Quick Plan of Action to Recover Deleted Photos from SD Card
To cut to the chase, here’s a quick plan of action to try if your photos or videos have gone missing from your SD card or you’ve accidentally deleted them. The good news is that there’s a good chance you can recover your deleted photos from the SD card. You can find a much more detailed version below, but here’s the quick version:
- Stop using the memory card. This is important because overwriting the data will make it harder to recover deleted files from it. Take the card out of your camera or phone.
- Scan the memory card with the free trial versions of SD card recovery software. Either Stellar Photo Recovery or Disk Drill are good places to start. Both have free trials, versions for Windows and Mac, and are straightforward to use. The scan using the free trial will show you whether any files can be found and recovered.
- Recover the files. If the apps can find the deleted photos, you can then decide whether to buy a full license to actually recover lost photos. If you’d prefer not to buy a license, there are also free alternatives, although they’re less user-friendly (more on that below).
- Backup the recovered files. To be safe!
Help, My Photos Are Gone!
If your photos suddenly aren’t showing up, there are things you can try that might well be able to recover them.
First off, don’t panic. It happens to all of us at some point. Accidental deletion and the ever-present risk of data loss is an occupational hazard of working with digital photos. I can’t promise you’ll be able to recover your photos, but there are some things you can definitely try that often work. Troubleshooting this involves working methodically.
Second, stop shooting new photos or recording new videos. As in, right now. The more you continue writing to the memory card, the harder it’s going to be to recover what’s there. Depending on what has gone wrong, you run the risk of writing over the original photos, effectively burying them deeper (and potentially beyond recovery).
Whether you’ve accidentally formatted your memory card with photos or videos still on it, you removed the card while it was still writing, the card has become corrupted, or there’s been some problem that has made the photos disappear, here are some suggestions for trying to recover them.
Isolate the Problem
Before knowing how to tackle the problem, you’ll first need to isolate it. If you can’t read your memory card, it’s natural to assume it’s a problem with the card. Sometimes it is. But sometimes, it can be something else. So what you want to do is confirm that it’s the card misbehaving and not something else.
I’d recommend trying to put the card back in the camera and see if you can view the photos using the camera’s own playback. If you can, go ahead and sigh with relief—you’ll almost certainly be able to recover your photos, and the problem is apparently somewhere else. But don’t take any more photos or record any more videos—you don’t want to make the problem worse.
If your camera can read the card normally, there are several things that could be going wrong. The issue might be with your card reader, the cable connecting your card reader to the computer, or even the computer’s USB or other connection port. With USB, a common culprit is an unpowered USB hub (or even a powered one, for that matter). If you’re using a hub, try plugging the reader into a USB slot that’s connected directly to the motherboard (i.e., one on the computer itself rather than one on a peripheral device). It’s also worth trying to plug it into a different USB slot.
It’s also possible that it’s a software issue. Most modern operating systems can read most memory cards without extra software. But it’s not impossible to have a setup that causes problems. If you have another computer handy, try that.
Nearly all modern cameras can be used as card readers by connecting the camera directly to the computer via a USB cable. Usually, you’ll need to have your camera powered on. With some, you’ll need to put the camera in connection mode. Your camera’s instruction manual will be able to help if you’re in doubt. So with the memory card in the camera, connect it to your computer to see if you can access the photos. If you can, go ahead and download the photos right away to your computer. Get the photos to a safe place first, then worry about finding out what went wrong.
If your camera can’t read the photos either, then the problem probably does lie with the card. So it’s time to move on to more serious data recovery efforts.
RELATED: Fastest SD Cards | Speed Tests
Software to Recover Deleted Photos from SD Card
When your photos are on the memory card, it’s a pretty weak link in the chain. In most cases, it means there’s only one copy (unless you have one of the newer, high-end cameras that can copy to two cards simultaneously). And while memory cards are pretty reliable, there is nevertheless still a small percentage failure rate. Once you download the photos off the memory card to your computer, one hopes you have a robust backup system in place involving multiple copies (and if you don’t, here are some ideas on where to start). Until then, you’re relying on the memory card.
There are a number of data recovery software options available. While they aim to do basically the same thing, they don’t all do it in the same way. Most of them look and feel as though they were designed by a committee of engineers rather than anyone concerned about pesky little things like user interfaces. However, to be fair, the leading apps have improved in this area quite a bit in recent versions.
Some of these photo recovery software options are free; some are quite expensive. Some work in some instances and not others. Some are limited to certain file formats, while others get the whole shebang. So you might be in for a little trial and error. The reputable ones shouldn’t do any further damage to the data on your card. For any that involve a paid license, I strongly recommend running a trial version first to get an indication of whether anything’s going to be recoverable. You don’t want to shell out money unless you have some confidence it’s going to get results.
How successful these will be in recovering your lost photos depends on what has gone wrong in the first place. If it’s a simple case of accidentally formatting a card, there’s an excellent chance of recovering the files. Things get trickier the more you’ve overwritten new data over the top of existing data or the card is damaged.
If you already have data recovery software installed, it’s worth trying that. But make sure it’s compatible with memory cards. Some software is designed for specific types of data recovery, such as memory cards or hard drives.
There are several options when it comes to data recovery software. Here are some options worth looking at. All of them work with SD, CompactFlash, and microSD cards, along with other types of flash memory devices. The scans are going to take a while, so don’t expect instant results. All of the software works by taking a virtual fine-tooth comb to the data on the card.
It’s also worth mentioning that even the apps that are branded by a specific memory card manufacturer aren’t limited to working with only cards made by that manufacturer. Any of this software will work on any memory card from any manufacturer.
SD Card Recovery Software to Find & Recover Deleted Files
Stellar Photo Recovery
The folks at Stellar have a full suite of data recovery apps, from email recovery to video repair to databases. Stellar Photo Recovery focuses on image files, but despite the name, it also recovers video and audio files, so you can use it for all the kinds of files you’ll be shooting with your camera. Or you can narrow your search to one or more specific file extensions or a particular region of the source disk or card. The option to select by thumbnails or carousel rather than by individual image is very handy and user-friendly, as is the ability to resume scans.
I have a detailed post on how to recover photos with Stellar Photo Recovery here.
There’s also a free trial version that lets you scan to see what’s recoverable, with thumbnails, but to actually recover any files, you’ll need to buy a license.
If you decide to buy a license to run the recovery operation, you can get 10% off with the coupon code
HCWT10 at checkout. There are versions for Mac and Windows.
Disk Drill, by CleverFiles, is a full-featured data recovery app that can recover photos and videos along with just about any other kind of file format. So it’s a handy app to have available in other situations, not just this one.
It gives you a lot of control over specifically what kind of files you want to look for. There are also some related features: for example, it has built-in S.M.A.R.T. monitoring that can alert you to potential problems brewing with your storage devices, and it has a duplicate file finder to help you free up storage space taken up by redundant duplicate versions of the same file.
There’s a free trial version that will run the scan and show you what it can find—i.e., a preview of what’s possible to recover. If you’d like to go ahead with the actual recovery, you can upgrade to the Pro version–that adds the crucial tool you need to get your photos back.
An alternative way to get Disk Drill is as part of the Setapp subscription, where you get a large number of really great Mac apps for a monthly subscription fee. I’m a paying subscriber to Setapp myself and find it to be a really great way to get many of the apps I was already using but was paying and upgrading individual licenses.
I’ve also put together a step-by-step how-to guide for recovering photos and videos from a memory card with Disk Drill.
PhotoRec is one of my go-to data recovery apps, but it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. On the plus side, it’s powerful, thorough, and reliable. It’s also free. It’s compatible with a very large number of operating systems. And you can restore just about any kind of file from just about any kind of storage media.
On the negative side, its interface isn’t very user-friendly if you’re not comfortable with text-only interfaces, and you don’t get features like being able to view the thumbnails of the files and select specific images to recover—you either save everything or all the files of the file types you specify. Which makes it slower most of the time rather than being able to be selective.
There’s also a free version that allows you to recover up to 2GB of data but is otherwise mostly fully functional.
SanDisk RescuePRO / RescuePRO Deluxe
SanDisk has its own data recovery software, RescuePRO and RescuePRO Deluxe, that’s designed especially for memory cards and flash drives. But it also works with cards from other brands, not just SanDisk.
There are two key areas of difference between the standard and deluxe versions: the deluxe version handles more RAW and video formats and will also work with cards larger than 64GB. It’s available for Windows and Mac.
Some of the higher-end SanDisk memory cards include a license key for the app that comes on a small piece of paper with the card. If you kept that number and have it handy, go here to download RescuePRO. If you didn’t keep the little piece of paper that came with the card, you’ll need to buy a new license.
There’s a trial version that allows you to save the first 25 image files and show other files that can be recovered. If you want to go ahead and recover more than that first 25 files, you’ll need to buy a license that works on an annual subscription basis.
PhotoRecovery / PhotoRecovery Professional
This is similar to the RescuePro line and is distributed by the same company that distributes RescuePro, but it’s not a branded SanDisk product. It’s a bit more expansive in the file formats it can recover, the interface is different, and it will let you work with a media image file if you’ve managed to clone the original media.
Aside from price, the differences between the standard and professional versions related to memory card tests and diagnostics, memory card benchmarks, and repairing memory cards. There’s a trial version available that will show you what files can be recovered but won’t let you save any of them.
ProGrade Digital Recovery Pro
ProGrade Digital Recovery Pro is another one branded for a card memory manufacturer (in this case, Prograde Digital), but its functionality isn’t limited just to their cards. In this case, it’s another rebranded version of LC Technology’s PhotoRecovery app.
DiskDigger is available for Windows, Android, and Linux (there’s no native Mac version, but they have an experimental version here for pre-Catalina OSX) and can recover most kinds of files from most kinds of storage media.
There’s a free trial version, and at $14.99 (personal license), the cost of the fully licensed version is significantly lower than most of its competitors. You can find it here.
Recuva is a no-nonsense app that offers much the same functionality. One thing in its favor is that it’s priced more competitively than some of the other options. It’s Windows only.
CardRecovery / CardRescue
This does basically the same thing as the others. In its favor is a refreshingly straightforward user interface that walks you through the process. There’s a version for Windows and Mac And there’s an evaluation version—try that first before buying a license.
Remo Recover is designed to be more comprehensive than just recovering photos, and it works on hard drives as well as memory cards. There are versions for Mac and Windows. There are three editions—Basic, Media, and Pro—with corresponding increasing features and prices. The Basic edition doesn’t recover photos, so you’ll need the Media ($70) or Pro ($180) versions for that. The Pro version can also recover from deleted partitions and reformatted hard drives. There’s a free version for Windows that is limited by the amount of data you can recover.
I have a detailed review of Remo Recover here.
No Longer Available
These photo recovery apps are no longer available. I’m keeping them mentioned here in case anyone is wondering what happened to them.
- Lexar Photo Recovery. This was a rebranded version of Stellar Photo Recovery. Some of Lexar’s higher-end cards included a license to it.
Calling in the Big Guns to Recover Deleted Photos from SD Card
Okay, so maybe things have just gone horribly, horribly wrong. If your memory card isn’t showing up on your computer at all and you’ve tried everything else to access the data on it without luck, it might be time to call in the big guns. But this option really only makes sense if the photos on there have a lot of personal or professional value and there’s no other option left. Because it’s not cheap. Nor is it quick.
It’s time to send the card or cards to a professional data recovery lab.
I’ve never had to use any of these services and can’t personally vouch for them. But here are some services that offer more advanced levels of data recovery from memory cards. In some cases, they can even recover data from cards that have some physical damage.
- LC Technology. Based in Florida, LC Technology is the firm recommended by SanDisk for their media. They do other brands of media too, but there’s a flat-rate fee structure for recovery from SanDisk products based on the amount of data and whether any of the connectors are broken. You can find those rates here. If they can’t recover any data, you only get charged for return postage.
- Drive Savers
- Kroll Ontrack
- Western Data Recovery
Tips for Keeping SD Cards Healthy
Memory cards are pretty resilient, but there are some precautions you can take that can save a lot of headaches.
- Always format the card in the camera. Format the card regularly.
- Never remove the card while data is being transferred.
- Turn the camera off before removing the card.
- Have a backup card handy, just in case.
What If Your SD Card Won’t Mount?
Sometimes your memory card might not show up in your filesystem. There are all sorts of reasons that might happen. Obvious first troubleshooting tips include taking the card out and reinserting it or rebooting the computer.
Make sure your card reader is compatible with the kind of memory card you’re using. For instance, a card reader that is only compatible with SDHC won’t read SDXC cards, and a CompactFlash reader won’t read a CFAST 2.0 card. But they’re nearly always backward compatible within the same form factor, so an SDXC reader will read SDHC cards.
Here are some more ideas to try.
- Open Disk Utility (Applications > Utilities > Disk Utility.app) and see if it’s showing up there.
- If you’re using a USB card reader, try a different USB slot on your computer and connect directly to the computer rather than through a USB hub.
- Open a Terminal window (Applications > Utilities > Terminal.app), remove the memory card, enter
Killall Finderin the Terminal window, and hit Return, reinsert the memory card, and check Finder again.
- Try the SD Card Formatter app put out by the SD Association. You can find it here.
See if it shows up in a drop-down menu at the top of the app’s screen.
- Try the SD Card Formatter app put out by the SD Association. You can find it here.
- See if it shows up in a drop-down menu at the top of the app’s screen.
- You can also try this (YouTube).
How to Format SD Cards Safely
The best practice for formatting memory cards is to do it in the camera and do it regularly. That helps to keep the card’s filesystem healthy to avoid data corruption from happening and sets up any files or folders that the camera might need and expect. It’s not a perfect guarantee against data loss, nor does it ensure that you can recover deleted data, but it’s an easy precaution that helps.
It is, of course, also possible to format cards using a computer. If you’re using an SD or microSD card, a good, free, and pretty much foolproof option is to use the SD Card Formatter app that is put out by the SD Association. I have a guide to using SD Card Formatter here. You can also use your operating system’s built-in data formatting tools, although, with those, you’ll often have to make sure to pick the correct option among several.
It is possible to recover files from other types of memory cards?
Yes. While I refer to SD cards in the title of this post, it also applies to other flash memory card types, including microSD, CompactFlash, XQD, CFast, and CFxpress cards. And, as a general rule, it also applies to other storage devices such as USB flash drives.
Does it matter what storage capacity the SD card is?
No. The same processes apply whether you’re using a 16GB card or a 512GB card (or any other storage capacity, for that matter).
Does it matter what file format my photos are saved in?
Maybe. It’s not so much about what deleted data can be recovered rather than the choice of which recovery software to use. Some of the data recovery apps are completely agnostic about what kind of files it works with and can recover any image or video files or document file formats.
In some cases, the available tools might be a bit more limited. For instance, the more user-friendly apps provide features like visual thumbnails to preview recoverable files; if you’re using an image file format the app can’t process, the thumbnail might be available, but it still might be able to recover data. Other apps might have versions that will filter out anything that’s not a photo or video file. The apps are pretty good about commonly used image and photo file formats, but you might run into issues with newer or more obscure file formats.
This comes up particularly with RAW files. There are many proprietary RAW file formats out there. Common ones should be a problem, but niche RAW file types with limited compatibility might be a problem (looking at you, GoPro).
So if you’re trying to recover deleted pictures in a less-common file format, it’s worth confirming with the apps’ spec sheets to confirm that it can find and recover the format.
What if I have a corrupted SD card?
That certainly makes things harder. It depends on the extent and type of data corruption. But a scan using one of the free trial versions might reveal that at least some (but perhaps not all) files can be recovered. It’s definitely worth a try.
What if the SD card recovery software can’t find my deleted images?
In that case, the odds are leaning against being able to recover deleted images from the SD card. But before giving up, it’s worth trying one of the other SD card recovery software options. I have run into some instances where one app can’t find deleted pictures, but another can.
Is there any free photo recovery software?
Yes. The catch is that it’s not as user-friendly and lacks a graphical user interface. But if you’re comfortable working with a text-only interface, I recommend PhotoRec, which you can download here. I have put together a guide to using PhotoRec.