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How to Recover Images From a Memory Card

By Justin Heyes on December 14th 2015

The chances are that you or someone you know has accidentally deleted a picture. Memory cards get reformatted, images get culled, and sometimes we lose the only copy of an image we wanted to keep. I’m not going to go over the importance of backing up your files as it has already been covered extensively here. What I am going to tell you is is how to recover images from a memory card. The three main ways that lead to image loss are: card corruption, deleting, and reformatting.


What Causes Card Corruption?

Memory cards are tough. It seems like every other week, there is a story of a camera being found in a body of water with the images still intact. That is because the memory cards themselves are arguably sealed better than most entry level DSLRs. Many are effectively waterproof, even if they aren’t marketed that way. In most situations, the plastic casing is a risk more than the electronic internals.

[Rewind: 6 Key Mistakes To Avoid When Handling SD Cards to Minimize Data Loss]

Physical damage to the card can be easy to spot, but you can have corruption and data loss without anything fundamentally going wrong. The most often occurrence of card corruption is when you remove your memory card before the images are done writing.

Canon 5D mkIII SD Card

The firmware in cameras and card readers can cause errors and wreak havoc when writing images, especially when it is put in situations it can not handle. Trying to record HD video on a class 6 card? The constant stress on the card from the heavy workflow can cause write errors.

Shooting with an almost depleted battery will cause an invalid write of the image. Sometimes, you will get lucky, and the image will either transfer completely from the buffer or it won’t write at all. A partially written image can also spell disaster for your images and sanity. It only takes on bad apple to spoil the whole bunch.

Continually shooting and deleting images when the card is full can also cause corruption. Filling your memory card to capacity may cause your camera to overwrite the card header, making the card unreadable. A safe practice I follow is to leave at least 2% of the card empty. For all of you that hate math, that is somewhere between 20-30 images depending on resolution and card size.

Accidentally Delete an Image?

Sometimes when culling images, you can accidentally delete an image that you wanted to keep. It happens from time to time. It’s an inconvenience when working on your computer and scary when you’re culling in camera. But when you delete an image, the file isn’t gone forever.

The information is not erased when you delete a picture (or any other file). Erasing images tells your camera that it’s okay to write over the images already on your card. So you will not actually remove images, but just take images over the existing ones. This will always leave ‘traces’ of data on the card.

Why Formatting Is Important

Formatting helps clear the card of extraneous files that build out from prior use. So you will start off with a fresh, data free card. Formatting doesn’t erase information either; it instead creates fresh blocks, and a writes a file system. Recovering images from a formatted drive is possible if you do not use it after the format.

[Related: How To Really Format SD Cards For Optimal Performance]

It’s kind of like carbon paper. There are two pieces of paper. Writing on the top sheet will make an impression on the bottom sheet. Formatting would be comparable to putting white out on the top piece; the information would still be on the sheet below. However, if you were to then write on it, it would be imprinted over the top of the original on the bottom sheet. You would be unable to read any of it.

How Do I Recover Images from a Memory Card?

If your card becomes corrupted, you delete an image, or accidentally reformatted it, stop using the card immediately. If you continue to use the card, your images may be lost forever. Programs like PhotoRec, which we reviewed a while back, can help recover images if your card is still readable.


[Related: Save Your Images, Clients, Sanity And Your Liver, By Recovering Lost Files For Free]

There are a variety of programs that can help restore your images; some are specific to image formats like .jpg, and others offer a wider range. For those that find PhotoRec’s text-based interface daunting, there are alternatives like Recuva (Windows) or Exif Untrasher (Mac).

Good image recovery programs have a great deal of success. However, recovery is not 100% guaranteed (especially if you continue to use the card). Sometimes only a few files are recovered, or none at all. If your images are not recoverable by consumer method or your card is completely unreadable, you stand at a crossroads.

If you can part with your images, the cheapest alternative is to toss the card and get a new one. If the images on the card are of a recent event, a child’s birthday or they are for a client, consider checking the warranty of your card as some manufacturers may attempt recovering the images for you at no cost. If all hope is lost, companies like LC Technology will attempt data recovery, but at a high cost.

It is a safe practice to recycle your cards to prevent corruption in the future. When purchasing a new card (or drive), write the date you bought it somewhere on it. After about three to four years, get a new one and retire the old card. If you are in the habit of taking thousand of pictures a year, you may want to retire the card every year due to heavy use. Memory cards are cheap enough that they can be replaced twice between camera upgrades and can prevent an expensive amount of problems.

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Terms: #Formatting

Justin Heyes wants to live in a world where we have near misses and absolute hits; great love and small disasters. Starting his career as a gaffer, he has done work for QVC and The Rachel Ray Show, but quickly fell in love with photography. When he’s not building arcade machines, you can find him at local flea markets or attending car shows.

Explore his photographic endeavors here.

Website: Justin Heyes
Instagram: @jheyesphoto

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Randy Lau

    Here I suggest the Recoverit. I deleted all the photos and videos from my Canon EOS 7D, and the Recoverit help me get back these photos and videos finally. It’s great!

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  2. Colin Fray

    I will take for myself a lot of information from your article , thank you! I did not use the programs that you have to offer , but when I lost my photos from a memory card , I used the program Hetman Recovery FAT 2.5, it restored all my files . I downloaded it on this site . I had no problems with it , so I can safely recommend it .

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  3. Raymond Craig

    This is just my personal preference but I always plug in the camera to transfer files. I know it’s tempting to use the convenient card reader on your laptop or whatever, but I feel constantly sliding the card in and out of the camera slot causes too much wear over time. Doesn’t have anything to do with recovery but it may help with preventing read/write errors.

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    • Matthew Saville

      Hi Raymond, thanks for sharing your experience and input!

      On the one hand, memory cards are actually designed to withstand thousands or tens of thousands of insertions into a camera or reader. As far as the electronic contacts having a connection error for this reason alone, the chances are extremely low.

      HOWEVER, on the other hand I’ve had plenty of SD cards that had their little contact divider tabs break off, I’ve even had SD cards and CF cards that have cracked, split down the middle thin-wise if that makes sense. So heavy use itself can certainly cause catastrophic errors, if you’re rough with your memory cards. Of course I try to take very good care of my cards, it’s just that I burn through a quarter-million images per year, some years, or at least 100K per year, rotating nearly 20 cards through my cameras.

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  4. Tanya Goodall Smith

    Excellent resource article Justin.

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  5. Liam Douglas

    Disk Drill Media Recovery for OS X works nice and can be found in the Mac App Store. Great article!

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    • Justin Heyes

      I’ll have to check this one out, thanks! There are so many programs that are great at recovery its hard to fine the great from mediocre.

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  6. robert s

    I shoot with cameras with two slots. 1 will always be fine. so I just use them till they have issues.

    a card will either hang/delay when transferring or will have corrupt images that have weird colors all over. I just send it in as an rma and get a new card.

    I use transcend cards or lexard cards. I have two transcend usb 3 memory readers and they suck. get a good card. I use two kingston reader. I dont buy sandisk. they are most counterfeited cards in the market. and theyre overpriced.

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    • Matthew Saville

      Sandisk card counterfeits can easily be avoided by buying them directly from a local shop, or from a major retailer like B&H.

      The reason they’re a bit more expensive than others, (even though they’re still extremely affordable) is because they’re one of the few memory companies that actually makes the memory chips that go inside the card. Lexar, Kingston, Transcend, all those companies outsource their memory chips.

      Of course each brand has its horror stories, and stories of years of flawless performance. Some people just get lucky, other people just get un-lucky. However it is definitely possible to stack the odds in your favor. For me, that means buying Sandisk or Samsung (one of the only others that actually makes their own memory chips) cards, and cycling them from heavy use to light use over the course of a few years.

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    • robert s

      I buy from ebay from a reputable seller. I get great service from him. BH rip people off on shipping overseas.

      I dont buy sandisk because theyre overpriced. and I dont the care the reason why. performance is so high today on any of the top name brands like kingston transcend lexar that there isnt a need to buy sandisk and feel like youre getting worth.

      the days when sandisk were the reliable performer is over. there was a time years back when they were the leaders with performance and you got what you payed for. not today.

      same withOEM/3rd party flashes, same with PW/yongnuo triggers, same with battery grips. no need to pay a cent more today.

      and btw, same with oem/3rd party lenses. a pro can buy all tamron/sigma art gear and save tons of money.

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  7. Peter Nord

    Most cards have a life time warranty. Call the mfg. for replacement. I have. It works, and free.

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  8. Donald Jones

    I’ve gone through this experience…once…and that was one time too many.

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