It's those things that we take for granted that we fail to back up until they are gone. Often, we don't even know what we've lost until it's too late to recover. Tonight, call everyone you have ever loved and tell them that you love them and how much, before your drive fails.