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Shooting Tips

How To Recover A Corrupt Or Damaged Memory Card

By Matthew Saville on December 4th 2017

What is every photographer’s biggest fear? Losing their images, or memory card failure. Do you know that feeling all too well? Have an SD card corrupted or damaged recently? Don’t panic! If you currently have a corrupt memory card situation right this very minute, there is a very good chance you can get images back.

I have personally clicked well over one million photos, and the number of images that I’ve truly “lost” has been limited to a couple un-important images here and there. (Except for that Microdrive I bought in 2004; that was a really bad idea!)

The most important thing is to have an understanding of how memory card reading, writing, and formatting works. Actually there are two equally important items, and the other one is to stick with a simple, safe workflow procedure and never, ever cut any corners. Corner-cutting and forgetfulness will be your worst enemies. Unfortunately this far more common or likely than actual memory card corruption.

So, if you follow these workflow steps you’ll give yourself the best chance of never truly losing images, even if you have to recover a dead memory card once in a blue moon.

How TO Recover Images From A Corrupt or Damaged Memory Card

Duplicate Your Images As Immediately As Possible!

Your absolute best line of defense against data loss is redundancy. Duplicate your images as immediately as possible, if you can. Most high-end cameras these days have dual card slots, and therefore all serious photographers ought to consider recording raw images to both cards at once. If you do this, the entire issue of a memory card getting corrupted becomes a secondary, last-resort emergency.

[Rewind: Tips for surviving a potential memory card disaster]

If the worst happens, there are two categories of problems that you face: Data corruption, and physical memory card damage.

 

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 fresh water, is a rather survivable event!)

[Rewind: When is it time to retire an old memory card?]

DATA CORRUPTION:

Either a single image has gone bad, (happens more often than you’d think, unfortunately) …or the whole memory card has failed (extremely rare, thankfully)

STEP 1: 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 over-written 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 photo shoot 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.

WATER DAMAGE to memory cards?

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 CF 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.

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!

Happy clicking,
-Matt-

Matthew Saville is a full-time wedding photographer at Lin & Jirsa Photography, and a senior editor & writer at SLR Lounge.

Follow his personal wilderness adventures: Astro-Landscapes.com

See some of his latest wedding photography featured on: LinandJirsa.com

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Ben Sabo

    I just got back from a 4-day photo trip in the Rocky Mountains and on the last day, my Philips 16GB SDHC card came up as unusable in my Canon T3i. Got home, and my PC wouldn’t even recognize it (not able to format it in the camera either). After some searching, I came across a German company called Recoverfab. I sent an online request, they sent me the address and detailed instructions on how to send my card to them and 24 hours after they received it, they sent me an FTP site where I could download all ~600 of my .jpg and RAW image files. I’m not sure how their prices compare with DriveSavers because I never quoted DriveSavers, but Recoverfab charged me ~$250 USD (all of their prices listed online are in Euro). I would certainly use them again (hopefully don’t need to) and would recommend them to anyone who does not want to lose their pics (assuming you can wait 3-5 days for shipping across the Atlantic).

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    • Matthew Saville

      Ben, thanks SO MUCH for that report / info! It’s super awesome to collect bits of info like this in the comment section here, I really appreciate it.

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  2. Jason Hatfield

    Unfortunately, it is true, as I’ve found out with my a7RII twice now. I’ve not found a single recovery program that can see images on the memory card and there are a number of threads online with other Sony users reporting the same issue. I’ve not found one example online of a formatted a7 series memory card being recovered; if you have though, I would love to know where and how they did it! I currently have a weeks worth of lost images on a memory card from a couple months ago.

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    • Matthew Saville

      I would call or email the folks at PhotoRescue, and ask them what advanced settings might help to recover data from that particular camera. That particular app has a lot of options for “deeper digging”. Alternately, if they were professionally captured images, then a trip to DriveSavers might be in order, if it’s only a small card.

      If Sony’s format function is more difficult to recover images from than others, then I might suggest formatting the card in the computer actually, instead, just as a precaution. Alternately, I might check and see if there are two different format options on the Sony, such as a “deep format” versus a “delete all” type format, the latter of which might be more friendly to recovery.

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  3. Jason Hatfield

    If you’ve formatted a memory card on a Sony camera you’re SOL; it resets the whole card and can’t be recovered.

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    • Matthew Saville

      I do not think this is true, Jason, but I cannot speak for all cameras, and I do know that some cameras have an alternate. “deep format” option for video shooters who want to ensure there aren’t any blips in their audio, or something like that.

      I’d love to read official reports that speak to this particular issue with Sony, of course, if you know of any.

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  4. Justin Barlup

    I just had a bunch of video files corrupted on my 5D mark IV. I tried every recovery software imaginable and the files still wouldn’t open. I then copied the files in camera from the CF card to the SD card and it completely fixed the files. Thank God for dual memory card slots!

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    • Matthew Saville

      That’s great news for the 5D4, Justin! Unfortunately, Nikon does not allow you to write video to both cards at once, and they don’t always let you transfer video files between cards, only still photos.

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  5. Don Risi

    Excellent article. 

    I’ve had a couple of Lexar CF cards die completely.  Dead as can be.  Nothing sees them, much less reads them.  Totally gone.  And in the trash.

    When I was using PCs, I used Recuva on a couple of occasions, with great success.  It even brought back images from portions of the card that hadn’t been overwritten.   For PC users, I’d recommend that 100%.  

    Now that I’m on Macs, I was wondering what to have in emergencies.  I’ll have to give Data Rescue a look. Does come in handy once in awhile.  

     BTW, I also had a microdrive back in the early 2k’s.  Never had any problems with it, but it was only 4GB and horribly slow.

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    • Matthew Saville

      Unfortunately, there is a bit of confusion about the names of the software, and the URLs for them. Be sure to search for PhotoRescue, not Data Rescue, because that’s a different program. (For PC’s)

      I’m sure there’s a lot of upset people at each of these companies about who bought which URL, lol. But anyways, just wanted to clear that up.

      BTW, my microdrive only died because I tried to shoot a very humid, freezing cold sunrise one morning, and my camera ahd been stored in a very warm car just prior. Learned that lesson the hard way!

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  6. Tabor Warren

    I read this article and within 24 hours my wife formatted the wrong card for the first time in our 8 years of business. We always write to two cards for clients, however, this was my son’s Christmas program and we only packed one CF. I ended up going through SanDisk, and though the photos were there and the video showed up as being there, it turned out to be fragmented and unplayable. I’m currently working with SanDisk to hopefully get it back, but if you have any recommendations, I’m all ears. Thank you a ton for writing all of this up, and I hope you never have to recover video! Apparently, it’s a bit more challenging. =/

    -Tabor

    http://photosbytabor.com

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    • Matthew Saville

      Hi Tabor,

      I’m not an expert in the recovery of video files in particular, unfortunately, and yes indeed from what I can tell they can be more difficult to recover due to the size of the files. However if the only thing that has happened is that the card was formatted, there’s a good chance the data can be recovered. I would start by trying multiple recovery apps, since there is no physical damage to the card there should be no risk. Try PhotoRescue!

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  7. Cameron Reynolds

    I lost an entire card about 2 months ago. Lexar Professional SDXC U3 II 150MB/s in a 128GB size. Im guessing it had approximately 30 GB of photos on it and was less than 6 months old. Was testing an A9 on a hike and playing with burst. Got home, browsed through the images on the back of the camera, all was fine, the next morning I pulled the card out of the camera to back it up and once inserted into the computer,  just wanted to initialize. Tried several different software solutions on Mac and PC, tried putting it back in the camera, all had the same result. Called Drive Savers, Said they would look at it for free and let me know if it was salvageable and if it was that it would cost up to $1300 for the economy timeline of 2 weeks to fix it.  In the end the card is just sitting on my desk with a “Do Not Use” sticker on it. If I win the lotto, I may look at sending it out. If it was a wedding, or client job, no question, make it right, but hiking photos??? Not worth the price. Lexar’s customer service was not helpful either, they just said, “that sucks… sorry”…

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    • Matthew Saville

      Hi Cameron, yup, once you get way up there in the gigabytes, recovery services get pretty expensive. That’s one good reason to stick with smaller cards; the cost of recovery is significantly less.

      The last I checked, Drive Savers offered a PPA discount, do you have that?

      But yeah, sounds like physical fault of the internals in the card itself, unfortunately. Drive Savers would literally be re-building the card, swapping out a failed part for another, to get at the data chips.

      This is of course a worst-case scenario, and I’m glad it didn’t happen with client images on the card!

      This is of course one reason why I’m adamant about shooting on cameras with dual card slots, whenever I’m getting paid to take pictures. :-)

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