How I recovered from catastrophic data loss

In late 2012 and right after New Year’s Eve this year, in 2015, I experienced two data loss events, both of which happened on my Drobo storage devices. I’ll write a separate post detailing my experiences in recent years with my Drobos but for now, I wanted to let you know how I recovered my files.

First, what do I mean by “catastrophic data loss”? Simple: the loss of terabytes of my very important data: photos, videos, documents. Among other things, I am a photographer and a filmmaker. Losing my photos and my videos is a catastrophic event, as my libraries and archives include both personal and professional photos and videos. If I were to lose these things, I’d lose both treasured memories and part of my livelihood.

Here I should also point out that all of us are at risk of data loss. Most of our stuff is digital these days (or going that way). What would you do if you’d lose all your photos and videos? Think about that question and put a plan of action in place. Follow through with it and make sure you’re covered.

Now let me get the bad part out of the way: in 2012, I lost somewhere between 25,000 – 30,000 photos and I still haven’t counted how many videos, but it was a lot, probably about 20% of my video library. This is stuff I’ll never get back. It’s gone. Period. Who’s to blame? The Drobo. More on that in a later post.

Earlier this year, I could have lost an untold number of files once more but I didn’t. Why? Partially because the Drobo has improved in the way it’s handling errors but mostly because I had access to good software.

Here are the three methods of data recovery I’ll talk about below:

  • Data Rescue: it’s a piece of software that lets you mount bad drives and get your files backed up somewhere else. This let me copy all of the files it could read off the Drobo, although a lot of them ended up being corrupted, as detailed above.
  • Jeffrey Friedl’s Preview-Cache Image Extraction: this is a Lightroom plugin that allowed me to extract image previews for the lost images directly from my Lightroom catalogs. It’s a niche plugin but it’s super useful. You don’t realize just how good it is until you have to use it and then you thank the heavens that it exists.
  • Flickr and YouTube: I was able to download images and videos I’d published to Flickr and YouTube at their maximum upload resolution. They may not have been my digital negatives or my raw video files, which were lost forever, but at least I had something left. This is why I’ve started to upload to both Flickr and YouTube at the best resolution and quality possible, in case something like this happens again.

If you’re pressed for time, feel free to stop here. Make sure you use the methods outlined above and you’ll fare much better if you should lose your data, particularly if you’re working in visual media like I am. If you want the details, read on.

Data Rescue

Back in 2012, I was able to mount the corrupted Drobo volume using Data Rescue 3 and recover the bulk of my files. As mentioned above, Data Rescue was able to see all of the files, including the corrupted ones and it let me copy them off, but 25,000 – 30,000 of a total of about 130,000 photographs and I don’t know how many videos were corrupted and couldn’t be read by either Lightroom, Photoshop, Final Cut Pro or Quicktime, so they were of no use to me. They were gone. These were original RAW, DNG, TIF and JPG files from my cameras and SD and HD video files (MP4, MOV and AVI) from my video cameras. I also lost a great deal of family videos and films and cartoons I’d painstakingly digitized from VHS tapes and DVDs I’d purchased, as well as shows and films I’d recorded from TV using a DVR and then edited and stored on the Drobo. In most cases, the files just wouldn’t open up at all. In other cases, I could open them but half or more than half of the image was gone, as you see below.

This is one of my wedding photographs. Most of my wedding photographs look like this or worse…

At our weddingHere’s another. This used to be a photograph of a cliff.

Cheile Turului

I could give you many more examples but the point is, they were irreversibly damaged when the Drobo decided to go kaput.

I don’t know what I would have done without Data Rescue. Because I bought it and used it, I was able to save 70-80% of my data after my 1st catastrophic data loss event and 100% of my data during my recent data loss event.

You may say it’s not data loss and it’s not catastrophic if I was able to recover the data. To that I say that I’d have recovered 0% of my data in both cases without Data Rescue and 0% of over 8 TB of data is damned catastrophic in my book.

Jeffrey Friedl’s Preview-Cache Image Extraction

This super-useful and little-known plugin for Lightroom allows you to extract JPG files from the preview images stored in your Lightroom catalogs. That means that even if you lose the original raw files, you can still have the JPGs and that’s a huge thing.

There’s one caveat though: you need to have allowed Lightroom to keep the previews and you also need to have allowed Lightroom to store high-quality previews. I won’t get into the exact terminology here, there are plenty of tutorials on the internet that will teach you how to optimize those settings. Suffice it to say that I now have my catalogs set to create 1:1 previews and to never delete them, just in case I ever experience data loss again.

I didn’t do this in the past, which meant that I was only able to recover thumbnails or smaller JPGs for most of my corrupted photos, but this was still better than nothing. I have precious photos of my wife that are thumbnail-sized, but at least I have those, I was able to get something back from the gaping maw of data loss.

Flickr and YouTube

These two websites aren’t just for sharing photos and videos. They also let you download your originals. Well, Flickr lets you download your originals. YouTube only lets you download MP4 files of your videos but hey, it’s wonderful anyway.

By the way, the Flickr mobile app and the Google Plus mobile app (for iOS and Android) both let you automatically back up the photos taken with that phone to your respective accounts on both services. They’re set to private by default so only you see them. That’s really nice.

Flickr download options

YouTube download options

This is why I now upload all my published photos to Flickr at their highest resolution and quality and why I also upload all my published videos to YouTube at their highest resolution and quality. In case I ever experience data loss in the future, I’ll have part of my photo and video library on these sites and I’ll be able to download it. And this is also why I no longer put watermarks on my photos. It’s no good to be able to download your own original and have a watermark on it. You now either have to crop it or Photoshop it. I have no time for that sort of thing. I’d rather deal with more productive stuff.

Of course, JPGs aren’t DNGs or RAW files but if they’re the highest resolution, dpi and quality available, they’ll do just fine. And an edited 1080p MP4 file isn’t the same thing as the original Final Cut Pro event and project along with the original video and audio files that were used to create it, but if you don’t have those anymore, you’ll be very thankful to have the MP4.

Now, for some less-than-obvious stuff…

But Raoul, why don’t you back up your stuff? That would solve all your problems! 

I do back up my stuff. I’ve been using CrashPlan for years and I also use Time Machine to back up the files on my Mac (but not all my files are on my Mac, they don’t all fit on it). Unfortunately, during my first data loss event in 2012, I was re-structuring my backup sets and the Drobo couldn’t have picked a worst time to fail. If I had relied on my backups, I’d have recovered only about 25% of my data.

This year, I was doing a little better, although I was also re-structuring my backup sets. Somehow these things seem to know when to fail just to cause more headaches (my warranty had also just run out about 3-4 days before it failed). That brought to mind images of planned obsolescence…

This time I’d have recovered about 80% of my data from the backups. Not ideal but much better than before. I can go into my backup strategy at a later time, but it’s much more difficult for me to back up all my stuff than it is for you, simply because I have a ton of data and I always run into bandwidth issues. For example, one of my backup jobs has to keep up with 8.1 TB of data. The other, with 6 TB of data. And I don’t add small amounts of data to those backup sets, I add gigabytes, lots of gigabytes, whenever I have a studio shoot or take a trip, whether it be photos or videos.

But Raoul, why do you keep using the Drobo when it keeps failing? 

The basic premise of a Drobo, that of using SATA drives of different sizes, from different manufacturers in a single array that can show up as a single 16 TB volume on my Mac, and also allow for one (or two) of those drives to fail while keeping the data safe, still cannot be beaten by anything else on the market. If you know of anything else that meets those criteria, let me know. The Drobo has its drawbacks and data corruption is one of them. Drobos also brick themselves quite a lot, just search for that phrase and you’ll see what I mean. They’re not to be relied upon but they provide the basic benefit outlined above.

But Raoul, you could have used photo recovery software to get all those tens of thousands of photos back! Why didn’t you? 

Back in 2012, I knew of no such software. Now I believe there are several options available and some allow for batch processing of corrupted photos. I haven’t tried any of them yet so I can’t tell you anthing about them. I doubt that any software can do much when half of a photo’s pixels are missing. Besides, I didn’t need to use them after my latest data loss, I was able to get it all back with Data Rescue.

But Raoul, you could have sent your Drobo in to a professional data recovery service. Couldn’t they have done a much better job? 

Maybe. I did get a couple of quotes. They ran anywhere from $3,000 – over $10,000 and they couldn’t guarantee they’d get all my data back. What also made things more complicated and expensive was shipping my drives to the US, where these companies were located. I live abroad and the customs are such a headache I try to avoid dealing with them whenever I can.


Author: Raoul Pop

Entrepreneur, consultant, filmmaker, photographer and watch collector

1 thought on “How I recovered from catastrophic data loss”

  1. I’ve used the preview extraction method in the past when I somehow completely misplaced about 3,000 files from a trip to North Carolina two years ago. I hadn’t started using Smart Previews in Lightroom yet, so not everything was there as anything more than a thumbnail, but the majority of it was. Super useful.

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