How to recover your lost photos

At one point or another many photographers will inadvertently loose some photos either by a hardware/software failure or user error. Either way it can be a horrible experience. Hopefully you are backing up on a regular basis so to not loose your entire photo collection. The one problem with photo backup is that you have to get the photos to your computer to back them up. What happens if you are out in the field and accidentally delete one of your memory cards? Depending on the size of the card you may have lost hundreds of photos. Luckily, more than likely you can still recover all of the lost photos.

There are many photo recovery tools out there today, many cost money and a few are free. I always prefer free even if the software is a little hard to understand at first glance. I’ve spent time and time again looking for a good and free solution for photo recovery and I finally found something. PhotoRec is a free open source project that is designed to recover your lost files from a hard drive or memory card. It is also available for many operating systems including Windows, Linux and Mac.

To test the software out I took a 512MB memory card and formatted it in the camera, deleting all of the photos. Also note that previous to formatting, the camera reported the card as being about half way full. Now that we have a freshly formatted card, lets see how PhotoRec does as far as recovering those photos.

Drive Select 

As you can see from the screenshot above this is not your typical looking Windows application. If you remember the days of DOS it will look much more like a DOS application than your traditional Windows program. You must use the keyboard to navigate around the application but luckily for us it is fairly straight forward.

The first window that comes up will ask you what drive you have your memory card in. You should be able to recognize the drive by the size PhotoRec reports back. You may also find the label of the drive helpful as well. In my situation I needed to select the third option which was reported as a 512 MB drive with the label of Generic Flash HS-CF.

Partition Select 

The next window asks for the partition table type. If you are using a Windows PC like I am, you should select the Intel option.

Partition Type

Next up is the partition you want it to search in. If you are using a memory card you most likely will only have two options here. The entire disk and the partition your camera makes. My camera is a Canon 10d and you can see in the screenshot that the camera has labeled the partition as EOS_DIGITAL. This is usually the name of the drive that shows up in Windows when you first put your memory card in the computer.

File System Select

Now you need to tell PhotoRec what type of filesystem it is. Again if you are using Windows it will be the “Other” option.

Search Options

Now it will ask if you want to search the entire card or just the free space of the card. If you still have photos that you can see on the card you can choose to only look in the free space. If you want to be sure it finds everything possible, you may want to tell it to search everything.

Recovery Location

The next thing you need to do is tell PhotoRec where you want to put the files it finds. Once you are in the directory you would like the files to be copied to you can press the “Y” button to indicate Yes this is where I want my recovered files to go.

Recovery Status

Now you can sit back and wait for the files to be copied. Once the program is finished copying the files over you can go to the folder you specified to take a look at them.

Recovered Files

Here you can see the deleted files it was able to retrieve. It was not only able to recover the files I had just deleted but also files that had been deleted many months ago. As long as you have not used up the space that that your old photos had used the program should be able to recover them. This is an important point to realize. If you accidentally format your memory card, do not shoot any new photos to it. The old files are still there but once you start taking new photos it will start using up the space the old photos reside on removing the capability of recovering them.

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