How to Recover SD Card Images That You’ve Deleted Accidentally

All those photos you took have disappeared from the SD card. Before you throw the camera at the wall and fire off a nasty email to the manufacturer, here are some things you can try to recover your photos.

First off, don’t panic. I can’t promise you’ll be able to recover your photos, but there are some things you can definitely try and that often work. Troubleshooting this involves working methodically.

Second, stop shooting new photos or recording new video. As in, right now. The more you continue writing to the card, the harder it’s going to be to recover what’s there. Depending on what’s 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

The first step is to isolate the problem. 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 (ie. 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.

RELATED: The Fastest SD Cards

Data Recovery Software for Memory Cards

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 few 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 of 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 instance results. All of the software works by taking a virtual fine-tooth comb to the data on the card.

Stellar Phoenix Photo Recovery

The folks at Stellar Data Recovery have a full suite of data recovery apps, from email recovery to databases. This one focuses on media files, and despite the name, it also recovers video and audio files. 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, as is the ability to resume scans.

I have a detailed post on how to recover photos with Stella 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

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 thorough, it’s 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 drive.

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.

PhotoRec is available here. And I have put together a guide to using PhotoRec.

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.

SanDisk cards in the Extreme range include a RescuePRO license 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. Some of the higher-end SanDisk memory cards include a license key for the app.

PhotoRecovery 2015 / PhotoRecovery 2015 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.

Lexar Photo Recovery

If it looks familiar, there’s a good reason. Despite the Lexar branding on the splash page, this is a rebranded version of Stellar Phoenix Photo Recovery. It works on other brands of memory cards too, not just Lexar. It has much the same functionality as RescuePRO, but it has a cleaner user interface. There are versions for Windows and Mac.

Some of the higher-end Lexar memory cards include a license key for the app.

Recuva

Revuva is a no-nonense 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 that is strongly recommended you try first.

EaseUS

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 or data but is otherwise mostly fully functional.

Remo Recover

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 ($69) or Pro ($179) 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 in the amount of data you can recover.

I have a detailed review of Remo Recover here.

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.

On Mac

  • 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 Finder in 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.

On Windows

  • 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)

View Comments

  • New Cannon Power Shot 180. Put sd card on computer and it showed 200 out of 400. Thought reformatting sd card in camera would add rest. Accidentally deleted on sd card,show no images. Put 6 new pictures on card to see if others would show. No luck! Can I retrieve lost pictures?

    • It's certainly worth a try. I'd recommend trying one of the apps mentioned above in their free trial mode to see whether they can find the images. If they can, you can then decide whether to buy one of the licenses to recover them images or use one of the free options.

  • Hi, I inserted my SD card into my GoPro Hero 6 and when I switched it from the GoPro to my camera I saw that all of my images had been deleted. What can I do?

    • What are you viewing the images on the card with? If you're playing them back on the second camera, it's possible that camera just isn't seeing the GoPro's folders with images. Each type of camera has its own folder structure and will generally only look there. If you haven't already, I'd check using a computer. If they're not showing up using a computer, the next thing I'd do is run one of the trial versions of the apps above to see if that can find anything. If it can find the images you're after, you can then choose to buy a license (or use one of the free alternatives) to recover the files.

  • Hi David. I was using my Finepix camera today taking shots of bees in the garden. I have a newish 32 gb SanDisk card in it. I've taken photos and vid of various things over the past days. When I viewed today's shots on the rear screen it occured to me that those were the only ones on the card. There was nothing else from previous days. Why would this happen please ?

    • It would be worth checking using a computer. It may be possible that the camera is somehow just filtering "today's photos" or something like that. Hopefully it's something that simple. It could also be errors on the card or something else creating problems for the camera reading the card. So the first thing I'd try to is downloading the images from the memory card using a computer. With luck, that will reveal all of the images you're after. At the very least, it'll isolate whether there's something about the way the camera is reading data from the memory card.

  • I formatted my SD card thinking I’d protected photos I took today. Oops, all disappeared. The took 3 new pics and - stupidly - formatted again. I’ve used Recuva and it picked up the 3 new pics and then about 5000 old ones from before today, but not the rest of today’s photos. Seems odd that older ones show up. Any ideas? Thanks.

  • I had photos and videos in my gallery and they all appeared to be on my SD card. I went to my cell phone provider's store to make sure before trying to download them to my computer. As luck would have it a customer service representative deleted all the data in the gallery and on the SD card. I had 16GB 's of data on a 32GB card. I am not sure what she did. It appeared to possibly have something to do with the Google photos app. I told her I did not use the app but she sent a picture to the app anyway and shortly after doing so my pictures and videos no longer showed up in the gallery or on SD card. The picture she took was in the gallery along with one of my pictures. I took my phone to Geek Squad they attempted a level 1 data retrieval and after several days they returned it to me stating they were unable to recover my data. I am not sure what retrieval program they used . On July 4th I took approximately 2 GBs of videos of my family at a gathering. It is July 8 and I have just found your site. Do you think one of the apps you mentioned could possibly recover my data?

    • I can't really say, but it's certainly worth trying. I'd recommend trying one of the apps that has a free trial. With the free trial version, you can run a scan and it will show you whether it can find anything to recover. If it does find files it can recover, you can then decide whether to buy a license or explore one of the free versions that can do full recovery (in general, the paid versions are more user-friendly, while the free apps work well but can have a steeper learning curve).

  • Hi!

    I have been searching the internet for quite some time for a solution. At the end of a wedding ceremony, our second shooter panicked when they ran out of room on a memory card, right before the bride and groom walked down the aisle. So they quickly deleted a clip and got the last little chunk of them leaving. Well, turns out the clip that was deleted was the bride coming down the aisle. Whoops. I have used a couple program, the only one that has given me hope is EaseUS, which shows the original file, the right file size/time code and all- but every time I download the clip, it stops prematurely and when I go to view the downloaded clip- its a much smaller file size/time, and it's just the final clip of them leaving. I know there is more data to be downloaded, and my hope is that there is still a small piece of the original clip somehow in there. I'm not sure if it works like that, but I would love an honest answer so I can either get the clip, or give up and find a solution. It seems like the data is there, I just can't get ahold of it. Is there another technique you'd recommend?

    Thank you!

    • From what you're describing, I'm wondering if part of the file was written over with subsequent data. If it was me, I'd be inclined to break out PhotoRec. It's not especially user friendly, and it's slower because it's much more comprehensive and not selective in what it's trying to recover--but it will give you all the data from the card. It's free, and I have a walk-thru here. There's an option to "keep corrupted files" which might help in this case.

      • I really appreciate the speedy reply! So I tried PhotoRec, and I actually found a file that matches the time length- unfortunately it just is black the whole way through. Not sure what steps to take. I attempted to try restore.media because it worked for other clips, but this one didn't seem to work. haha I have so much hope yet so little.

  • I took some photos on a SanDisk and I viewed the photos on the camera playback. When I came to download the photos onto my external harddrive I got the message "No images". When I inserted the disk into the camera it states "Disk is full" but again then states "No images". How can I find the photos please?

    • Hard to say exactly what's gone wrong here, but the first thing I'd try is a scan with one of the recovery apps. That will tell you whether it can find anything to recover. If it can find them, you can then decide whether you want to buy a license or try one of the free options.

  • My phone wouldn't let me move pictures from my phone to my SD card. I unmounted the SD card, took it out, and tried putting it back in and remounting it. Upon it remounting to my phone, a message came up saying that the SD card was corrupted and that I should transfer all pictures to my phone in order to save them while the SD card was being repaired. When I went to transfer all pictures, my phone started fixing my SD card and now all pictures are gone.. I mean every single on. There are pictures that I've moved from SD card to SD card for over 6 years to hold onto them and now they're all gone.. Please help me figure out how to get the pictures back. I'm desperate.

    • I don't know of a way to do it directly from a phone. All the approaches I'd take involve putting the SD card into a card reader and using software on a computer. If you have access to that, there's a reasonable chance that one of the apps mentioned above in this post will be able to help.

  • Hello please help! I believe what happened was I transferred the pics to my computer from SD card and then deleted them off my SD card. I accidentally “undid” the transfer and couldn’t recover them all from my SD card bc I had written over most of them by taking more pics. Any ideas??

    • It might still be possible to recover them from your computer's hard drive. Basically the same principles apply--and most of the same software can handle a hard drive as well--but it's often messier and slower because hard drives hold a lot more data and there's a lot of other non-photo stuff on there. There are also differences in the way that older spinning hard drives and newer sold memory drives store data, so it's not a sure thing. But it might be at least worth trying a scan using the trial version of one of the apps to see if it can find anything. Try limiting the search to just image files to filter out the non-relevant files.

  • Hello
    I just attempted to upload my pictures from AK to my laptop, and for once, checked off the option to delete photos after upload. When it came time to upload I checked off ALL photos to be on the safe side. Sadly, the laptop only uploaded old photos from the camera, and the camera of course deleted all the photos on it. To make matters worse, I accidentally took one photo after. It is a samsung with a sandisk memory card. Will I be able to recover them???

    • While I can't say for sure without having it in front of me, it does sound like there's a good chance. It's definitely worth trying. You can use one of the apps with a trial version to see what shows up.

Share