The Heartbreak of Losing a Full Memory Card

You have to stay with me on this one, because….well…you just have to read this.

In May of 2009, I came to Denver to do my Photoshop Down & Dirty Tricks tour, and the day before I spent some time shooting with Jason from the I decided to do a creative exercise to stretch myself a bit by breaking with the usual and just use one single lens; a 50mm prime lens—-that’s it. No changing lenses—just that one lens, the whole time.

We shot for hours wandering around downtown Denver and really had a great time. I mostly shot architectural type stuff—buildings, signs, patterns—stuff like you see at the top of this post. I even took some examples I could use for an upcoming book project, and all and all I really enjoyed that one lens exercise because it makes you think and work and be more creative, and not rely on your gear so much.

However, as I wrote back in May of 2009 (link), the next morning, before even getting to look at any of my photos, I not only accidentally formatted the card, but I shot right over the card with images from my seminar. When I realized this a few days later, I tried to rescue them using recovery software, but by then they had been overwritten and they were no where to be found. Uggh! It’s a heartbreaker.

Happy to forget that loss
I know I probably didn’t get anything really worthwhile that day, but knowing that you lost about 8GB of images (around 700 images) makes you feel like “I bet there was something really great in there…” and it’s the never knowing that eats at you. I had never really done that before—lost a whole shoot without backing up. I learned a good lesson from it, but every time since whenever I hear someone mention Denver, I still cringe a little as I relived my mess up. It’s how we photographers torture ourselves.

Today, I’m back in Denver with my “Light it, Shoot it, Retouch it Tour,” and yesterday as Brad and I were driving downtown I passed a sculpture I recognized, and the buildings beside it, and the whole “losing my images” thing came rushing back. I told Brad the whole story from beginning to end, and even he was cringing. I just couldn’t imagine how I could have done that, and seeing those areas I shot, and lost, just made it worse.

I’ll meet you in the lobby in 10 minutes
I wanted to catch an early dinner so I called Brad and said, “Let’s me in the lobby in 10 minutes.” When I come out of the elevator, Brad reaches in his shirt pocket and hands me a memory card. I said “What’s this?” He smiles and says, “Your missing Denver photos from 2009.” I was speechless. I thought he was kidding. He wasn’t.

It’s that whole “cleaning out my closet thing”
I’ve been doing a series of giveaways on Twitter called “Semi-useful stuff from Scott’s camera closet” and literally as I’ve been cleaning out my closet, I’ve been giving away things I haven’t been using in a while. This past Sunday I found a Swiss Army brand laptop bag I had used briefly (it still looked pretty new), and it was in such good shape that I didn’t want to throw it away, so I brought it into the office and asked Brad to see if anybody wanted it.

Well, Brad had a new laptop, and no real laptop bag so he claimed it, and showed it to me at the airport this morning. I was like “Perfect—it found a new home.” That morning, when Brad was putting his laptop and accessories in the bag, he found two of my memory cards in one of the pockets. He saw there were images on them, but he also saw they were from 2009 so he figured I had long since backed up already so he reformatted the card to use tomorrow at the seminar. However, after he heard my story, and went and used photo recovery software to see if those shots were indeed the missing shots from Denver. After looking at a few, he saw a sign in one shot that sure enough said “Denver” and he just sat there and smiled as he rescued every single image.

I was stunned.
Still am as I sit here and write this. Seriously, what are the chances? I gave him the bag yesterday, and if we weren’t in Denver, and hadn’t driven by that exact sculpture, I probably wouldn’t have ever told the story, and then tomorrow morning we would have actually overwritten that card; never having any idea those images were on it. Now, they truly would have been lost forever.

As I suspected…
The images weren’t great. Just “OK.” Nothing going in my portfolio. Nothing earth shattering,  (the images you see here are the ones from the missing card). But I don’t care. I have such a sense of peace just knowing that they’re back, and that I didn’t accidentally erase them—I just misplaced them—for two and a half years. That part, doesn’t surprise me at all.

Thanks Brad
I needed a smile yesterday, and that surely gave me one. That, and a whole bunch of  “I just can’t believe you found that card!” during dinner.

  1. Scott, I shot my grandsons kindergarden graduation on a new card about 6 years ago. It crashed when I tried to download it. We sent it back to the manufacturer but couldn’t recover the shots. I always try them out before shooting anything now. I’ve had film not catch good on the spool too, it sucks!

  2. Glad you found them! I hear you about the peace of mind. This summer while travelling from cost to cost, I decided to carry 4 USB as backup instead of my external hard drive. Comeback home and could only find 2 USB. So I’m missing all our family vacation photos. I really regretted changing my workflow! Last week, I go to take my speed light out of its’ case and two USB drops on the floor!!!

  3. So glad you got those images back – I felt somewhat sick (and for some strange reason, partially responsible)! Partly why I was not sure I could even show my face in your classes again! (j/k) I understand Michelle and a few others will be there instead though, and hopefully show a better time with no lost images or laptop failures!

    The memories live on! (And fwiw, I actually kinda like this image set, but I could be biased due to residency… :) )

    1. Hi Mark,

      I use Card Recovery ( I accidentally deleted all my photos on a CF card from my Kelby Photowalk 2010 at Mt. Evans in Colorado. I freaked out! Did a search online and found this software with good reviews. I got it and recovered all my photos! What a relief! It wasn’t free. I think it was around $25.00. Also if you buy a Lexar Card, they have a free rescue program on the disk … so don’t format before you use the disk. Hope that helps!


  4. 1. How could all of this been avoided? Do you label all of your memory cards with a code for use?

    2. No credit given for the recovery softwear? No lessons pending on Recovery?

    1. I think this is more of a human story and one about he wonders of happy coincidences. I found it to be written engagingly, and did not see any need for a takeaway or lesson other than to revel in the wonder that happen to and among people despite living in a world where so many things so often go wrong.

      Let the delight and relief be sufficient. Let joy be shared without need for burden. (And let recovery software, performing nominally, without having new overwritten data to overcome, be taken for granted. That kind of faith in a product is praise in itself.)

  5. Hi Scott! What recovery software was used to get the photos back? I also lost some photos & would like very much to get them back. I felt ‘sick’ when it happened.

  6. I’ve lost data a couple of times now and consequently have a very strict workflow for using CF cards.
    1. Max. size for stills 4Gb = 1 x DVD for backup and will recover (relatively) fast. Many will disagree with me, but I don’t shoot a lot of sport or action etc.
    2. Always format the card in the camera you’re using.
    3. Number every CF card clearly.
    4. Store cards in a Think Tank Photo Pixel Pocket Rocket with clear pockets so you can see the number on each CF card.
    5. Keep the CF cards in numerical order in the TTF PPR with the number face down, not showing. This indicates to me that the card is ready to shoot.
    6. When the card is full, place in the TTF PPR with the number showing – you then know it is an ‘exposed’ CF card.

    I do use Image Recall software for image data recovery, but as far as I know it’s only a PC based product

    Sandisk also provide data recovery software available to download for both PC & Mac when you buy their media – you do need the license number provided with each CF card etc.

  7. I over wrote some HD video footage once thinking I’d already backed up…….and the pain never goes away. What a great story and a reminder to us all, have a backup strategy, and better yet, get a ‘Brad!!’

  8. That is the worse felling. I had a pack of 4 8g cards fall out of my bag at the end of a wedding. Went to down load the cards that night and the pack was not in my bag, went back to the wedding location, cards were no were to be found. It wasn’t till a month later that someone had responded to posters I put up, they had pick them up that night. After that I labeled all my cards with my contact info. The hardest thing was telling the bride her photo were gone, so glad we found them.

    1. Great point Mark. Just don’t stop with the cards. The video guys leave wireless mics in church a lot (well 2 or 3 in a year). Sometimes spare camera gear gets left. If it was marked we could at least contact the owner.

  9. Scott, You’re just reaping what you have sown! Just a small personal reward for all you have given to Adobe, photographers both established and aspiring, the photography industry in general and community, with your books, tours, conventions, online training (one of my favorites) and your charities.

  10. Two words……Brad rocks! Everyone should have a Brad. Great story and thanks for sharing it. It makes us feel good that you make the same mistakes that all of us make once in a while.

    Have a great weekend!


  11. When does the movie version come out? A heartwarming tale of loss and reunion when something more than just the images are discovered. Gotta be good for at least 3 handkerchiefs. :)

  12. Best thing is, being digital, the image quality hasn’t suffered as it would have had that been a roll (well 20 rolls for 700 images) of film. And also, you get to process them in Lightroom 3 and Photoshop CS5 along with current versions of HDR software plugins, etc. without having to scan through your archive to see what could benefit further from re-processing!

    Now imagine losing 20 rolls of film and you get back to Joe McNally’s guest blog on Wednesday and his trepidation at sending bags of film back to Nat Geo from distant locations!

  13. Hey Scott,

    Boy, Denver is not good for you! I remember in 2009 (I think it was) your Hard Drive crashed during your seminar! I remember us all cracking up at that! :-) Glad you were able to get your photos of Denver back. Some of the photos look familiar. I did a Kelby Photowalk of Denver in 2009. I think the photos rock! Thanks to Brad for getting them back for you! Hope all goes well at your Light it, Shoot it, Retouch it Seminar today! I know it will be a Blast! I’m just sorry I couldn’t make it!


  14. Oh man, what a cool story! Even better than finding a bill in your pocket after a couple of months of not wearing that jacket!

    Also, I highly recommend Jason’s blog, and I’m a Nikon shooter!

    Thanks again for sharing Scott

  15. Scott/Brad,
    I lost a 4 GB card with images of Monument Valley a couple of years back. I put it in my pants pocket, figuring I would back it up when I got to Sante Fe later that day. Anyway, I guess when I got some gas and pulled cash out of my pocket, the card fell out. I will never forget that and am always more careful now. A hard lesson to learn.

  16. Scott,

    It’s not luck you got those images back…it’s called, “Paying it forward.” You are generous to provide such wonderful information, tips and tricks and then you also gave out the bag to someone that could use it. It was in the stars. The story made me feel good today.

  17. Wow!

    When we were out in Omaha in August visiting my grandfather and introducing him to his youngest great-grandson I shot a whole card of him knowing it was probably my last chance – he’s 87 and in poor health. The last evening there, I stood up in fear because I left the card in my pocket after swapping it out and then ran a load through the wash…

    I ran to the dryer an there it was in my pocket… I slid it into the slot, turned it on, and everything was there. Phew!

    Those precious moments could’ve been lost forever.

  18. I’m a girl (well, I’m kind of old to be a girl, but it sounds better) and you story brought tears to my eyes :~) That sort of happened to me last year when a friends’ teenage daughter accidentally deleted the photos form a special event we attended together. I didn’t know much about recovery software then, so it was too late to recover them :~( I’m so happy that your story had a happy ending!!!

  19. So glad you got yours back. For two years I have had the same feeling. I didn’t format the card or shoot over it, it disappeared. I have no idea where it went. I may have dropped it somewhere or set it somewhere never to be found. But I ALWAYS thinking about those photos I took with that card and I can’t help but wonder… what if those were GREAT! I can still picture in my head that there was ONE that I really liked and I will never know what it looks like on the computer or printed now. :( I am still holding out hope that I will come across it one day. Plus… it also had photos of my dogs when they were puppies on it. :(

  20. Here is the real story, Brad went out and retook all the photos and then said he randomly found some images on the card. That Brad is a shifty one. And it was so long ago, Scott would never know. Hehe
    Congrats on the “Found” Images.

  21. First time this has ever happened but I found it strangely ominous considering the story . . . I was checking Scott’s blog this morning at part of my morning ritual and it locked up my Internet Explorer, said some script was running that might slow down or harm my computer. Emergency shutdown of IE and tried it in Firefox and it appears to be running fine. Did somebody do something differently today?

  22. Hey Scott,

    Glad you got your imaes back. I was testing Lexar memory cards a while back and stubled upon a bug in the indexing on the card whereby if you were using a Canon EOS 5D/5DMKII AND shooting RAW+JPG that the images would appear just fine on the card but as soon as you went to xfer them the index would go boom and make it appear that the card was empty. I was able to recover but that sinking feeling that I lost all of the images sticks with me and I am fanatical about doing backups and backups of backups before I ever format.

  23. I’m having trouble with Kelby Training and no one will answer me. I have emailed support there 3 times and written to Jack Reznicki personally all ignored. What happened to the Children’s Photography video at Kelby Training? This is very poor customer service that I do not expect to receive at Kelby websites!

    1. Debbi, have you tried calling them and speaking to someone personally? I imagine they must get a ton of e-mails, but they have always been very helpful to me over the phone. Kelby Training has some of the best CS people in the business! Good luck!!


      1. Thank you both for replying. I will try calling on Monday. Michelle I did check the spam folder. I have asked questions of them before and always got answers. That is why I’m so perplexed this time

    2. Dumb question, but did you make sure to check your spam folder? I’ve always gotten good email support from them (as well as over the phone). Last week might have been weird because of Photoshop World too, but yeah I’d call them like John mentioned.

  24. What a great story! Sometimes things happen for a reason, and it’s karma. Like you giving a nice bag away so someone would find a use for it—and save your long lost images!

    Here’s mine: Several years ago I was shooting the world’s richest Grand Prix Show Jumping Event (Horses) in Calgary, worth $1 million. One of my best friends was there shooting as well. We were in a huge grass field with 1,200-pound horses galloping around jumping 5-foot fences. Dozens of renowned photographers from all over the world were there shooting. My friend changes her card before the prize giving ceremony and runs across the field to stake a place at the podium. Everyone is rushing to get to their spots. There are TV cameras and sponsors and flower girls all running around. After the victory gallop, where probably 40-50 horses have paraded around the field, I walk back across the ring to retrieve my camera bag next to a jump. I look down and see a card in the grass. Miraculously, it has not been stepped on and ground into the turf. I put it in my pocket and return to the media center. I put my equipment down and get my tape recorder and go to the press conference in another building. Thirty minutes later I return to the media center to find my friend near hysteria. She’s lost her card of all of the show jumping shots. She is frantic. She is crying because the rider who won is Canadian (which rarely happens) and she is the official photographer of the Canadian Show Jumping Team. I reach in my pocket and pull out her card. We are best friends for a reason.

  25. It happened to me all the time. I usually transferred the pics from camera using cheap memory card. 2 times during the process it gave me error warning. Stopped transferring. When I inserted the CF card back on the camea body, it wanted me to reformat immediately. I had to ask a friend of a friend to retrieve the files. I got most of them back. A few days ago when I got back from Bali, I transferred everything again with the card reader to try my luck, and all pics were transferred. So I formatted my CF card. Next thing I know, from 900 frames, only 200 frames could be opened. The rest had thumbnails but it says no preview available or error jpg file when I tried to open them in lightroom and photoshop. My friend already gave me sanddisk recovery software and I tried it to get the pics back. I gotta say I got 95 percent back and that was a total relieve..

  26. Scott, Felt your pain and frustration over the lost images and celebrate the recovery! Been a Ballet photographer for the last 20 years, hade a similar experience back when I was shooting film. You remember those days, shooting a dress rehearsal just finished a roll put it in the pouch but working on the fly had to reload and move to the next shooting position and when climbing over the seat back heard that heartsinking clink of a cassette hitting the floor and scittering away. Frustrating but keep going, will find it when the lights come back on, have very few options at stopping a dress rehearsal for photo call but this roll was mostly that stopes photo call the show went on and finished that roll. That would be the roll that hit the floor. End of rehearsal lights come on and the search begins. To cut to the end this theatre had rows of seats that were tiered and divided by over lapping shelf with floor air-conditioning vents spaced 12 inches apart and the perfect size to swallow a roll of film. Which it did with zero possibility of recovery. Every time I shoot in that theatre which isn’t to often I wand to tether my cards so history does repeat. So I feel your happiness for your recovery, but in my case the stomach churning continues in one particular theatre. Cheers!

  27. Great story Scott. And great seminar in Denver! I came up and said hi. I was the last person in line to talk to you at the end of the day (fingers crossed for the next Nikon DSLR). I learned a ton and got a lot of great inspiration out of it. If anyone is considering attending the Light It, Shoot It, Retouch It Live seminar do it! It’s well worth the money!

  28. So delighted to read the good news. Thanks for sharing the story with us. As photographers we never want to loose ‘the shot” never mind the images. You inspire us to look on the bright side of life.

  29. 1) Time to give Brad a raise! :)
    2) Scott, you have the CRAZIEST stories! This one definitly beats the “take the wrong camera bag to Tuscany” story.
    3) How did you misplace those two memory cards for so many years and not see it I still don’t understand… :)

  30. Scott,

    Same thing happened to me. I had pictures of my sons 18th birtday. I thought I had deleted the pics and was sick for 2 days. HOW COULD I HAVE DONE THAT. Two days later my son found the memory card in his backpack. WOW was I happy. It is a very sick feeling when you loose a memory card.

  31. Scott,
    Speaking of memory cards, I need to buy three cards and was wondering which ones are your favorite right now. Brand and model. I think I want smaller cards in case one crashes.

  32. I found out I lost my memory sticks. they were a great pair, I backed up old family photos while waiting for my computer to come back from repairs.
    My computer came home today, but I can’t find my memory sticks, It was about 40 GB of my past, and it’s all gone. Because im sure no one will give it back since I probably lost in in college.
    I have spent about 8 hours looking for it tonight, I couldn’t find it anywhere, and no results so far, I will go on a search for it tomorrow, if I can’t find it, I am probably going to be really sad.

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