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How I recovered 'irreplaceable' photos off an SD card for free

Here's the tool I used to recover the photos, and how you can prevent this from happening to you.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor
SD cameras on Mac next to camera

SD cards are the storage media of choice for photographers.

Virojt Changyencham/Getty Images

Usually, when someone comes to me after losing their data, my first question is, "Do you have a backup?" I know it sounds rather callous because many people won't have one, but sometimes people do, and it's a quick and easy -- and, for me, low-effort -- way to save the day.

But sometimes a backup won't help. Take this example from a local photographer who had been shooting away, and all of a sudden the camera started to play up, and some photos were lost. 

Also: What do all those microSD and SD card numbers and letters mean?

You know, the irreplaceable kind. The worst kind of photos to lose.

And there's no opportunity to make a backup, since it happened at the point it was taken. 

Having shot literally hundreds of thousands of shots -- shooting timelapse is incredibly hard on a camera -- I consider myself a bit of an expert on this kind of data loss. It's rare, but the more you press that shutter button, the more likely it is that it'll happen to you.

Also: The best cameras for photographers

Note that I've talking here about SD cards, but this works for microSD cards and USB flash drives too. It works for lost video too, but the success rate for recovering video.

How to recover lost photos off of an SD card

Close up of SD card with computer and camera in background.
Mark Swallow via Getty Images

1. Make sure your camera has saved all data to the card before shutting down the camera

OK, first off, don't panic. If your camera has a light to show that it's saving data to the card, wait for that to stop flashing and then shut down the camera and remove the card (if the light doesn't stop flashing, give it a minute, then shut it down).

2. Get PhotoRec by CGSecurity

There is a lot of recovery software out there -- some of it expensive, some of it very expensive, and some free. My tool of choice here is a free, open-source tool called PhotoRec by CGSecurity. This utility is available for a wide range of operating systems, from the usual Windows, MacOS, and Linux, to flavors for Synology and QNAP, and even MS-DOS (remember MS-DOS? I barely remember that). 

Also: The best cameras for beginners

While I'm a big fan of MacOS and Linux, if you're a beginner or someone put off by using terminals and typing commands into the command line, I recommend using the Windows version. Why? Because this has a graphical interface that makes it a lot easier to use for many.

PhotoRec running on Windows 11.

PhotoRec running on Windows 11.

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes/ZDNET
PhotoRec running on MacOS

PhotoRec running on MacOS.

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes/ZDNET

3. Start the software

To recover the data, pop in the card, fire up the software, select the media to scan and where to save it, then let it do its thing.

Also: You might be using the wrong microSD cards

How long it'll take depends on the size of the media, and it can range from under a minute to many minutes. Be patient, let it do its thing, and then you can look through what's been recovered.

I've had amazing success with this tool. And in my experience, if PhotoRec can't recover the data you've lost, nothing short of sending the media off for professional recovery will.

How do I prevent this from happening?

Good question! While you can't do anything to prevent your camera  from deciding to quit on you, here are the steps I take to minimize the possibility that I'm let down by my SD cards.

  1. Understand the jargon on your cards. Those numbers and letters and symbols all mean something. Having the right card for your camera makes all the difference (not sure what the right card is, check with your manufacturer).
  2. Use good-quality memory cards. I recommend cards by SanDisk, Lexar, ProGrade, and OWC
  3. Watch out for counterfeit cards by being wary of using third-party sellers and buying from deals that seem too good to be true. 
  4. Format your card after every use with the device it is going to be used in or with the official SD Association's SD Memory Card Formatter.
  5. If you suspect a card of being faulty, be wary of it. It's easy to think of storage cards as having an unlimited lifespan, but they are consumables that experience wear. Given that faults are so rare, if I do encounter a card that has given me trouble, I'll usually get it exchanged under warranty, or replace it. It's too critical a component to leave to chance.
  6. If your camera supports writing to two SD cards simultaneously -- such as the Sony A7IV --  then this might be a good option if you're shooting irreplaceable content. Note that there is a performance hit to doing this.
  7. Keep your camera batteries charged up and in good condition. The most common way that a camera fails to write photos to the SD card is because of a plain old dead battery. 

Why did the card fail?

So why did the card fail? 

The honest answer is, I'm not sure. After recovering the data, I gave it back to the owner. I did notice a few things. 

Also: Store your SD cards in this case to avoid losing or damaging them

First, it was quite an old 16 GB SD card. I assume it had experienced a fair bit of wear over the years. Not only was it old, but it was also a rather slow card, especially for the camera it was being run in. It's possible the hiccup was down to it not being able to keep up with the camera. 

Finally -- and this is not confirmed -- the card could have been counterfeit. I'm quite familiar with the brand in question, and to me, the printing on the label seemed off. This might have been down to the card being handled a lot, but it made me suspicious for sure.

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