How I Lost Over a Hundred Photographs to a Corrupted Memory Card, And Got Them Back

It’s probably every photographer’s worst nightmare. You’ve shot gigabytes worth of images, ready to be imported for post-processing, when suddenly: card is unreadable. Your captures are all gone. All that time and effort lost to a corrupted card. It happened to me, and this is how I got them back.


A while back, I shot a few hundred pictures of a couple of live band performances. Later that night, I stuck the 16GB SD card into my laptop, started the Lightroom import, and went to bed. The next morning I checked the laptop to find that there were only 50 files imported, plus an ominous message that most of the files were unreadable. I opened the Finder to peek at the files directly, and they were all seemingly there, but couldn’t be previewed or opened — again, “unreadable.”


Being on a Mac, I tried Disk Utility to verify the integrity of the card. It found a number of the files were several MB in size, but “should only be ~32KB” (much smaller). At this point, I held my breath, and tried the Repair Disk option. In retrospect, I should have realized it would only truncate those files, which it did. All the pics were now 32KB instead of several MB and consisted of one thin, horizontal line of color and a lot of gray.

Lesson Learned: If you’re going to try to recover your files, you should NOT do this. I’m pretty sure I was unable to recover a handful of my files solely because of this action.

Frantic Googling ensued. I came across several non-free recovery programs, but being that a) This wasn’t a paid gig, and b) I didn’t know if it would still work after my failed repair disk attempt, I kept looking. Then I found Photorec: a free, open-source file recovery program. It’s also multi-platform, so it works on OS X, Linux, BSD, DOS, Sun Solaris, and virtually every version of Windows made going back to Windows 95 and NT 4.0. I downloaded the latest stable version, 6.14, and cranked it up.


The interface is a fairly primitive text-based style that runs in Terminal on Mac, or Command Prompt if you’re using Windows, but it’s easy enough to use.

First, you choose the disk you wish to recover — in my case the SD card — then you choose a folder on your local drive to put the recovered files, and finally, you let it run. It’s important to note that the destination should be at least as big as the disk you are trying to recover, because Photorec will copy everything it finds there. The app operates in read-only mode, meaning it only reads the data on the corrupted disk, writing all the data back to the folder you designated, so that no further damage can be done to the corrupted media.

It took about 90 minutes to recover my entire 16GB card. A handful of files were still lost — nothing but colorful lines that I attribute to my ill-advised attempt to use standard disk utilities — but it not only recovered everything from that night, but some files from previous outings that had been imported and “deleted” from the card months ago, going back to the last time I had reformatted the card. I culled the excess stuff, imported my photos in Lightroom, and all was well with the world.


In the aftermath of my experience I got several other tips, pointers and recommendations. A few people pointed out that a utility like this would come in handy in the event a police officer or security guard makes you delete your pictures for whatever reason. I am not a lawyer, and can’t speak to the legalities involved, but I’ll only tell you that it had recovered previously-deleted photos on my card (the dog photo at the top is an example).


Further, while it’s primarily aimed at photos, Photorec recognizes a huge number of file formats including multimedia, archival, office, database and various other formats. There is a comprehensive list on the Photorec website. It also recognizes a wide variety of disk formats, and can be used many different types of media, such as memory cards, hard disks, CD-ROMs, USB drives and more.

Finally, several people praised similar software solutions of varying prices and platforms. While I can’t personally speak to the effectiveness or usability of most of them, they are:

  • Zero Assumption Recovery (Windows)
  • Recuva (Windows)
  • ddrescue (Linux)
  • Image Rescue 4 (Windows, Mac,)
  • Rescue Pro (Windows, Mac)
  • GetDataBack (Windows)

About the author: Scott Daveley is an Internet Software Architect in the Midwest. His hobbies include photography and guitar, his primary weapons being a Canon 60D and a Gibson Les Paul Standard. He likes to speak of himself in the third person, and his Flickr account is here.

  • Renato Murakami

    I personally use and recommend Recuva, along several other software by Piriform (they have a great Windows registry cleaner called CCleaner which also does 3-pass formatting and a good defragmenter called Defraggler).
    Good post btw, it’s the sort of problem that every now and then, photographers will have.
    I had to give these tips at least a couple of times for people who were desperate about an SD card going corrupt.

  • CarliTous

    I have gone through the same situation and have used Disk Drill (mac) by Clever Files and it works like a charm, specially for recovering true RAW files not just embedded JPG’s inside a RAW file. Though I will try Photorec to see how it compares. :)

  • RegularGuy55

    I’ve used ‘Recuva’ successfully on SD and CF cards. Once in a while, a few images are lost, probably because they never were fully written to the card. ‘Recuva’ has a free version which is updated (for free) periodically.

  • Kyle Clements

    Recuva is certainly easier to use, but I find PhotoRec is a little more powerful – it can usually recover a handful of files Recuva missed.

  • Ben

    Photorec is one of the best programs I’ve used, if you enjoy it please consider donating, it has saved me hundreds of dollars through my use of the product.

  • Kevin Purcell

    What no link to photorec? Shouldn’t you link to it in the article?

    And yes it does work. I’ve used it to recover files from a “deleted” SD card after the HD the files were copied to went south. It worked for me.

  • Darren D. Stoner

    Lexar cards come with an Image Rescue 4 serial number. Install it.

  • Stan Tan

    I have used a couple of such software… while rescue pro and recuva fail ontrack recovery manage to give my file a fresh new life from a corrupted CF card

  • Renato Murakami

    Hmm nice to know Kyle, thanks! Keeping it on the emergency pendrive just in case…

  • Ed

    I’m a big fan of Photorec. I used it on a 750 gig hard drive that has crashed hard 2 1/2 years earlier, and recovered 90+ % of the files. Every other recovery software I had used failed miserably. Great article…thanks!

  • Mike McQuerter

    Nice article, and cool shots of the band The Black Moods.

  • woofa

    That’s nice, but of no help on a card that actually goes bad and cannot be read. This is only useful for file corruption.

  • Jos

    PhotoRec works great! I’ve had good luck with Puran File Recovery, as well.

  • Scott Daveley

    Yeah, I completely brainfogged that one. Thanks for covering for me.

  • Flying Tanooki

    Thanks for sharing! :)

  • Mario Liedtke

    I am surprised that a software architect tried to fix a broken media instead of making a 1:1 bit-backup and only working with the copy. Thats rule #1 and everybody knows. The other thing is: YES, that software can help, and mostly a payed one can’t do more than a free or opensource one. BUT: If the media hardware has a real defect, also software can’t help and will be useless. Software can only help if the media is upmost working but partially damaged. Best results can be achieved when the file corruption is caused by malfunction, electrical fields or accidently removing a media before the TOC is updated correctly and all writes are finished. Because in that cases the hardware itself will work under normal circumstances absolutly save again.
    Hope I could bring some light into the mind of people that don’t have so much experience with data problems.

    Cheers, Mario

  • Angelgreg

    While on a trip of a lifetime to Buenos Aires, I accidentally deleted over 400 pictures while trying to upload to my iPad. I used SanDisks Rescue Pro program and was able to recover all of the photos on to a thumb drive.

  • Johnathan M

    I use Recuva… But then, I’m an old school computer guy, so I know ALL of the best programs.
    (I concur on CCleaner and Defraggler as well).
    Try Everything Search for the best and fastest search for your PC too (turn off match case though and use wildcards! ex. *.doc)

  • Brad Waters

    Scott, I think your story can help people prevent or recover from the heartbreak of lost data. I mentioned your story in my latest post on Psychology Today, and wonder if you’d grant me permission to use one of your recovered concert photos in the PT blog? You can reach me at BradWatersMSW [at] Gmail if you’re interested. Thanks!

  • Brad Waters

    Scott, I think this article will be helpful and hopeful for people in the midst of stressful data loss. I mentioned your article in my latest post on Psychology Today about tech stress. Would love to add one of your recovered images from that corrupted/recovered card. If you’re interested, get in touch with me at BradWatersMSW[at]Gmail Thanks!

  • jmco

    San Disk and Lexar have free recovery programs. One comes on the disk, the other is free from the web site. I think the SD association also has a recovery tool too. Free.

  • Larry Angier

    A dozen years ago in the “dark ages” of digital, I was downloading and reformatting at the same time. Big mistake! I erased one of the four packed-to-the-gill 128 MB cards with at least 300+ files of a recent trip. Since I was shooting film, no big deal. So I did a search and found a program that I could download and try for free before paying for it.

    Well, it was a PC program and I had a Mac. But not all was lost. They were just a few weeks from bringing out a Mac version and since I wasn’t in a hurry, I waited. When I finally tried to recover the card, wow! I got them all back! Since then, I’ve had perhaps less than a dozen times I’ve had problem cards, usually a bad batch or a card goes bonkers.

    In every case that program has saved the day and is worth much, much more than it’s paltry price of under $50 US. The program, BTW, runs on both Mac and PC. You download it, try it and if it shows you the missing thumbnails, then you spend a few bucks to the code. The program is PhotoRescue and it’s the only software in a dozen years that has never let me down. I’ve tried perhaps another half-dozen free and paid programs and this is the only one that has consistently worked.

    It doesn’t require Terminal and the interface is refined. You run it the easy way and if that doesn’t work, you try the longer, deeper advanced mode. If PhotoRescue can’t find your photos, I don’t think many other programs will have any better luck.

  • Elaine

    I lost 2 trips from my Go Pro on the micro sad card. Do these recovery program work on video recovery?

  • Anonymoused

    I second this. I used Recuva after having used CCleaner for years — it’s perfect.

  • Courtney Navey

    I use DataRecovery II and it’s recovered countless files for me when I’ve hard drives crash or Compact Flash Cards go bad.

  • J O

    I downloaded the app but I can’t figure out how to install and how to open the app up. Could you give us a follow-up article explaining how to install and use please. I use a Mac.

  • Debi Sen Gupta

    You may have just saved my life. I just had an external drive – 500 gb crash on me and lost many files including one with some wedding pics which I had just transferred for subsequent back-up. Since the cost of recovery would have been a substantial part of my profits, I was not in a good mood.

  • Kayleigh Lum

    Photo Recovery by Wondershare is also a great product to use –

  • Photofreak

    Thanks! for suggesting so many resources. I had the same instances several times but was not able to save myself from such situation. As a photo freak i love to click photos but do not know how to recover them back if lost. Will try these and share my viewpoints.

  • Gemmy Johnson

    If you have accidentally deleted or lost photographs and
    other media files due to corrupted memory card issue, then don’t panic. You are
    at the right place, you can easily retrieve them back using Remo Recover Media
    edition recovery tool.