How to recover lost photos

Panic! Your photos have gone! You've accidentally erased the wrong memory card, and you've lost all your photos.

Relax. Don't take any more photos on that card, and you'll almost certainly be able to get them back. This article explains how.

Why are the photos still there?

Formatting a card doesn't delete the photos on it - it just zaps the index on the card that tells the camera where each photo is stored, and marks the whole card as available for new photos. The pictures are still there, but the camera writes any new photos on top of the old ones, so make sure you don't take any more pictures, or you may be over-writing the old photos one-by-one.

The steps to recovery...

To get your photos back, you're going to need the following things:

  1. A memory card reader (about AU$15 from a camera store if your computer doesn't have one built-in), so that your computer can see the memory card directly
  2. Photo recovery software. I use PhotoRescue and it's available to as a free demo download that checks that it can get your photos back. If it can, it's a one-time US$29 purchase to get the code that lets you save your recovered photos.

    There are lots of types of photo recovery software, and I've only tried a couple. The basic version of PhotoRescue (called the "wizard" version) is easy to use and has 100% success rate for me so far, and for all the clients I've recommended it to.

    To use it, put the offending memory card into the card reader and run the demo version of PhotoRescue. It will slowly try to find your images, and it shows you all the photos that it will be able to recover. The makers guarantee that if the demo version shows them, you can get them back. So if it found the photos that you want, go ahead and purchase the $29 registration code for the software to let you save any or all of the photos.

    Once you've paid for the registration code, you can use the software as often as you need - hopefully never! But it's great peace of mind to know that you have it available every time you press 'format' on the camera.

    Formatting (erasing) memory cards in the camera is a essential step in keeping them healthy. The only times I've seen problems with memory cards are when people delete photos one-by-one, and never format the card. Regularly formatting a memory card in the camera that's going to use it keeps the card ticking along without problems.

  3. Will it work for photos lost from your hard drive?

    Yes and no. The same software (or any "undelete"-type software) might be able to recover files deleted from your computer. But if the photos were stored under the same hard drive letter as your 'system' files (normally C: on a Windows computer), many of the photos are likely to be quickly overwritten by normal computer activity. If the photos were on a drive with a different letter, you'll have a much better chance of getting more of them back.