Recovering Lost Photographs

memorycardA few times in the past I’ve had to recover data from memory cards. Once it was a friend who accidentally reformatted the card and deleted hundreds of photographs from a recent vacation. Another time I accidentally deleted precious images from the memory card before I had backed them up. What I’ve learned though, is that in most cases, you can easily recover the data you fear was lost, even if you do something drastic such as reformat your card.

When you “delete” a photo from your memory card, it simply goes to that section of storage and marks it as “available” to be used again. The data of the original image is still there on your memory card, though the camera will not display it as an image. Thus, the most important thing you need to remember to do if you accidentally delete data is to stop using the memory card. This is because the only way for the data to truly become unrecoverable is if you delete it, then overwrite it with new data (or even blank data). Thus, to ensure that you can recover your deleted photo, you need to be sure to stop using your card immediately to ensure that nothing is written to that storage location on the card.

To do the actual recovery, you could take the card to a photography place and have a professional recover the data for you, but I’ve always relied on free software that can do the same thing. Here are some popular and free programs to try:

Most of the good, safe, and free programs available for recovering photos are available only for Windows users. PhotoRescue is a popular program for Mac users, but costs $29.

Finally, the fact that data is so easily recoverable means that you need to be careful when selling things like computers and memory cards. Simply “deleting” data will not prevent what was on the card to fall into the wrong hands. If you’re selling a memory card that contained data you don’t want others to possibly recover, then be sure to overwrite the card completely, or look online for a program that helps you safely delete data.

  • Joakim Bergquist

    Right on! Youre doing a really good job with this “blog”, have you thought of maybe two posts a day? maybe a friend of yours could write something.. could be anything, just fill in the 24hours with something more so people dont “forget” the site..


  • Michael Zhang

    Hi Joakim,

    Thanks for the comment. Eventually I’d like to have multiple posts per day on PetaPixel, but I’m starting off with something I can hopefully sustain. There’s going to soon be a more diverse mix of content (i.e. giveaways, interviews, etc…), so there might be a little more activity then.

  • revenant

    Very interesting post and I’m sure it will be a godsend for many people. I’d add three points to it:
    1) To help prevent accidental erasures, make a back-up of the card as soon as you can. Don’t rely on your computer’s hard disk, use an external one *and* burn an optical disk. Paranoid, I know, but effective
    2) To transfer images from the card, take it out of the camera and use a card reader (not the cable supplied with it), which lessens wear and tear on the camera’s read-write functions and is faster and more reliable
    3) The best way to erase data from a card you want to sell is a multipass low-level format, which is usually beyond most people’s resources (specialist software required). A less secure approach is to format the disk in Windows imaking sure the ‘quick format’ option is unchecked. The disk utility in Mac OS 10.5 offers the same feature.

  • Michael Zhang

    Thanks for the tips!

  • Bergur Johannesen

    I wish I had know this a few months ago. *sob*

  • Mileta Nikoletic

    Pandora recovery saved my behind once… didn't recover everything off the card but about 85% of the images.. still this is better than nothing.
    You're doing a great job with this blog. Mixing practical experiments with news and reviews is a good format. :)

  • Pingback: How to Recover Deleted Photos from a Memory Card with PhotoRec()