Tech Help: Fixing a Photographer’s Nightmare

I turned on my computer this meta Monday morning and was greeted with the following message in the black and white boot screen:

WARNING: Please back-up your data and replace your hard disk drive. A failure may be imminent and cause unpredictable fail.

It seems that my life never fails to present me with timely topics to write about.

But you ask, why am I writing about computer tech problems on a cast iron blog?

If you are an outdoors guy like me or just love to take photos and video of your travel adventures, chances are you too have gigabytes of media stored in fragile spaces.

Yet, all of this epic computer fail wasn’t necessarily a surprise.

When I built myself a new computer a few years ago I had salvaged my data backup drive from my old machine. It was a two terabyte drive that also happened to be where I stored all my photos and my music library. I popped it out of the old and dropped it into the new, and voila… all my media were on the new computer. Yet over the last couple weeks, working from home from this machine, some odd noises have been emitting from the big black box and I’ve been a terrible techie and basically ignored the early warning signs.

Imminent hard drive failure warnings are something like a stage four cancer diagnosis for your computer. You don’t deal with that stuff tomorrow… you act. Today.

Now, to be clear, I do have a cloud backup of all those photos in case of an epic emergency like a fire or a flood, and local backups scattered across old hard drives and such, but my core library is… well, was this drive.

I write “was” because as of this morning that first action step was to immediately start to move all that data to a newer drive…. all seven hundred plus gigabytes of what I hadn’t copied already. (The music files are up next and that’s also nearly a terabyte of data I need to contend with!) All in all, I’m looking at about six hours of data migration today in a race against the ticking timebomb of my hard drive giving up and deciding not to work anymore. A race against a fragile piece of equipment which I need to push to its very limits by copying every last byte of data it has stored inside it. A recipe for a technical nightmare.

Cue the epic action movie soundtrack:

Hard Drives are not Cast Iron…

They are the exact opposite actually… temporary, fragile, and mysterious in their operation. Even so, I use the former every day to share my love of the latter.

So, if you got here by Googling and are mid-panic and wondering how to deal with this kind of error yourself, here’s my advice:

First, stop whatever else you are doing and get that data off the failing hard drive. Put it on another hard disk in your machine. Put it on an external drive. Drag it onto another computer. Move it to memory cards. Push it to USB sticks. Write it onto recordable media like DVDs or even CDs if that’s what you have handy. Whatever you can do to save all those precious files, particularly files you don’t have other copies of, cannot replace, or would be time consuming or expensive to restore. Save as much data as you can first.

Second, figure out a backup solution (or two). Backup external hard drives are fairly inexpensive these days and even a hundred bucks to store a decade worth of photos and video is a relatively small investment to protect your memories and work. Free cloud storage products are hard to find anymore, but if you don’t mind paying a hundred bucks a year you can store a lot of data with Apple or Google or Dropbox or any of a dozen reputable companies who will keep your data safe in their datacentres. Watch for fees for things often called “data egress” which means you pay extra to download those files when you need them back.

Third, don’t mess around with broken drives. Get that old hard drive out of your system and replace it. There are lots of software programs that claim to fix or restore failing drives, but too often these are temporary fixes at best, fixes that give you time to nab your data before it’s done for good.