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How to Recover Lost Images

How-To-Recover-Lost-Images.jpgThe following post explores how to recover lost images – it’s by Peter Carey.

There are few things worse in this modern age of photography than reading “Card Corrupt” or a similar message on your camera’s LCD.  A lot of us have been there and for those that haven’t, yet, I’m hoping a little knowledge will help dissolve the pit that forms in your stomach after realizing something is wrong with your media.  I’m not going to try to give a step by step process for every camera and operating system, that’s well beyond the scope of this one post.  Instead, I plan to give some general piece of mind to know you stand good odds of recovering those lost images.  If you do have a favorite photo recovery program, please let others know by posting in the comments section at the bottom of the post, we all benefit from the breadth of user experiences on this site.

Don’t Freak Out

First off, DON’T FREAK OUT!!  This is easier said than done, but it’s a very important step.  If you freak out now and start clicking randomly, there is a good chance the images will become more damaged.  So let out a shriek if you must, but then take a deep breath and slow down.

Next, take the card out of the camera and try it in another camera (if there is one handy).  You may find the images are readable by another camera, helping you relax a bit, but chances are they won’t be.  Either way, the next thing to do is to set your card aside until you can get it to your main computer at home for some forensics.  Think CSI without all the cameras.  And no one is dead.  But you still have some calculated work to do, so don’t mess it up by attempting to fix the problem in the field.  Just set the card aside and do not use it until you’re home again.

Back at Your Computer

You’re now back at your computer, possibly with a calming drink by your keyboard ready to see what’s what with your pictures.  What now?  This may seem obvious, but first try to read the card as you normally would.  It never hurts to try.  Also, if you happen to run more than one operation system give it a try in each machine.  Chances are though that your machine will fail to recognize the card as having any form of a file system at all and will ask you if you’d like to format it.  Do NOT format your card at this point.

Let me diverge a moment to explain, in overly simple terms, what’s really on your card.  You card has a file system on it depending on how it was formatted (in camera or in computer).  This system is simply a means of organizing the data placed on it.  To use an analogy, the file system is like a book; at the beginning there is a Table of Contents which lets you know where all the data on the disc is stored.  Then, on each of the pages in the book is the actual data. 

What often happens with corruption is the Table of Contents(TOC), so to speak, gets messed up or ripped out altogether.  Now your computer system doesn’t know where to look to even begin to find your data(photos).  It gives up and says there must not be a file system on the disc.  But don’t be fooled.  If I handed you a book with the TOC missing, you could still flip through the book and find information, but it’d take longer and be harder especially if the chapters are all mixed together as they often are on a data card.  In the case of your computer, it doesn’t even want to try to do that.  It’s only going to look for the TOC.  So the rest of this process is pretty much the same whether your card is corrupt or you formatted it.


Now then, I’m going to point out some Windows specific programs as that’s the system most of us use.  A number of these tools exist for MAC and Unix as well.  No matter which system you run, get a copy of dd for the next task.  For Windows, there is a freeware version here.  dd is a simple disc duplicating program that will copy your disc block by block, making an exact duplicate (back to the book analogy, it’ll copy your book character for character, not caring whether it’s in English or Japanese).  Use this program to make a complete copy of your disc to a single file before you attempt any fix on it.  This is the safest way to make sure you can ‘undelete’ and go back to the original version.

With a copy of your disc safe and sound, it’s time to start playing.  I’ve used a number of photo recovery programs over time and all have good points and bad.  I’m not going to attempt to review them all here, but will explain my methodology in selecting a program to help steer you in the right direction.  First, most of the programs that you have to pay for do a better job.  I know this is a generalization but it tends to hold true.  That being said, most of the pay programs have a free trial which is great.  You will get a chance to run the program against your disc and be told if anything is recoverable.  If the program can find your images, it will tell you and then ask for money.  It’s refreshing to know you don’t have to shell out the money first only to find the program might not be able to find anything.

Second, give yourself time to try several different programs.  You will get different results with different programs most likely (except in the case where you formatted your disc, then most programs will respond with about the same results as those recoveries are easier).  Plus each program may take a while to run based on the size of your disc and the number of photos on it.  Two that I have found useful are Flash File Recovery by Pantera Soft and Flobo Recovery.  Incidentally there is a pretty good free recovery program called Zero Assumption Digital Image Recovery that is worth a try before shelling out any cash.

What is that program doing while you’re waiting?  It’s using a number of fairly complex algorithms and patterns to try to piece together each picture individually.  Each image file usually has a marker or header on it, which identifies information about the file itself (this is different from that Table of Contents described earlier….think of it as something of a Chapter Title, except it tells you how long the chapter is and some other information).  Your machine will go through this data as well as attempting to piece it together from scratch.  When it finds something it thinks is an image, it will display it and give you the option to recover it.

At this point, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what’s on the card.  It’s also amazing to find OLD photos on the card you thought you deleted long ago.  This is because a simple delete operation just removes the item from the Table of Contents, not from the actual data.  With a screen full of recoverable photos, it’s time to decide if you want to shell out the money to buy the program (most programs let you view, but not save, recovered photos until you pay).

Most of the programs listed are fairly successful at recovering images.  Do a Google search for “photorecovery software” and you’ll find a plethora of options out there.  It’s a trial and error process to find the product you like most, or you might just get lucky and find it first thing!  The most important part is to not freak out!  And then knuckle down and know there is help out there!

Peter and his wife Kim are avid photographers who enjoy travel, portraiture and wildlife photography. They recently launched a new site for daily photography feeds/emails, called Focus of the Day. A travel related blog of their past and current shenanigans can be found at The Carey Adventures.

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Peter West Carey
Peter West Carey

leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics – A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

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