Recovering lost or deleted files - Backing Up & Saving Your Images: Part 4

Recovering lost or deleted files – Backing Up & Saving Your Images: Part 4


This post is the final part in our Backing Up and Saving Your Images series. See previous posts on Backing up and Saving Your ImagesExternal Hard DrivesOnline Storage Sites and Software Solutions.

That crushing, sickening and agonising feeling of realising your memory card has corrupted or for whatever reason you’ve lost some of your most important or sentimental images, can stay with you for some time. It’s that combination of frustration and disappointment that takes its toll; perhaps knowing you can’t go back and reshoot what has already happened. Even directing your anger at your equipment can seem futile. But wait, lament no more, for there are solutions! Despite what people may think there are ways to retrieve files, even after they have been deleted or subject to technology failure.

Deleted files and formatted cards

Accidentally deleting images or formatting the card before the current frames have been downloaded are both common reasons for loss. However even when a card has been formatted in-camera the majority of the photos will still be able to be located. Success can depend upon the camera brand, with Canon and Nikon yielding the strongest rates of recovery. A quick trawl though the internet will present a list of companies which specialise in the retrieval of images from memory cards or data banks. For example Flashguardian (  charge up to £60 for the successful recovery of images from memory cards in capacities of 1GB or larger and offer reduced prices for smaller capacity cards, whereas the charge for recovering data from a hard drive can cost between £200 and £500 depending on the size of the device and the nature of the problem. DiskDoctors is another recovery company, that charges anywhere between £177 to £1500 depending on the size and brief of the problem, however the company offers a free analysis service to pinpoint a quotation and assess whether the issue can be rectified. To take advantage of this particular service, photographers should post the storage device or memory card along with a completed shipping form (available at to a local DiskDoctors lab for physical analysis. The company claims that photographers will receive an analysis report along with a quote in less than eight business hours once the item has been received.

Online and Software Recovery systems

There are an abundance of software and online solutions if you’d rather recover your files with a DIY approach.  DataRescue ( for example provides an app called PhotoRescue, which for only $29 checks your memory card, external hard drive or computer for deleted images, displaying a lengthy list of all the work you’ve binned. CardRecovery ( is another software option fronted by WinRecovery Software. Retailing at $39.95 CardRecovery performs a read-only operation on offending memory cards, and retrieves any lost pictures and video files to a folder on hard drive.

Computer crashes

One of the most common cases of data loss is due to a system failure. To recover files in these situation photographers will simply need to generate a copy of the information held on the machine which is accomplishable by using a CD that contains a bootable computer operating system. The user can then move the images to the system disk, which can then be backed up with the file manager or authoring software. If you are unsure of how to do this yourself, take your machine to a local computer shop that offers a restoration service.

Lesson learnt

Unfortunately there are some cases when files simply cannot be recovered, whether it’s because the memory card was a fake or because the camera used permanently deletes making recovery impossible. If nothing else, we can take the experience as a costly lesson never to be repeated. Prevention is said to be better than the cure, so to stop it happening again invest in a solid external hard drive and subscribe to an established online storage provider. Never delete files in-camera, wait until you have uploaded to them your computer, backed them to an external data bank or online storage provider, and then and only then format the card. Only use memory cards from a reputable brand and purchase them using a trusted website or at a high-street store.

To minimise the risk of losing photographs, we’ve compiled a cheat-sheet of tips to ensure your images are safe and secure.

  1. Size doesn’t matter: Don’t keep all your photos on one high capacity memory card, instead use several lower capacity cards so there is less chance of losing everything if one card breaks or is lost.
  2. Reputation is everything: Stick to reputable memory card brands and only buy from trusted sites and stores, as there are a large quantity of ‘fakes’ circulating online that don’t work.
  3. Don’t forget a spare: Taking a spare card out with you on a photo session will ensure you don’t miss a thing, should the memory card you are using falter.
  4. Don’t believe everything you see:  Just because the image thumbnail looks ok, it doesn’t mean that the file isn’t corrupt. Thumbnails are embedded in the files for fast preview and do not necessarily reflect the state of the full picture. Open several frames, or particular favourites to ensure they are ok.
  5. Be patient: Don’t turn off your camera when it is reading and writing to the memory card and don’t rip the memory card out of the card reader before it finishes uploading files to your machine. Doing so could result in lost or corrupt files.
  6. Safety first: Store memory cards in a safe and secure place. Protect them from moisture, dust, dirt, animals and young children.
  7. Don’t delete: Refrain from deleting files in-camera. Instead wait until you have successfully transferred the images to your computer and backed up your files before deleting the ones on the card.
  8. Once bitten, twice shy: If an image card is faulty – bin it, or better yet get a refund! Never use or write to a card where data has been lost before – it will happen again.
  9. Back up: Keep your images on several external hard drives and/or with an online storage provider.
  10. Watch out for nasties: Protect your machine with an up-to-date firewall and install sensible antivirus software. Never ignore those updates!

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Natalie Denton (nee Johnson) Natalie Denton (nee Johnson) is the former editor of Digital Photographer magazine, and is now a freelance journalist and photographer who has written for dozens of photography and technology magazines and websites over the last decade. Recent author and tutor too.

Some Older Comments

  • Edvin Thomous February 15, 2013 10:25 pm


    Ya.. It is true when will take backup their is no problem to restore image files. But in some scenarios you want to recover photos from camera.

    When I come across this problem, one of my friend suggested to use Deleted Image Recovery Tool.
    Really its works well, I recovered all deleted photos.

  • Dominic Wilson March 3, 2011 08:58 am

    I thought I would reply to some of the points raised by people as I contributed some comments for the original article (I work for Flash Guardian photo recovery mentioned in the article, which is now part of Cambridge Data Recovery).

    Of course, back up, back up, back up is always a good plan where possible. I am slightly shocked to see that amazon are currently selling a 2TB SATA drive for £60, and I personally like their Toshiba 1TB portable drive for £75.

    Regarding different models, we do definitely see quick a few where the camera's format operation completely wipes the card - Fuji and Olympus have tended to do this, but we've also seen it in some Canon cameras. Or at least, that is what we infer from the cards we have seen,

    I like the idea of writing name and number on the card!

    Regarding the comment about changing the card being more dangerous than keeping the same larger card in the camera, it's a good point as we do certainly see cards where the problem has arisen as a result of changing the card - or even changing the camera battery (perhaps harder to avoid). But I would say we see more where the failure has no obvious cause, and we actually see quite a large number of fairly new cards - possibly because a proportion of new cards have inherent faults.

    Regarding deletion of the card, I think the point is more that sometimes people connect the card to the PC and start deleting and rotating the photos on the card itself, and we have received cards for recovery, where the card has failed during these operations. It seems safer to transfer first and rotate/delete/ask questions afterwards.

    It does seem like a good idea to try software to recover the photos yourself if you are able, but if that doesn't work it really is still worth sending to the professionals to recover, as I know that we have a few things we can try that may help in these cases. If all else fails it may be possible to recover by removing the memory chip from the card and attempting to access this directly - but that is definitely a job for the professionals as it's a very complex technical procedure to read the data in this way. For more information see our article on new techniques for camera card photo recovery.

  • Gel Pen November 25, 2010 04:02 pm

    i operate a small computer shop at home and most customers enjoy playing online games ~~;

  • Josh September 4, 2010 01:30 am

    I find external Hard disks to be very useful. You can pick up a 320gb disk at Best Buy for $60 and back up a lot of photos for cheap. Google also offers cheap ($5 for 20gb) online space through Picassa/Gmail. I'm a big fan of multiple back ups and I also advise keeping a set in a saftey deposit box or at a friends house in case your house is devoured by an act of God.

    You can never have to many back ups.

  • Jonathan D. September 3, 2010 04:57 pm

    Oh, one more thing - never delete your photos off the card until you have them on at least 2 computers. Not 2 hard drives on the same computer - a PSU failure can wipe all disks connected to it.

  • Jonathan D. September 3, 2010 04:53 pm

    CardRecovery works wonders. I deleted 500 shots of a white supremacist rally and (much larger) counter-rally that I thought I had copied to my PC. I even took another 300-400 shots on the card before I discovered that the shots weren't actually on the PC, but a quick run of CardRecovery got all my shots and clips back. I'd rather pay for something I can reuse than pay the same or more for one recovery.

    That said, don't give up on the card if publicly available software can't recover it - find a pro that offers money back if he can't recover the data.

  • Traci September 3, 2010 12:19 pm

    Excellent article...and the point here is not IF it happens, but rather WHEN it happens. As the Boy Scouts say...."Be Prepared"....

  • orazio September 3, 2010 10:46 am

    recuva is a free file recovery software that works as good as the others

  • Carl September 3, 2010 01:43 am

    FREEware, Convar's PC Inspector Smart Recovery is AMAZING! Simple to use, I've used it a few times to save my hide, for convenience, and to help somebody else!

  • simon bunting September 2, 2010 11:29 pm

    Thanks great article the point about buying from reputable dealers I believe is very important as losing all your photos just because you bought a slightly cheaper memory card is really not worth it. I know from experience :( .

  • Jeff Thomas September 2, 2010 08:54 pm

    What I do is immediately following photo shoots or wherever I'm shooting, I always upload the images right away to my macbook pro. And I have an external harddrive as WELL as an online storage company ( backup everything.

    So, in case of a fire, knock on wood... I will still have a backup for the backup! But, let's hope I didn't just jinx myself into losing data... It hasn't happened yet!

  • Eric Moore September 2, 2010 01:41 am

    @ visual shooter

    I think the idea there is to avoid accidentally deleting the the wrong image. If for example, you took two pictures and one- say, had auto focus turned off and you shot one in focus, then it would probably be easy to delete the right one. I never delete in camera, it's easier to delete them all at one in LR.

    I did lose some pictures, because I was copying them from my computer to a network drive, and I deleted some images that I thought were copied but weren't. They were beautiful headshots of a goose that I was several feet from, but nothing I was paid to take. I take extra care with those.

  • Matthew September 1, 2010 10:02 pm

    I agree, photorec/testdisk has dealt perfectly with lost files/corrupted cards for me under OS X.

  • Danferno September 1, 2010 08:24 pm

    Size doesn’t matter: Don’t keep all your photos on one high capacity memory card, instead use several lower capacity cards so there is less chance of losing everything if one card breaks or is lost.

    This is not true. The chance of a memory card corrupting when used with care is extremely small, especially if you replace them every 2 years. However, the chance of something going wrong when changing memory cards is way way way higher.

  • Bret Linford September 1, 2010 04:32 pm

    A great tip I picked up from Derrick Story is to write you name and phone number on your memory cards. I've since heard a couple of stories of photographers who've left the cards somewhere (like rental cars) and have had the cards returned because they wrote their phone numbers on them. Great advice!

  • Trevor Rideout September 1, 2010 01:50 pm

    Just finished wrting a blog post on this very same topic... Shortly after this happend to me (total physical failure of a Flash Card)

  • Rick Bennett September 1, 2010 10:38 am

    I second what kuoirad said: PhotoRec has saved me once (the only time I needed it). Total cost $0.

  • Matthew Miller September 1, 2010 10:36 am

    Two points.

    First, I'm extremely skeptical of the claim that Canon and Nikon somehow delete their files more lightly than other brands. Different cameras likely have different FAT filesystem implementations, but it's pretty rare to see one that doesn't "quickformat" — leaving your chances of recovery very high if you don't write any more files after the mistake.

    Really... what would make you say a thing like that?

    Second: if you need the security of a fancy GUI, shelling out $30 is fine. But there's no magic that these programs perform above what you can get for free with software like the PhotoRec utility that comes with TestDisk. Runs in Windows, Mac OS X, or Linux, and more obscure operating systems as well — and you can get it in a bootable "LiveCD" version so you can recover files from your main disk without having to install an OS to a separate one. (Or just to skip the bother of installation.)

    As I said, no GUI, but the instructions are straightforward.

  • Terry in Indiana September 1, 2010 10:34 am

    Unfortunately, I am right in the middle of this frustration and shelling out $1000 to a data recovery company to retrieve photo files from an external hard drive that I accidentally dropped on the floor. Two big lessons: HANDLE with CARE...and back-up, back-up, BACK-UP!!! Expensive lesson, but it sure got my attention. I'd rather have spent that $$$ on a new lens....

  • Visual Shooter September 1, 2010 10:11 am

    Great info! Didn't realize a formatted card would have data that is retrievable. One thing I don't understand is your recommendation not to delete until you upload to computer. I always delete the ones I don't like in camera, upload the others to the computer, then format the card before taking any more pics.

  • Lovelyn September 1, 2010 08:53 am

    I really need to back up my photos before something happens and I loose them all. I'm always putting it off, but I need to just do it. Thanks for the reminder.

  • Chris September 1, 2010 07:50 am

    I purchased a copy of Data Rescue a few years ago and have had need of it a couple of times - I think after the first try I have found my version to be very out of date but has worked everytime - not 100% successful where the card has become genuinely corrupted but makes a good job of what can be recovered.

  • kuoirad September 1, 2010 07:23 am

    A free alternative to Data/PhotoRescue that's saved me before is PhotoRec.