How to Recover Photos After a Data Loss

Frank Grießhammer

By Frank Grießhammer

One of the worst things that can happen to you as a photographer is data loss, but there are ways to resolve it. This guide will talk you through how to recovery those all-important photos easily and quickly.

Whether it’s a quick snap of your pet or a scenic landscape shot, chances are most of the photos you take are precious and important to you. Photos capture memories and moments; losing these would be disastrous. Sadly, photo loss is not an uncommon event. In fact, either it’s already happened to you in the past or it likely will in the future.

Losing your photos can occur for a variety of reasons, one of the most common being simply human error. It could be something simple like accidentally deleting the wrong file or pressing the wrong button. However, as wonderful as technology is, it too is prone to failure. There are many stories of people unloading their memory cards from their cameras, putting it on their computer and then finding their files can’t be opened or are missing altogether.

If you’ve discovered that you’re a victim of data loss then one of the most important steps to take is to stop using the card immediately, and remove it from your camera, just to make sure that no activity takes place on it. It’s crucial that no further data is written to the card.

Jorge Quinteros

By Jorge Quinteros

When a photo is deleted, the data on the card isn’t immediately purged. There are two main types of data on an SD card: information about the files on the card and the data for the files themselves. When you delete a file, it’s that information about the files that is removed. The data for the files remains on the card until the space is needed for another file. As such, a new photo on the card could be assigned to the place where a deleted photo once was, wiping it out permanently.

It’s now time to try and get your data back, so mount your SD card to your computer. Depending on the condition of the card (e.g. if it is corrupted or uses an unrecognizable file system), your system may automatically detect that there’s a fault with it. You might perhaps be suggested to use the manufacturer’s software to try and resolve the problem. Alternatively, a pop-up box could encourage you to format the card. Do not do any of this.

Bridget AMES

By Bridget AMES

Formatting the card is especially dangerous and will lower your chances of successful data recovery to sinking level. It’s a last resort tactic. Your computer means well by suggesting a card format. It’s essentially saying “Hey, I can’t seem to locate any data, shall we wipe everything and start afresh?” However, just because your operating system can’t find the data it doesn’t mean it isn’t there, lurking under the surface.

DO: stop using the card literally the moment you realize there’s a problem; remember to breathe and stay calm!

DONT’T: browse the photos on your camera, take ‘just one more’ snap, or format the card.

The next stage is to download a program that’s going to help you get your data back. For the purposes of this tutorial we’ll be using R-Undelete. There are other programs available, but this one is entirely free for home users and works really well. The only limitation is that it only works for FAT formatted SD cards—fortunately, practically all camera SD cards are FAT formatted. There are also some professional data recovery companies who will charge you to recover data, but frankly, in this circumstance, using something like R-Undelete will do the same job for none of the cost.

Step One

The first screen you’ll be presented with a list of all the drives mounted to your computer. All you need to do is place a tick in the checkbox next to your SD card and click ‘Next’.


As you can see, the example image above shows an internal drive, a DVD drive and an SD card. The SD card being used is called ‘Generic Storage Device’, but yours might have a more unique name. Refer to this or match up the size of your card to the ones listed (1.87 GB in the example).

Step Two

This step is a simple one. The program will automatically select a detailed scan for lost files, which is precisely what you want. You can ask for the program to only search for specific types of files (like videos or pictures) by clicking ‘Known File Types…’, but it’s better to leave it on the default setting to scan everything.


The scan information is going to be saved to Documents by default, but feel free to change that file path to whatever you wish by checking the box alongside. Remember that you must not save anything to the card that you’re recovering from, so it’s easiest to keep things on your internal drive.

When you’re ready, click ‘Next’ and the scan will begin.

Step Three


The scan will then begin. This screen might look a bit scary at first, but there’s no need to worry. It’s just a visual representation of the type of data that is being scanned. Just wait for the scan to finish (it’ll be quick, but will vary depending on the size of your card) and click ‘Next’ when that option is available.

Step Four

You’ll be presented with a list of all the data that the program has found on the card. On the left are the folders, which show the contents on the right when they are clicked.


The great thing is that you can sort the results by filters such as the file extension, the time the data was created, or when it was accessed. If you’re trying to hunt down specific files, then there’s also an advanced search tool where you can input variables to search for, like the size of the file or when it was last modified.

One symptom of data loss is that the original file name is often lost, so don’t worry if you don’t recognize any of the file names. If you’re not sure where the data you seek is, go ahead and recover everything the program has found – you can recover as much or as little data as you want without issue.

Once you’ve got the data you want to be recovered selected, click ‘Next’.

Step Five

Nearly there! First, select the folder where you want all your recovered data to go. Handily, the program reminds you not to choose anywhere on your SD card – but of course you know that by now!


There are also some advanced options available. The example above asks the program to try and recover the original folder structures, bear in mind however, this isn’t always possible. Providing you selected all the required files in step four, this should be the only option you might want to select.

Are you ready to get your pictures back? Click ‘Recover’ and the program will begin to work its magic. The time it takes will depend on how much data you’ve asked to be recovered, but the process is relatively quick.


R-Undelete successfully recovered every image that I asked it to and hopefully it performed the same way for you.

Try and remain calm throughout the whole process. Understandably, that’s probably easier said than done, but data recovery is entirely possible and if you follow the advice given then it should hopefully be pretty effective.

You may aware of how important it is to back up your files, but don’t actually practice it. If possible, ensure your photos are being consistently backed up to another location. Whether you’re just transferring them to your computer at the end of the day, or sending them to cloud storage services like Dropbox or OneDrive, having multiple copies of your photos will mean that it’s less of a problem if data loss does occur.

Best of luck and enjoy those recovered files!

Editor’s note: please be aware the software mentioned only works on a PC. Just do a google search for: photo recovery Mac free and you’ll find a whole bunch that work similarly to the one mentioned in this article.

Read more from our Post Production category

Joe Keeley is a professional writer who specializes in the world of technology and data.

  • Mads Johansen

    That is if the card dies. Before your hard drive dies (which it _will_ at some point), get started using backblaze or another online backup service.
    You will be happy to have your files when the crash happens.

  • Joe Keeley

    You’re absolutely right, Mads. As I mention at the end of the article, all this headache can be prevented just by backing up your files in the first place – to a hard drive, the cloud, etc. Sadly, though, a lot of people don’t do that!

  • Dorin D. T?tar

    But what if…
    My card died inside an Android phone and my PC does not recognise the card.
    It does not even ask me to format.

  • mma173

    People learn about ‘Back Up’ the hard way, unfortunately.

  • Mark

    Download a live CD such as system rescue or trinity rescue kit etc. Being linux based they should be able to read just about any file system and they also contain file rescue tools. Burn it to CD or copy to a USB stick and boot your PC from it to use. There’s plenty of guides on the internet as to how to use them. If they can’t read the card then chances are it is a hardware failure – rare for quality cards but still possible.

  • Mark

    You always want three copies of your pictures. Your main, a backup and an off-site backup. You don’t need the cloud for this as it gets expensive for large collections and internet transfer is very slow. Simple 1TB external 2.5″ portable hard drives will suffice.

  • Paul

    Hi thanks for following be info I tried it but i still couldn’t recover anything, it’s my friends card, I think when he thought he lost the pics of me and my wife he panicked and formatted the card, I’ve tried all the free software online but nothing works,I don’t mind paying for one but none of the sample downloads work ,is there any chance of still getting anything from this chip , help !!! Please , thanks

  • Joe Keeley

    Hi Paul – Data recovery isn’t impossible after a format, but it makes it much more difficult. Please could I ask what software you’ve tried? I suspect if you’ve attempted a lot of the popular tools then it isn’t looking great.

  • Joe Keeley

    Great advice, Mark. This is known as the 3-2-1 backup rule. Having three copies of your data offers greater redundancy should one or two of them fail.

  • roland

    Nothing there is for free!

  • GlennH

    This happened to me one day ago after shooting Korn, Alter Bridge and Limp Bizkit!! I used a free program online to get them back off my CF card. It was a 32gb card. I figured it would never happen to me. I get why people use smaller cards. In case it helps anyone else avoid it I was downloading 3 cards to an external drive at the same time. When one finished I pulled that card out. The other card still downloading immediately stopped and the files were corrupted. Thankfully I got them back!

  • Dorin D. T?tar

    i think it’s a hardware failure. i will download a live CD and fiddle with it. if it was recognized by my laptop i would have already recovered the files (i know how to…).

  • Manoj Pandey

    once happened with me on my DSLR, recovered all photos by using recuva s/w.

  • The home version is free scroll down to see the comparisons

  • Saurab Rao

    i used lexar image rescue…its the best!

  • SheriGrasseaku

    My Uncle Wyatt just got a nice year old Mercedes-Benz R-Class Wagon just by some part time working online with a lap-top… visit homepage GLOBAL PROFIT

  • Joe Keeley

    Glad you found success with that tool, Saurab! Thanks for the feedback.

  • Joe Keeley

    Glad to hear Recuva sorted it out, Manoj. It can be a nightmare when it happens!

  • Joe Keeley

    You make a good point, Glenn. Often people think data loss is something that only happens to other people – but then it hits them! Glad you managed to get your photos back.

  • ToddMcDaniel14

    Ge­t an ex­tra jo­b an­d extra profit every month now… This is a great backup part-time job for everyone.. You can work it from home and earn in range from $3000-$12000 a month… You can even do it as a full time job and then you can earn even more… Start today and have first payment at the end of the week…> -> LEARN MORE HERE! <-

  • Jcharles Brown

    make use of Remo Recover which is popular and efficient in recovering all the
    lost data from the storage devices like memory card, external hard disk, iPods,
    FireWire drives etc. however it is available in trial version which allows you
    to have a preview on the recovered data even before purchasing the

  • Nelsoncolar

    Nice guide. I followed this guide to recover the photos on my SD card, worked fairly well, share it here as an alternative method.

  • Shakthivijayan

    I have recovered few photos like that using Recuva. Its free and efficient. Please try it. It might help. Simple to use too…. Hope you get back your photos.

  • Try this Data Recovery, it enables you recover deleted photos from SD card easily

  • Tracy Bankston Smith

    Help! Have been trying to download free version of r-undelete and cannot. Not a free download or I’m doing something wrong! Any ideas??

  • Terry D.

    I found the easiest way to copy files across drives is to use Carbon Copy Cloner once you’ve recovered and saved your files from your CF/SD. Hard drives are so cheap these days its almost laughable so not much reason to lose files again after recovery.

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