Mysteriously Lost Photos – What Happened?

It hasn’t been a good day for me today.

Just this morning, a plastic loading wiper in the Syquest drive broke, and it was a fortuitous event that gave me the opportunity to photograph the insides of the drive while simultaneously committing a repair to the drive to get it functional enough to verify the last disk, while simultaneously being extra nervous of disturbing the mechanisms or the heads.

So I set up my slave flashes, got my Nikon D3200 and the Samsung 32Gb SDHC Class 10 card and proceeded as normal, shooting photos carefully while disassembling, all the while reviewing the photos from each step going “this is going to look brilliant”.

The repair was committed, the glue waiting to dry. Camera was powered off, check the card active light is turned off, card removed and placed into my reader.

WHAT THE ….!?!? The files are nowhere to be seen! Putting the card back into the camera, the camera is entirely unaware that I had taken any new photos. But I swear – I wasn’t dreaming, I reviewed several of them before and I actually did take the photos.

Normally, this isn’t cause for me to panic just yet. Get out the hex editor, do a full card image and then traverse the filesystem and check for deleted files – except, there wasn’t any!

Fine, lets go to something more advanced – lets check the FATs and see if one FAT may not have been updated. Extract both FATs and they are exactly the same. Crap!

No matter, if the data is there, one can usually get at it using signature-based recovery which examines the raw image looking for byte-sequences which correspond to JPG and NEF files. About three minutes later, there were many matched sequences – but examining the hits resulted in files from my previous to last shoot being recovered but none from this morning.


So what happened?

  • I had shooting without a card turned off, so there should be no way shooting would be allowed without a card. Wi-Fi remote shooting was not in use on the camera, nor was live-view. It was pretty basic operating.
  • I saw the active light come on when I was shooting and reviewing – and I did zoom in on a few shots to check the focus and to check the colour coding of the cables as they were being disassembled. There was nothing to alert me to a problem.
  • I did not mix up any of the cards – I checked every card in the room, twice just to be sure. Not operator error.
  • Maybe the card has a fault? It’s possible – removal of power to the card may have occurred just as the card was about to update parts of its flash-translation layer or the sectors responsible for the FAT. It does seem unlikely the whole 50-or-so shots would be lost due to this though.
  • Maybe the card suffered a compatibility problem? Unlikely, but possible. In the 3,200 photos shot to date with that card-body combination, this has never happened before. If there really was a problem with the card, the review should have failed or shown errors – but it didn’t. How could the card return the right data if it was never written? It’s not likely the card has a sizable enough cache to hold 50 shots in RAW+JPEG.
  • Maybe there was a firmware bug in the D3200? Possibly the more likely scenario – the camera has a sizable buffer for shots taken, and many of the photos may have resided in the cache despite not being written out due to a (hypothetical) card communication problem. If the cached photos are used for preview, it would not have been noticeable on review until the camera powered down and camera rebooted.
  • Maybe Windows has a cached-media bug causing old FATs to be overwritten onto cards? Another possibility, especially if the reader is lazy about signalling media removal/changes to the OS, but it doesn’t explain the inability to find the recorded data using a signature search.

I am really miffed, because I’ll have to wait until this current task is completed before I have a chance to take apart the drive again for a set of photos. And because I know this can happen again in the future – somehow, somewhere, maybe in a really inopportune time as well. Since the problem, I cannot replicate it – same card works just fine when I take another shot. Battery hasn’t been changed, lens hasn’t been changed, same body, same reader.

Maybe it’s happened to some of you out there … no you’re not crazy.

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2 Responses to Mysteriously Lost Photos – What Happened?

  1. Pingback: Tech Flashback: SyQuest SQ5110 Drive Internals | Gough's Tech Zone

  2. Justin L. says:

    I’ve also had this happen.

    I was attempting to copy some music from one laptop to another laptop using an external USB hard drive, and even after verifying that the files were copied by playing it back from the external drive (access light was flashing to indicate reading) when I plugged it into the other laptop the files just weren’t there.

    I mounted the drive on the source machine and it also didn’t find the files. It took 4 tries before the files were successfully read on the other machine, and I don’t think that it’s a Windows/filesystem problem because I was writing the files on a Linux Mint machine to a Windows laptop and the drive was using NTFS. I cleanly unmounted the drive _every single time._

    I guess sometimes the “data gods” just really hate you.

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