What is your biggest fear as a photographer? Probably losing your images, of course. Of course, if you actually lose a memory card, or if your camera is stolen, there is almost nothing you can do. However, what if your SD card corrupted? If you have a corrupt memory card, your precious photos aren’t lost yet, so don’t panic! There is a very good chance you can get some or all of your images back with memory card recovery.
Personally, I have clicked well over one million photos in my career, and the number of images that I’ve truly “lost” has been limited to a couple of unimportant snapshots here and there, thankfully. However, I have had a few memory cards “go corrupt” on me, and each time I was able to retrieve all the photos!
First, it is important to start by understanding how memory cards work. Also, just as importantly, you need to create a simple, safe workflow procedure and then never, ever cut any corners! Cutting corners, and sheer forgetfulness, will be your worst enemies.
Unfortunately, the fact is that human error is far more common or likely than actual memory card failure. It may sound silly, but, don’t accidentally format a memory card if you’re not absolutely sure you’ve transferred the photos!
In this article, we’ll provide you with workflow steps for basic SD card recovery, (or any memory card, of course) so you can give yourself the best chance (the last chance!) of never truly losing images.
Memory Card Recovery | How To Save Your Images!
Duplicate Your Images As Immediately As Possible
Your absolute best line of defense against any sort of data loss is redundancy, AKA, having a backup! So, duplicate your images as immediately as possible.
Most high-end cameras these days have dual card slots, and therefore all serious photographers should be recording raw images to both cards at once, especially if you are getting paid to click photos! If you do this, the entire issue of a memory card getting corrupted usually becomes a secondary, last-resort emergency.
If the worst happens, there are two categories of problems that you face: Data corruption, and physical memory card damage. As you might imagine, one is easier to deal with by yourself!
Physical Memory Card Damage
Cards can crack open, (both CF / SD) or have the contact points damaged, or be physically bent or punctured etc. (Surprisingly, water, especially freshwater, is a rather survivable event! Saltwater is nasty stuff, though.)
Unfortunately, if a memory card is physically destroyed, there is not much you can do except to either carefully attempt data recovery, (see below) or send the memory card off to a professional recovery service. The good news is, if you’re willing to pay a price, sometimes even a highly damaged memory card can be recovered.
Okay, so, let’s assume that your memory card is at least in good enough physical condition to be plugged into a card reader. (If it’s physically falling apart, you probably don’t want to get bits of it stuck in your camera, but a cheap card reader can be sacrificed!)
If you were using dual card slots, then the first thing to do is to check the other memory card, of course. What if you weren’t using dual card slots, or what if both cards are somehow not displaying images that you know should be there?
In this worst-case scenario, there are two common problems: either a single image has gone bad, or the whole memory card has failed.
Step 1 | Immediately stop shooting on the corrupt card!
No matter what, the very first thing you do when you suspect that a memory card has encountered a problem is, STOP SHOOTING! If you keep shooting on that “bad” memory card, all bets are off.
Why is this so important? Because of over-writing. In most cameras when you “format” a card, it does not actually erase or destroy the image data on that card. It simply tells the card to “pretend” that the current images aren’t there, which allows the camera to write new image data onto the card, on top of the old image data.
If this happens, if the images you wish to recover get overwritten by newer images, then you’re really, really out of luck. Maybe the CIA or FBI can help you. (Or pray to the magical ENHANCE gods?)
So, remove your memory card immediately, and finish your photoshoot on a different card.
I pre-print a few “BAD” labels on a P-Touch labeler,
and store them in my card wallet for an emergency.
Step 2 | Inspect The Memory Card for damage
Assess the situation: does your camera not even “see” the memory card at all? Is it giving you a specific “ERR” message or code, or memory card warning? Is it telling you to format the card?
Or, can you actually see images on the card but one or more of them look visually corrupted, or are showing up as an “X” thumbnails?
Whatever the case, quickly jot down some notes and then remove the problem card, label it as “BAD”, and put it in your memory wallet.
Step 3: Run Image Recovery Software
There are many different memory card recovery applications out there, some are free and some cost a few dollars. I prefer the ones that cost somewhere in the $20-50 range; they seem to get the job done very well.
My favorite (on my Mac) is called PhotoRescue, from www.datarescue.com. I’ve been using this app for over ten years, (more often to help friends than myself!) and it has never let me down. In case anyone is wondering, yes, I’ve had better results with this application than with the name brand, Sandisk memory card recovery and Lexar memory card recovery applications.
On my PC, I use a more powerful (and a slightly more expensive) app called Data Rescue PC3 from ProSoft.
If you’re hoping for a free solution, I’ve heard success stories about a program named Recuva. As I mentioned, most memory card companies offer their own memory card recovery software, either for free or as a trial, but I can’t say that any of them work better than the apps I prefer.
How to perform memory card recovery
As you run the recovery software, even with its default options you’ll often be lucky, and it will immediately pop up with every photo that wasn’t recently over-written. In fact, if it’s been a long time since you shot the card all the way to 100% full, (I almost never do this anyways) …then you might wind up finding all kinds of images from many, many different shoots, going back many months!
There’s a small chance that one or two images might be truly corrupt; these might have been the culprits that caused your card to trigger the error message in the first place. Recover these images anyway, and try reading them in multiple different programs including the name-brand (Nikon, Canon, Sony) raw software that came with the camera. (Such as Nikon View NX) You might at least get lucky with a full-resolution JPG preview, if not the raw file itself.
Unfortunately, sometimes nothing comes up at all. If this happens, just try running the recovery again; do a deep scan, or advanced scan, or whatever additional options your recovery app has. If this fails, try another recovery program!
The least productive outcome is that your computer simply doesn’t recognize the memory card. The good news is that even if the card isn’t visible in Explorer or Finder, your recovery app may still see it. (You’d likely also be able to see the memory card in your disk utility application, if this was the case.)
If the card simply isn’t reading in your computer at all, you can try cleaning the contact points and re-inserting it a few times.
*Quite a few laptops have SD card readers that can get finnicky due to firmware; maybe try an external SD card reader, instead of an internal one.
Hopefully you’ve gotten nearly all your images back by now. Your software recovery has transferred the raw photos to your computer, and you can breathe that sigh of relief.
Of course, before you go back to work like nothing ever happened, be a responsible photographer and retire that memory card! (You did buy a memory card with a lifetime warranty, right?) Don’t take a risk with that card again; send it in for a free replacement. Especially if you’re a working pro.
What to do with Water Damage to Memory Cards
Okay, back to the physical aspect of things, before we wrap up. Believe it or not, water damage to memory cards is actually very survivable! In fact, a whole lot of folks have joked about how they accidentally put an SD or other memory card through the washing machine, and they figured what the heck, they might as well put it through the dryer too… lo and behold, the card then worked perfectly!
I would never recommend putting a memory card in the dryer, of course, but instead simply drying the card off with a towel and leaving it in a warm, dry place. (If your accident involved salt water, take a fresh damp cloth and wipe down your camera, lens, and/or memory card! Salt is like cancer to electronics.)
You can try the bag of rice trick, or you can use some of the anti-humidity desiccant packets. However, all you really need is low humidity and time. (If you live in Arizona, just let it sit out for a day or two!)
If you do this, instead of jamming your wet memory card into your camera/computer, you might not even need to run recovery software!
(Again, I’d recommend retiring & replacing that memory card! It’s the responsible thing to do.)
Step 4: When All Else Fails, Call for Backup
So, you’ve tried everything and you still can’t recover any images. Maybe the card is physically damaged, or maybe it is just totally corrupted.
Either way, there may still be hope. Data recovery specialists have tools to perform actual SD card repair, or rebuild any type of memory card or hard drive, both physically and electronically.
My personal favorite, DriveSavers, is one of the most trusted names in data recovery. Their prices aren’t cheap, though; if you’ve lost only a few images on a small memory card it won’t cost you too much, but if you lost a whole hard drive, you’ll quickly look at costs in the thousands of dollars.
Conclusion | SD Card Recovery Is Possible!
Hopefully, your memory card recovery efforts don’t come to that. Or if they do, hopefully, you have photographer’s insurance that can help pay for it. Either way, no matter what the problem may be, there’s a very good chance you can recover images from a corrupt or damaged memory card.
If you have any questions or would like any additional input on a particular aspect of this process, or the overall safety workflow, please comment below!