What to Do When You Lose Your Photos on Your Memory Card

So there I was Friday night shooting down at Mike Arrington’s biggest Web 2.0 tech meet and greet of the year, TechCrunch 9. After filling up one 8 GB card I went to my car to get my second 8 GB card and also to begin transferring the shots from my first 8 GB card (both SanDisks by the way) onto my Mac.

But a strange thing happened. When I plugged my USB card reader into my Mac, my Mac froze. And there was no getting it unstuck. For about 5 minutes I tried. Finally I rebooted my Mac. When I rebooted my Mac I went to copy my images from the card to the Mac and they were gone. The card was empty. All my shots disappeared.

The card read 7.8 GB available and none of my shots were there.

Now this has happened to me in the past before so I thought I’d write up a little post on what to do if you lose photos on your memory card. There’s lots of ways you can lose photos on a memory card. The card can malfunction. You might accidentally erase some of your photos. Your kids might accidentally erase some of your photos. You might even accidentally *reformat* your entire card. But don’t go too crazy. In general your images are rarely ever truly gone and it’s just going to take a bit of work to get them back.

1. Don’t panic. Like I said. You will probably be able to get the shots back. Don’t let it ruin whatever you are doing or shooting.

2. Once you know that you need to recover photos from a card stop using that card immediately. Don’t try to reformat it. Don’t reuse it. Put it away and wait until you get home where you can try recovery. If you do keep shooting with the card you might overwrite some of the data and be unable to recover some of your photos.

3. When you get home run DataRescue’s PhotoRescue. You can download and run this software for free on your memory card.

4. If PhotoRescue can recover your images they will show you the thumbnails of the images. At this point you will need to buy the software if you want to use it to actually recover your images. The software cost’s $29 but usually this is a small price to pay to have all of your images back.

I used PhotoRescue on Saturday to get back all of the shots that I took at Arrington’s big party and it worked like a charm.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Or you can just use ZAR. It’s free.


    It’s saved my ass at least twice when PhotoShop Album screwed up the import process…

  2. Bryan "Accident" Socha says:

    I can’t tell you how common your story is.. Actually, where I work we had replaced tens of thousands of dollars of beta decks before we found out a mac was blowing them out..

    I’ve seen too many external storage devices destroyed by macs now to trust them with anything that isn’t replaceable. I always plug that stuff into a pc first and transfer a copy to the mac to work on.

  3. Bryan "Accident" Socha says:

    I can’t tell you how common your story is.. Actually, where I work we had replaced tens of thousands of dollars of beta decks before we found out a mac was blowing them out..

    I’ve seen too many external storage devices destroyed by macs now to trust them with anything that isn’t replaceable. I always plug that stuff into a pc first and transfer a copy to the mac to work on.

  4. Kevin Devin says:

    Happened to me as well not too long ago — blogged about it here -> http://www.friendsintech.com/index.php/archives/166

    In my case, the software I used too was free, but Windows only.

    I’ll have to give this piece of software a spin since there is a Mac version available.


  5. Greg Furry says:

    Thanks Thomas. Now tell me what to do when you switch memory cards in the middle of a wedding and the first card vanishes from the face of the earth. Just did that a couple weeks back. Glad I was just shooting for fun and not the “official” photographer.

    Even though probably can’t help me. Thanks for the other tip. I have used it before and it works great.

  6. Andy Frazer says:

    Thanks, Thomas. This is great to know in case it ever happens to me.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I thought the best part was when the mac locked up.

  8. i have a sandisk 8GB extreme III or something like that and it comes with image recovery software. It works well. I had trouble a few times, finally sorted out that it was my card reader that was causing the problem.

  9. Mike Hedge says:

    great post as usual. Glad you got your photos back.

    Have you ever had the experience of your 5D (I’m on the 30D) randomly start numbering your image folders different from before?

    mine jumped from 107CANON to 176CANON in the DCIM folder.

    The 30D will shoot 10,000 photos before it automatically starts a new folder.

  10. phototristan says:

    BTW, some Sandisk memory cards come with photo restore software free (on a little mini CD-ROM in the box). It works just as well as PhotoRescue.

  11. Definitely, the most important thing to do is immediately pull the memory card. Don’t shoot more pictures, play with the files, move files, or do anything else on the computer except run the recovery app. Every time a file is moved, added or deleted the file structure can change and overwrite the data that is “deleted” but still actually there waiting to be re-used. Glad you got your photos back Thomas.

  12. Ian Crane says:

    about a month ago i took pictures with friends visiting from out of town. i stayed up most of the night till i found the rescue software you just mentioned. i felt like a god when it worked! of course, the next day as we were touring alcatraz and i was on 3 hrs sleep, i didnt feel too god-like.

  13. rick says:

    ok – but what do you do when you Mac, PC, and camera cannot read the memory card? Recover is good but that requires that the card is readable right?

    I’ve have multiple experiences where the card becomes unreadable. I think I have figured out that this is happening when I do not pay attention and pull the card out of the camera while the power is on. Of course I don’t want to test this but I think that is what is going on.

    It has happened to me several times. It’s expensive and worse, my photo’s are gone.

  14. Mr. Emily says:

    I’ve found that reformatting the cards in the camera lends itself to a more difficult data recovery.

    Since moving to “deleting” the images when connected to the computer I’ve yielded much more complete data recovery.

  15. Alternatively, try the freeware PC Inspector smart recovery, works like a charm too.

  16. Anonymous says:

    What is this? A Mac freezing up? Are you suggesting that Macs just might be vunerable to problems and errors just like all the lower class pc computers out there? This can’t be! What am I going to do? My entire value system is crumbling! Truth and fiction, good and evil, right and wrong, they no longer exist. It is all meaningless now.

  17. Gerard says:

    I agree 100% with PhotoRescue as being a lifesaver. It bailed me out after 7 or 8 similar programs did not. (Including ZAR, PhotoRec, Inspector, etc.) I only wish I had found PhotoRescue earlier. Allowing one to actually SEE the thumbnails before having to buy the program is a great touch. If you see the thumbnails, they guarantee full-size recovery. While I didn’t get complete recovery – PhotoRescue recovered 67 out of 71 files. I had already overwritten the few others without realizing there had been a problem. These were photos from my daughter’s trip to Vegas. You have no idea how happy I was that PhotoRescue came through for us!

  18. Anonymous says:

    Thanks Gerard, from photorescue. Haha

  19. Anonymous says:

    This has happened to me on my PC several times (XP and now Vista)…anyone know possible causes?

  20. socrtwo says:

    Some more information on freeware for recovering deleted camera image files. I saw a post in a Newsgroup by Pierre from PhotoRescue, to the tune that they use 12 and counting (in 2002!) different algorithms to recover images, so you may want to start with their trialware and see where the bar is at, before trying freeware.

    Also not to plug my own site or anything, but it’s here. I have freeware links to recover data from adverse conditions due to corrupt or deleted files, failing disks, or lost passwords. It’s bad enough the data is not available, having to pay money to get it back does not have to be a compounding issue in all circumstances.

    Here are the free camera/memory stick recovery programs I know about. They include the three already mentioned:
    * Exif Untrasher, freeware Mac OS X camera card undeleter ! (Software no longer works with OS 10.1 or 10.2 only higher versions)
    * Sony Memory Rescue Service – Says it’s a service, but last I checked it’s just a program that first makes sure you are trying to recover a Sony brand memory disks, by asking for a model and serial number of the card. However when it has done that it works quite nicely.
    * Recuva
    * Digital Image Recovery’s last freeware version
    * Vaioft Recovery Manager
    * DataRecovery
    * PicaJet Photo Recovery
    * Smart FAT Recovery
    * Smart Flash Recovery
    * Roadkil’s Unstoppable Copier will make an “disk image” (not to be confused with a picture image) of your memory card, warts and all. If I understand correctly, this “disk image” includes every bit on the disk that is physically available (not physically damaged).
    * JPEG-Recover takes a disk image file like that from Unstoppable Copier and parses (or divides) the raw data into JPEG images looking for the tell-tale start and end file signatures of jpeg images within the raw bits of the disk image file. This is slightly advanced and can take time, but works well.
    * Zero Assumption Digital Image Recovery. Free Image recovery is possible as part of the freeware section of the program ZAR (v. 8.2 at this point).
    * PC Inspector Smart Media RecoveryIs this a repackaging of Digital Image Recovery? See above for link to Digital Image Recovery Version 1.47.
    * PhotoRec
    * DNG Recover – Off topic…this software recovers pixels on edges of images. These extra pixels are normally removed by cameras.

  21. socrtwo says:

    Correction you can download the earlier version of Exif Untrasher to be able to recover files in Mac OS 10.1 and 10.2.

  22. Anonymous says:

    ya but my hole card isnt working and im going nuts…..i dont no what to do my pc and my phone dont read it…

  23. TranceMist says:

    Wow. You filled an 8gb card at a party? Jebus, even with a 5D in RAW that’s one hell of a lot of pictures.

  24. mac.n.tux says:

    I bought PhotoRescue eons ago to save a bunch of photos from a card that was accidentally wiped clean by another camera (the wife’s).

    I thought it was an expensive investment but after running it again last week (this time my sister’s cybershot deleted all photos after connecting it to Linux), I figured it is an investment that already paid for itself. 🙂

  25. mac.n.tux says:

    Checked ZAR but it is Windows only. bleeh! 😀

  26. Merah says:

    i accidentally press ‘format’ on my camera and now the pics are all gone. Can I still recover the pics? If so, what software do you recommend in this situation? Thanks.

  27. Merah says:

    i accidentally press’ format’on my digital camera. Am I still able to recover my pixs? If so, what software do you recommend using because of ” reformat” incident? Thanks.

  28. erin says:

    i have literally spent all day trying everyone of these, and they are horrible. i got nothing, and since i’m not a computer wiz i seriously didn’t know how to use 3 of them. the easiest and best one i think is photosrecovery.com

    i just tried it and i got stuff i had formatted and possibly written over. it’s ridiculously easy, and i’m just saying to save other people’s time, now i gotta go and uninstall 5 programs on my comp

    good luck!

  29. IPK says:


    I recently went on a month long trip and took tons of photos. I was emptying my memory card into flash drives as they get full. However the first time, my friend did the copying for me in a net cafe. After couple of weeks, while I was dumping other pics to the same drive, I realized the most of my photos are missing. By then I have emptied the memory card twice and formatted it.

    I know its too late, I tried using several softwares to recover it, but of no use. Please let me know if I can do anything to get them.

  30. xenia says:

    Hi.. i was wondering if you can recover your photos when you format the memory card by accident? please help me if you know any program for this.

  31. Garry M says:

    Recently, my 5D was dispalying images without a problem. When I downloaded the images most were missing, and the ones there couldn’t be opened. I put the card back in the camera, but the images could no longer be viewed.

    Corporate function…scary.

    I didn’t panic. It was a Lexar card, but their software crashed while using it – several times. Sandisk’s software worked fine, and I was able to recover all the images.

    Never had a problem with my mac while downloaded though.

    The card seems fine now, but I’m afraid to trust it again. What are the chances of a repeat occurance with this same card?

  32. leoseo says:

    If you have problems with your memory card in 80% of all cases the controller of your card is damaged and no software or card reader can help. You must separate the memory chip and dump the raw data to recover your data, look here: CF xD SD MMC memory card/stick photo recovery

  33. Just had a colleague come to me with a full 8Gb SanDisk card that was reporting it needed formatting when trying to read it from any PC. I remembered Thomas’ post from way back about recovering data from these cards, and sure enough when I found it, and tried PhotoRescue, it worked a charm.

    I suspect it may come in handy in the future too now I’ve bought it.

  34. troy says:

    argghhh. i formatted by accident yesterday and cant get my images back. have tried literally dozens of programs with no luck.

    i am on a pc. could use a mac if needed.
    i am running the card in camera via USB to my pc. does that matter?

  35. Brandi says:

    Hey guys, I just experienced the same problem today… I have a larger memory card and keep photos on there even after I upload them on the computer… took a family portrait session today and could see the pictures fine… when I got home I had troubles with Iphoto reading the card so I pulled it out. I think that’s where my issue was… I was scared to touch it so I took it to wolf camera and they ran it for 39 dollars but nothing showed up… said sector was unreadable they are going to run the expert software or something. I have about 2,000 photos on it…. new card used the passed 6 months or less. I only need the family portraits back.
    I just don’t understand… how can I not get them???

    I was pretty confident from reading past experiences of other people that they’d be able to recover most of the pictures… but none??? : (

    If anyone knows how on earth I can get the photos that would be a HUGE help… I have never had this problem before.