Quick Plan of Action for Recovering Photos from a Memory 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 memory card or you’ve accidentally deleted them. You can find a much more detailed version below.
- Stop using the memory card. This is important because overwriting the data will make it harder to recover deleted files from it. Take it out of your camera or phone.
- Scan the memory card with the free trial versions of either Stellar Photo Recovery or Disk Drill. Both have Windows and Mac versions. The scan will show you whether any files can be found and recovered.
- Recover the files. If the apps can find the files, you can then decide whether to buy a full license to run the actual recovery process or to try one of the other options covered below.
Help, My Photos Are Gone!
First off, don’t panic. Take enough photos, and this will happen to all of us at some point. 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.
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 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 cameras can be used as card readers by connecting the camera directly to the computer. 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.
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SD Card Recovery Software
When your photos are on your 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. 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.
Some 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 files depends on what’s gone wrong. 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 on the file.
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 a 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.
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.
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.
I’ve also put together a step-by-step how-to guide for recovering photos and videos from a memory card with Disk Drill.
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 are versions for Mac and Windows. 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.
PhotoRec is my go-to data recovery software, 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.
EaseUS offers much the same functionality with a slick and well-thought-out interface that walks you through the process. There are versions for Windows and Mac. 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
This one 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.
NB: If you’re using Mac OSX 10.15 Catalina, as of mid-2020 Recovery Pro will not work because it’s only available (for now) as a 32-bit application. They’re working on a 64-bit version.
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.
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
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 or 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 Memory 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 and sets up any files or folders that the camera might need and expect.
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 SD Card Formatter 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.