Tuesday, December 28, 2010

"POOF! There Go The Puffins!" Atlantic Puffins

An Atlantic Puffin, pouting on the rocks.
"Is anybody listening to me?"
     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.


  1. I love your shots of the puffins, particularly the first one. Your cautionary tale of failed drives and data loss reminds me to back up my data. I used to attach 2 external drives with one serving as a simultaneous backup, but then it got to be too much of a hassle with juggling USB slots around... anyway, I have to get back into that habit. But how do you back up 5 external drives and 6 terabytes? Glad you got all your data back though and I will bookmark your link to the recovery program.

  2. Correction: I like the 2nd one best. But you did something to your blog page. I used to have to reduce it to 75% to see it all on my screen, particularly the header. Then you changed something and everything was fine. Now I am back to having to reduce the page again.

  3. yikes...we have a flash drive that we periodically save everything to in order to avoid losing stuff - so glad you got the puffins back they are awesome pics...even with smudges of poop!
    Y Heron
    December 29, 2010 11:24 PM

  4. Hilke, thank you. Backing up that much data is my big problem. It's the problem which precipitated the loss, actually. Do back all of that up would be tres expensive and complicated with as you said, juggling around USBs and so on. It comes down to having to be more selective about what I do save and reckoning with the question of how much these things are worth to me, really. Sigh. Don't ya just hate THAT?
    Re: the blog. Don't know. It may have to do with when I put the new header up (Puffins), I did not shrink the image to fit but rather left it at it's actuall size because of where the title would land on the image. That may have re configured the whole page in teh process. Sigh. Don't ya just hate THAT? I sure do. I'll see what I can do.

  5. WOW, you are one lucky photographer! I am glad to hear you recovered your data, because 9 chances out of 10, it doesn't happen this way.

    Data back up can be very expensive, but the end result is worth it. I back up everything two ways. DVD's and terrabyte sized external hard drives. All are kept in a fire proof safe. The DVD files are ZIP compressed files, so I can get more on a DVD. Another warning is to be careful handling external hard drives. A bump or a jolt can score the platter even when it's not running, and when this happens the data is unrecoverable.

    I used to only take .jpg images also, but learned the intricacies of RAW and never looked back. I don't know what I would do without my Photoshop!

    Have a wonderful New Year 2011!!


  6. Look into one of the onlne backup systems (I use Mozy); it automatically backs up your hard drive(s) at least once a day. If you computer or hard drive blows up, you get a new one, and download your backed up files. It's simple. Cost is about $50 per year per computer.

  7. All I can say is, "Wow, Robin." Glad it all worked out for you in the end. I had no idea about all of this. Think maybe I'll just stick to being a point and shoot photographer and be thankful I can do that. I periodically back up to an external HD. I think your puffin pictures are just wonderful the way they are! ~karen

  8. One day I'd like to go to see the puffins. What is a good time? June? July?

  9. Glad you got your Puffins back Robin. As you know, I have been to Machias Seal Island 4 times, and I never get tired of going. Next time you go, besides the Puffins, and Razorbills, there are also Common Murres, and sometimes Arctic Terns. I also use a couple of external hard drives for my photo files, but I have a network device that runs backups on all of my other drives. The network device has two drives that are mirrored. If one fails, pull it out and replace it with another one. The mirror will rebuild and you have not lost anything. All of this while the drive is running (hot swap). The only drawback is that they are not off site. A house fire would be devastating. I tried to go with Carbonite, but they won't back up external drives. Oh well, just for you to ponder.

  10. OH...MY...GOODNESS! It's a wonder that YOU survived this ordeal plus achieved retrieving your photos. As for favorite photo...The third photo is MY favorite of the adorable Puffin with its wings spread open and announcing, "Happy New Year!"
    I Love You,

  11. the second photo is definately full of character !

  12. I'm relieved to hear that you retrieved all of your images. I was just thinking of your situation today. I am really happy that you did not lose any images. A lesson well learned. Have a wonderful new year.

  13. Andy, Thanks for reading. Boldcoast tours from Jonesport or Cutler, Maine have great tips out to the island. They are the only two boats allowed to land on the island, as far as I know. They would be able to give you specific info about when hte greatest variety of birds would be likely seen on the island. Puffins take about 6 weeks to hatch eggs, then another fourty days before the young leave. It would be in that fourty day span that one would have the best luck gettting shots of the birds with fish. Good luck!

  14. Thanks to all of you for your words of wisdom about storage. I have known about all of these things you do to protect your data. Of interest is that everyone does it differently. I'm guessing this is because of the differenet needs peoople have. For example, the majority of web based storage services have limited storage capacity and only upload from computers, not external drives. They are not cheap services when you need lots of capacity and subscriptions for various computers. The other reason I suspect that everyone does it a little differently is because, as I have found, there is something wrong (expense, speed, capacity, ease of use, etc) with every one of these methods. And therein lies a huge problem. I had chosen a free, yes FREE servive, Ostrich Storage. That is, do nothing. Stick your head in the dirt and pretend nothing bad will happen. Clearly, you get what you pay for! Thanks everybody for reading and giving me your ideas and suggestions. Keep 'em comin' and Happy New Year!

  15. Greg, thanks for the read and input on the photos. I agree that there is something particularly fetching about that second photo. On MSI, there are so many birds that you can't help but get good shots. To me the real challenge, therefore, is to come up with shots that are unusual, not just a sharp, perfect Puffin. I love character shots in all of my wildlife.

  16. RRR: I’m glad you were able to recover your files. I was pretty sure it could be done with data recovery software, though I hadn't done it myself.

  17. tOO BAD,WHAT A SHAME !!!

  18. I bought a backaup drive...only I can't figure out if it is working.Seagate Free Agent..pretty
    it's pink. I think i will followup with the company. I would die if my Itunes crashed

  19. Get RAID.

    (Random Array of Inexpensive Disks)

    (Simplified explanation:) Basically you pop, lets say 3 drives into it. Drive 1, 2 and 3. Each drive backs up part of the other drives. If drive 1 fails, pop a new drive in its slot and drive 2 and 3 restore it like it wasn't ever damaged.



  20. Don't lose hope---rescues are possible with the right computer guru

  21. Glad you were able to recover your treasures. I'm thinking of burying backups in mason jars but the ground is too hard right now.

    MSI is wonderful - made my first trip during the Downeast Birding Festival last spring (shameless plug - hope you can make it next spring. - http://www.downeastbirdfest.org/ )

    I'm sure hundreds of people will point out to you that MSI isn't in Penobscot Bay and that you meant the Bay of Fundy. Hard to imagine a self-respecting Puffin going that far inland on purpose.



    Fred Pierce (DNRC)- Avialantic.com
    Easternmost Fred in the U.S.

  22. Thanks for the info and bookmarked for future reference.
    As for backup, here is what I do.
    1) Backup to 2nd internal hard drive immediately!
    2) Backup to TWO external hard drives - as soon as possible.
    3) Burn CD/DVD's of my photos using a 3a) Master disk which is in storage and 3b) a Working copy disk which is used for immediate access.
    The it is a matter of keeping up. The CD/DVD's being only a month behind or so - As time permits I burn a disk.
    I've had a drive fail on me and I did not lose a beat.
    Oh, I've tried the off site bakcup plan(MemoCopy) and it slowed my computer to a crawl. Hence, I cancel it. As for RAID, well, it's original design was not for backup but for increased speed in data access. From what I read, most do not recommend it for backup. I did look into this and choose not to.
    Well, I hope this info helps you out and pick the system that works for you.

  23. RRR:

    As if you don't have enough backup advice already, here's exactly what I do: After uploading the Raw files to my PC and editing them in Photoshop CS5 or Lightroom, I save them as .PSD files. Then I move the edited files to a "Best Photos" folder on an internal hard drive, which I frequently back up to two external drives that I store off-site. (Easily accessible to me, but not where a fire would destroy my backups along with my computer).

    I back up all of my original files and store those off-site too, but I'm not as compulsive about it - there's a point of diminishing returns, and I'd rather be out taking pictures than messing with the computer all the time, even if I am a retired computer geek.

    By concentrating on safeguarding my best photos, I'm dealing with a more manageable 80-90 GB of data instead of a terabyte or more. The reliability of the consumer-grade external drives isn't exactly stellar, but with the original files on my PC and multiple backups off-site, the chance of losing my most valued images is acceptably small - nearly nil.

    Belts and suspenders: I also upload my choice images to my SmugMug photo sharing site.


  24. Wow you guys! thanks for all of this and yes, more to ponder. I feel like my head is going to explode like a watermellon dropped on pavement.

  25. What a grreat way to start the year with Puffin story.

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