My fellow memory keepers may be the only people on the planet who can fully appreciate the horror (and the partial redemption) of this cautionary tale. But the rest of you should read on anyway.
I've worked in the scrapbooking industry for 10 years. I have actually worked as a professional memory keeper. I'm married to Travis Lucas.* I have two daily backups of the contents of my entire computer stored at home, plus an additional backup stored at my husband's office that gets updated monthly, all because I am married to Travis Lucas.
If I can lose hundreds of precious photos—maybe thousands, I don't really want to count—so could you.
Here's what happened.
We recently got a new computer, a laptop, which necessitated transferring a scary number of files from our two old computers (purchased in 2009) onto our lone new computer. But I wasn't worried. My husband, a creative director and Mac genius, was in charge. He had a plan. He had thought the data migration through and mapped it out. And the plan went fine.
Except for one thing—that's kind of my fault.
As I've recently been browsing through photos in our photo-organizing program, Aperture, which I love for many reasons that Travis has yet to understand, I noticed a teeny tiny symbol in the corners of some photos. It was a white box with a red diagonal line through it. Never a good sign. So I tried to print or export a few of those photos, and I would get an error telling me the source file couldn't be found.
I dug into it a bit more. This was only happening with a specific range photos, from May 2009 through December 2010. I couldn't export or print most of those photos—except the ones we had taken with our iPhones. Curiouser and curiouser.
Then I remembered: the RAW files.
Here's the thing. Back in May of 2009, we had purchased our first (and as yet our only) fancy DSLR camera—a Nikon D90. Travis took hundreds of pictures while the camera was new, heading out for hours on photographic excursions. He shot some of his best work to date, as you can see here. And he always shot in RAW.
Back then, I was organizing the photos from our old digital camera and our mobile phones in iPhoto, and iPhoto did not handle RAW photo files well at the time. So, we kept all of our Nikon shots organized in a folder system on the hard drive, which we browsed and accessed via a program called Bridge.
When we purchased Aperture a few years later, I migrated our iPhoto library and all of the Bridge photos into it, so everything would be in one easily accessible place. And from then on, all Nikon photos were imported directly into Aperture, alongside the iPhone photos, and we stopped using the hard drive folders for new imports.
The thing we recently discovered is this: when I "imported" those Bridge photos into Aperture way back in 2011, I must not have actually imported them, but instead just created reference files for all of those pictures. Aperture is able to work either way—by storing the original photos inside the program, or by just referencing them from their original location.
Because we weren't sure if the Bridge photos were being referenced or stored in Aperture, WE ACTUALLY TESTED IT TO MAKE SURE before doing anything drastic. We went into the Bridge file structure and deleted a photo. Then we looked at Aperture to see if that photo was still in Aperture. It was. We tried it again. Same thing.
We didn't try to print or export the photos we had deleted as a test. We figured that since we could SEE the photo in Aperture, it must be there. Silly humans. So we proceeded to delete 20 months of Bridge photos from the old computer, thinking they were duplicated in Aperture, and then we reformatted the external backup drive. It wasn't until 2 months later that we noticed the little, tiny red symbol in the corner of all those photos.
Perhaps you noticed, from the screenshot above, exactly why this is so heartbreaking. We lost photos from May 2009 to December 2010. Keira was born October 2, 2010. The first three months of our daughter's life were documented in those pictures.
Photos like this:
Before you get too sad on our behalf, there is a silver lining of sorts.
The nice thing about Aperture—which is the very same thing that tricked us into thinking that the program was storing all of our original pictures—is that all of the preview files can be viewed very, very large. I have a 27-inch Apple monitor, and I can open the images at a size that fills the monitor. And I can take screenshots of those images with a simple little command: Cmd + Shift + 4.
I have verified that the largest screenshot I've been able to take is large enough to print a perfectly adequate 4 x 6 photo. Maybe even larger; I haven't tried yet.
Of course, I lose all of the meta data of the original pictures (such as the date the files were taken), and it's going to be a big huge pain in the butt to take screenshots of 20 months of photos. AND I am prodigiously sad that some of Trav's beautiful pictures—seriously some of his best work and some of our favorite vacation shots ever—can't be printed in big 11 x 14 wall prints.
However, for a little bit of perspective, there are the following four facts:
- We at least have the preview images and the ability to take (and print) screenshots in a standard 4 x 6 photo size. It could be SO much worse.
- I don't have ANY photos from my own childhood that would look very good printed much larger than a 4 x 6. These beautiful, high-res photos we enjoy now are a relatively new phenomenon.
- We still have all the photos we took on our iPhones during that time period, and there were certainly a lot of those.
- And...there are two more options we have yet to try:
- 1. Speak to the Apple support line to find out if there's a way to "export" the photo previews at their largest size, so I don't have to spend weeks taking screenshots.
- 2. Spend $120 on software that Travis can use to comb through our old machine (which has had files deleted but has not been reformatted and has otherwise been sitting untouched) to see if those original Bridge files can be recovered, and then actually IMPORTED into Aperture for real.
So, yes, it felt like a disaster for about 48 hours. But it's really not the end of the world.
And that brings me to my real point in writing today.
Do you want to know what just got a lot more precious?
All of the photos I have printed and/or scrapbooked from that period in my life. The tangible pictures I can hold in my hands.
I've always considered us fairly savvy when it comes to technology and data, and we're pretty darn diligent about redundancy and performing regular backups. And yet clearly we are still vulnerable to human error. If this can happen to us, something similar could happen to you.
Yes, I know there are online backup options, and maybe they would have helped in our case (but maybe not, since we deliberately deleted thousands of files that we thought were saved elsewhere on our same machine—and backed up in triplicate), but NO system is 100% failsafe or foolproof.
If you're not currently backing up your photos on an external drive of some sort or via a cloud-based solution, do it now. You still have time to avoid that stomach-dropping, sick feeling of losing thousands of precious memories. And even if you do have a digital backup solution in place and you are following all of the recommended steps faithfully, realize that all data preservation systems still have their vulnerabilities.
So, I urge you to also print some of your photos, some of the time. Especially your favorites.
That is all.
* Here's what it means when I say "I'm married to Travis Lucas" as a data point in this story. He is the most prepared of the prepared. He packs enough water for a week if we'll be driving in the desert for 6 hours. He has duffle bags filled with emergency gear we could grab on our way out the door, if needed, one for each family member. He performs regular maintenance on all of our digital devices, upgrading and updating software on schedule. He believes in extended warranties. He plans every move meticulously well in advance. The cars are always clean, even when we have a baby or toddler around, because HE cleans them. He is the very best preserver of machines, animal companions, human beings, automobiles, and digital devices in the world.