Don’t Be Like Me. But Learn From Me! / by John Clark

That face you make when you realize you formatted the wrong hard drive and lost three years of photo processing!

That face you make when you realize you formatted the wrong hard drive and lost three years of photo processing!

Hi, I’m John and I’m an idiot… I did something very, very bad this weekend. Probably the worse thing I have done as a photographer and I want to share my tale in hopes you may learn something from this dummy.

Long story short – I thought I was formatting a new external hard drive, but mistakenly formatted my photo library. Four years of Lightroom editing gone. Goodbye. Sayonara. See you later. NOT!

The longer version of the story goes like this. I bought a new external hard drive with plans to eventually transition from Lightroom cataloging to using ON1 RAW as my primary workflow.

Back story - I have a couple of external hard drives always hooked up to my system. The first is my primary photo catalog, and in this case have all my images going back to 2014 on it. This is my primary catalog, and it includes all the Lightroom editing and filing structure I’ve done over the past three years or so. The second is a Time Machine backup disk (remember this, it will be important).

Now in order to format the new hard drive I ejected the two that are normally hooked up. That was so that I wouldn’t accidentally format one of those (smart thinking, right?). I used the Apple Disk Utility program to select the drive that I thought was the new one, went through the steps to format and stepped away from the computer for a few minutes while I did its thing.

Now when I came back, I noticed that the new drive didn’t have the name I associated with it. And worse, my photo library disk did! And instead of holding thousands and thousands of photos, it was a totally blank slate! Somehow that library drive had booted up again and in my multi-tasking in getting ready for a trip I didn’t notice and formatted the one drive I never ever would have wanted to! Apparently what I didn't do (while trying to accomplish too many things at one time) was to unplug the other two drives. Rookie mistake!

It was right about this time panic set in with a side helping of nausea… I think I went through all five stages of grief in about 15 seconds:

1.     Denial – “Wait, what?!? No, that just didn’t happen to me! I know better than to let that happen!”

2.     Anger – “Arrgghhh… I just lost years worth of editing. All my post-processing work is GONE!”

3.     Bargaining – “Hey Lord, can you help me out here? I promise to feed the poor or something…”

4.     Depression – “No, no, no, no, no, no, no…”

5.     Acceptance – “Well, that’s it. At least I have all the original files on a backup drive still. I can redo the best shots. In fact, my processing has gotten better, so now I bet they will turn out nicer than before!”

This last one was key. Like many people, I keep a backup of all my images offsite in case of disaster. In my case, these are the raw, unprocessed images but that’s better than nothing. And I had some recent shots to copy over, so that backup drive was actually at my house!

So, after a quick lunch break (where I really didn’t feel like eating since I was literally sick to my stomach) I hooked the offsite backup drive and started copying files over to the new hard drive, now formatted correctly.

I copied over all of my 2017 shots which took around an hour give or take, and then it hit me… I have a backup disk already attached! I had set up my Apple Time Machine software to backup the photo library, and it had done its job and created multiple mirror copies. All I needed to do was open up the software, find the last known full backup, and copy the files back to the original hard drive.

Thankfully, while that process did last more than five hours I was able to completely restore my photo library. With fingers crossed I opened up Lightroom and it perfectly located the entire catalog with none of the dreaded “?” showing up indicating missing files! It was as if this whole nightmare even happened. 

So, I really dodged a bullet. I thought I was totally sunk, but in reality it proved that my backup plan worked! Fortunately, I didn’t lose anything but a few hours to copy the files back, and in this case coming from a local drive the speeds were decent (I cannot imagine how long a cloud retrieval would have taken).

My lesson to you is make darn sure you have a good backup plan for your photos. Not only in case of disaster, but more likely in case of stupidity. It can happen to all of us.