How to recover deleted photos from your SD card

Summary:It's happened to the best of us. Whether your digital camera fell into the wrong (toddler's) hands, or you had a momentary lapse of eye-hand coordination when faced with a "Delete All" message, chances are you or someone you know has accidentally deleted precious photos from a camera's memory card.

[Updated: July 7, 2009 @ 3:15 pm] It's happened to the best of us. Whether your digital camera fell into the wrong (toddler's) hands, or you had a momentary lapse of eye-hand coordination when faced with a "Delete All" message, chances are you or someone you know has accidentally deleted precious photos from a camera's memory card.

Relax. Chances are good that you can recover those files, as long as you haven't taken any more photos or written anything else to the card.

As I mentioned in a post on this topic last year, the simple delete command on most cameras just marks the space on a memory card as being available for use rather than overwriting the actual space on the card. As long as you don't record anything new onto the card, previously deleted photos should be relatively easy to recover using a file recovery utility. You should even be able to recover photos from a reformatted memory card as long as you used a standard format command rather than a low-level format. (A low-level format not only deletes all the data on the card, but it also recreates the directories and folder structure of the card, rendering previously deleted files unrecoverable.)

An online search will turn up a plethora of file-recovery utilities, many of which offer a free version that will show you a preview of files that can be recovered, but require you to buy the software to do the actual recovery. But for your typical accidentally deleted files (i.e., those that are just due to user error, rather than disk corruption issues and the like), there are also plenty of free applications that will do the trick.

Two of my current favorites are Pandora Recovery 2.1.1 and Recover Files 2.1, both Windows-based applications. Both utilities have relatively user friendly interfaces, but I prefer Pandora Recovery which uses wizards to step you through the process, making file recovery super simple. Pandora Recovery was able to recover all my deleted photos as well as video files that had been recorded to the card. The standalone version of Pandora Recovery is a free download, but the company also offers "portable" version of the utility called Pandora Mobile Recovery, which doesn't require installation onto a computer and is sold on a 1GB USB thumb drive for a sale price of $19.95 until the end of July (regular price is $39.95).

There are fewer free options available for Mac users, but I tried out two: CG Security's PhotoRec 6.3 6.11.3 and German Web developer Carsten Blüm's Exif Untrasher. PhotoRec is relatively simple to use, though it's a Terminal application, which might be daunting to the less technically inclined.  Furthermore, it doesn't recover RAW or video files, so if you deleted those, you'll want to check out Exif Untrasher instead. [Updated: The latest version of PhotoRec (6.11.3) does recover video files and RAW format files.] Both applications worked as advertised, though Exif Untrasher's interface was decidedly more user friendly.

What recovery applications have you used successfully? Talkback and let us know.

Topics: Web development, Hardware

About

Janice Chen is an editorial consultant and has been covering technology for over two decades. Serving as editor in chief at CNET and Computer Shopper magazine for many years, she oversaw product coverage for the CNET and ZDNet websites. She has appeared on most of the major morning TV news programs and was featured weekly on CNN Headline... Full Bio

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