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Disk Drill recovery and photo backups

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Disk Drill

Recovering photo files &
Backup ideas for photographers

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A solid backup strategy for your files is vital for photographers, but sometimes things fail and you may need to recover items from a crashed or faulty disk drive.

Keith looks at ways of avoiding the problem as well as a nifty bit of software that pulled some useful data off a crashed internal drive on his Mac.

Disk Drill for Mac and Windows – free trial


UPDATE: We have a 10% off promo code ‘northlightimages’ for the Disk Drill software

That backup you meant to do

As photographers, we often import large numbers of increasingly large files and tend to want to get working on them right away. However, if like me, your image library represents your livelihood, you really need to make sure your images are safe – today, next year, whenever they might be needed.

For myself I never clear a memory card until I know it’s been successfully copied to both my main desktop computer (a Mac Pro with 4 internal disks) and to our main server (a Synology RAID Diskstation). The Mac is also backed up to a 12TB USB C external drive (attached to the Diskstation) using Apple’s Time Machine. For a final offsite backup I’ve several external disk drives that contain all my original camera files. Ideally I want 3 copies of important files…  Note that I’m not discussing cloud backups here – this may be of use but the (ongoing) expense and time in setting up and maintaining several terabytes of storage is something you’ll want to consider.

Now there are several other ways you could approach this (a quick search will find many articles). The key is to remember that drives will fail. That is WILL, not might.

So, I’m happy that key images will be safe. I’ve had a serious house fire in the past, and even though my office was OK I knew that at the very worst all my RAW camera files were OK (but do have a plan to test those off-site backups every so often…)

A disk fails

Sure enough after a recent power interruption, one of the internal disks in my Mac Pro failed. Time to check the backups? Unfortunately, this was a work disk and I’d never included it in the Time Machine backups. It contained amongst other things all the various source images for articles I’ve written for this site over the last few years. So whilst I have the site (and all the photos etc) well backed up, these were the higher resolution original photoshop files – jpegs and .psd files.

Annoying, yes, but I remembered that this disk was only ever intended to be for assorted work ‘recently finished’. My image files and the processed ones sent to clients were in the backup collection.

However, well thought out plans can drift, and I simply wasn’t sure if anything properly important was on that crashed disk.

With servers and assorted Macs, I’ve quite a few ‘dead’ drives in my scrap box. Why? well I used to be an electronics hardware designer (many careers ago) and assorted parts have a habit of finding their way into my macro work.


The three platters (disks) and read-write heads of a dead disk drive.

What’s on the disk

The disk, a Seagate 3GB internal drive, appeared briefly on my desktop and then went. Then it came back again, and went.

I shut things down, pulled the drive from the computer and got to sourcing a replacement.  Also using this as a timely reminder, I double checked all my backup chain.

I’ve now got a disk that’s obviously faulty – how to see what’s on it?

Putting it into an external USB drive case, I was able to connect it up. It appeared briefly and then went again. Apple’s Disk Utility didn’t do much other than offering to reformat the drive which is NOT a good idea.

It’s at this time I looked for disk recovery software. There are quite a few packages, most of which will do the scanning part for free, but only need purchasing/updating when you actually want to do serious recovery of files.

Disk Drill

One package I liked the look of was Disk Drill. I’ll not go into great detail about all its functionality, since it happens to have some very good support resources. It has a lot of options you can try. I’m using the Mac version, but there is a Windows PC version as well.  Download Disk Drill

There are a lot of useful FAQ style articles and tutorials on the Disk Drill website. These are well worth studying in some detail before just diving in and looking at the disk.

After downloading and installing, there’s a nice simple interface to get you started.


There are three versions of Disk Drill, with different functionality.


The free version offers some useful tools that you can run on a working disk that can make future recovery a lot easier.

This is an extra layer of assurance you can add, and recovery is free if you’ve ‘pre screened’ a disk. With the free version you can preview some the ‘deeper scan’ recovery methods and decide if what’s there is really important, when a disk fails.


Just do remember that disk recovery is exceedingly difficult with some disk failures.  The disk may need to be sent off for specialised recovery – not cheap. Prevention, through good backups is always best.


Disk Drill also adds drive monitoring if you want to keep tabs on local disk status.

SMART monitoring is looking at the disk’s own internal health checks. Whilst this can give advance warning of problems, don’t rely on it to catch everything.


The coloured indicators remind me that one of my internal disks is getting quite close to capacity. If you don’t want extraneous items in your menu bar, you can hide this display via the preferences, whilst still keeping the monitoring enabled.

So, what was on that disk?

The disk obviously has hardware faults, but after a couple of goes connecting the USB Cable, it was picked up in Disk Drill.

Since this drive wasn’t protected in advance, I knew that it might take a while to scan, so I just left things going with ‘All Recovery methods’ enabled.

The disk can be re-mounted as read only, so as to protect its (potentially fragile) contents.

Or, a better option for failing disks is to create a byte by byte copy of the disk as a DMG file (on a bigger disk). This can be mounted and analysed without any risk to the original disk. 35 years experience of dealing with failing hard disks informs me that they rarely get better once they start failing.


After a while scanning I’ve got three sets of recovered items.

What files have been recovered?

There are two folders of files, recovered using deep scanning.


Then there is the lost partition – this is the directory I’m looking for to show all the files that were on the disk.

This can be mounted as a disk if needed – this new disk can have stuff dragged off it just like an ordinary (working!) disk.


I can now look at the folder names and I know what had found its way onto that disk. It’s all stored elsewhere so nothing’s lost that I should have made sure was backed up. Well, except for the 234GB of the ‘Done reviews’ folder, with some 8127 files in it…

I can look at the contents of the folders, so here’s an example from a review I wrote a couple of years ago.


This is looking good. However clicking on the tiny ‘eye’ symbol should preview the file… just blank.

The little icon next to it shows the actual data for the file – all zeros.

So, I know what files were there, I just need to decide if any were important enough for the expense of recovery.

There’s also an ominous sounding ‘orphans’ folder. This contains folders of files that have lost their names and hence position in my folder hierarchy.

There’s more luck with the deep scan files. These have stuff in them, but have lost their names.


Running the deep scans fully can take many days, but will pull up a lot a lot of files. Hunting through a folder of image files that have lost their names may well refine your view of just what’s really important ;-)

I left things running for a few days. There were some files I wanted to recover. Mainly ones that would need several days worth of work to recreate them from the source images. Mainly, it was a few very large and complex images that I’ve produced prints from.

The lessons…

Well, first I’ve added a diary reminder to (properly) check our backup status every month. Secondly I’ve enabled the recovery assistance for the disks on my main desktop computer (this is part of the free version –Download Disk Drill ).

I was lucky – next time I should be better prepared…

Here’s another use for a dead disk. The metal surface the bears are standing on is the top cover of a failed drive.


This is from ‘macro photography for a trade stand‘  – one of of our Macro related articles/reviews

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  • Jan Albrecht | Nov 25, 2020 at 1:08 pm

    Disk Drill seems similar to the Recuva (app for windows) by

  • Keith | Mar 26, 2020 at 7:45 pm

    Thanks for your comments – much appreciated.
    The key is to think things through and actually implement what you decide -before- the problems occur.

  • Daniel Price | Mar 26, 2020 at 7:00 pm

    I could not agree with you more, whatever backup you are using can/will fail you and each has their pros and cons. The trick is to make the con of one of your strategies be the pro of another.

    Your Synology has multiple drives to save you from one drive going bad. However, all those drives are in a single place, and can all be destroyed at the same time (which just happened to me earlier this year).

    You did not go into detail about your off site backup. Some people take this to just mean an external hard drive they don’t have plugged in all the time (which prevents a power surge or a virus from wrecking all the connected things of data). The tradeoff is this means this is not very up to date and requires manually efforts to update. If those hard drives are in the same building, they are now able to be wiped out by things life theft, fire, flood, etc. If you move it to a completely different physical location, then the effort to update them is even more effort (so less risk to losing everything, but the data is more stale).

    Even online backups are not perfect, they can be expensive (though you can usually reduce the cost if you are willing for the backup/restore process to be slower). You gain the physical separation and you can instantly update them as soon as you transfer files off your camera. However, the service you use could go out of business. Another danger is lets say your computer gets infected with ransomware … where you cannot access your files without paying a painful sum of money. Since changes on your computer are reflected online quickly, you could end up with a backup of online files you also cannot access (some online backup services provide “versions” so that you can go back to a previous version).

    My personal strategy is a Synology to store multiple copies locally. And four different online providers (each with pros/cons).

    Note your memory cards are also a backup strategy too (you can get back your files from them). The caveat is they do not store very much, are constantly being overwritten and they do not contain your edits. But in a pinch, you

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