This isn’t actually a photo I’ve posted before. At least, not looking like this, since it's straight out of the camera.

I like this one. It’s not going to be in my lifetime retrospective, or even my next book, but when titled “In Search of Incredible” it had good feedback at the Forum. During its critique people tended to talk about big box stores and the feeling of empty consumerism, which is exactly what I was going for, so that’s a win. But this isn’t about that.

A few weeks ago I scrolled back through my Lightroom catalog to try a new edit, and I couldn't see it. Given its title, that’s a little like rain on your wedding day. Thankfully I had uploaded a small copy of the edited photo here, so I still knew the original file name and the date it was taken, and I could look for it with those as well as by visually checking through thumbnails.

Everything failed.

It was nowhere to be found: not in my Lightroom catalog, not in my two backups of my data drives, not in the overflow safety folders created by my backup software, not on the two USB sticks that I alternate between for air-gapped and off-site storage. I’m still not sure how it disappeared. It’s possible that I might have accidentally deleted it – to data error is human – but I’ve also had recurring problems with bad sectors on my (formerly) main data drive. It easily could have gone missing back then.

Fortunately I did still have the little jpeg and the 20” print that I took to the Forum. After hunting for the original file for a couple of weeks I was seriously considering photographing the print just so that it could live on in my collection. But then: epiphany and luck.

I always knew that I had taken this photo with my GRDIV, but yesterday I finally remembered the other reason why that was important. Unique among all of my cameras, it has its own dedicated memory card. And I never erase it.

Sure enough, the original was still there. And so were 623 other photos that were no longer in my Lightroom library. That means that they were probably lost through a hard drive problem, so it’s nice to know that it wasn’t just my own mistake. But the fact that my entire backup and archive system failed me is still somewhat concerning. I think I have figured out a fix for that – on my third try, perhaps the cliche is true. I still need to test it more before I know for sure, but I've written a post about my new archiving process here.

While I continue to test out my system for archiving work-in-progress and finished images, the lesson of this file requires an obvious and immediate change to my process.

I don’t have as many fast high-capacity cards as I have cameras that need them, so after I've downloaded their contents to my computer I set them aside in a little pile for reuse. Each time I’m getting a camera ready I’ll swap out its battery, pick out a card, and reformat it. But the little jpeg-based GRDIV is an exception because it doesn’t merit a ‘good’ card, so the same slow 8GB card always goes back into it. I was lucky.

From now on I'll be dedicating a memory card to each of my main cameras, if not to every one that I own. When those cards fill up I’ll put them somewhere safe and start a new one. This is a bit more expensive than reusing them, but not much. My Merrils create my largest raw files – I’ll be writing large jpegs to the big Nikon’s SD card – and at the current $50/64GB memory card price that’s still only about three cents per photo. Film is about fifty cents per shot, so digital still wins. I'll need to buy a few more cards, but that's not a big deal.

It was just luck and coincidence that saved me this time, and there’s no reason not to try to be lucky when I can.