How to Recover Photos from a Corrupted Flash Card

Having just gotten home from one of my best photo tours ever, I couldn’t wait to upload the photos to my computer and start editing, so I stick the CF memory card into my card reader, connect the reader to my computer and…nothing! I mean absolutely NOTHING!!! Not a single photo! Actually, my computer wants to format the card… I put the card back into the camera.. STILL NOTHING! Now my camera shows an error and also wants to format the card! Absolute worst-case scenario for a photographer (not really true: worst case would be if that had happened having just flown home from a great vacation, trying to upload the photos taken during the vacations…)! Anyway, bad enough! I was shell-shocked, almost paralyzed. Didn’t even want to deal with the problem until next day. That’s when I remembered that a corrupted hard drive (or in this case, flash card) doesn’t necessarily mean that the actual files or photographs are gone or destroyed, it could just mean that the operating system doesn’t know how to access them. So I did some Internet searches and came across a tool called TestDisk. Part of the TestDisk set of tools is a utility called PhotoRec, which specifically recovers photos and videos from flash cards like mine (my Canon EOS 7D uses CF cards). Downloaded the zip file, unpacked it with 7zip, started PhotoRec as administrator, selected the CF card that I had put back into the card reader and conntected to my computer, and…the big moment…..would it find my photos??? YES! It was picking up the lost photos (RAW and JPG) one by one! Big kudos to Christophe Grenier, the developer of TestDisk and PhotoRec! Both TestDisk and PhotoRec are free to use for non-commercial purposes, but I quickly donated 10 Euro using Paypal.

The photos you see on this post and the ones from my trip to Fisherman’s Bastion were among the ones recovered.

A couple of notes regarding data recovery tools for corrupted hard drives or flash cards:

  • If you find yourself in a situation like the one described above, don’t format the disk/card and start shooting, because you’ll overwrite the data you intend to recover.
  • The PhotoRec utility recovers everything it finds on the card. In my case, it recovered images more than 6 months old. While it recover file names in my case, it did recover the dates when the images were taken, so sorted the recovered files first by type (I was only interested in the RAW files, not in some of the JPG thumbnails my camera seems to generate als0) and then by date to find the photos I had not uploaded to my computer yet.
  • If you ever sell your flash card, make sure that you don’t only format the card, since the images won’t actually get deleted and could be recovered using the tools described here, but OVERWRITE THE ENTIRE CARD with picture bursts e.g. of your kitchen floor.

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