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Recovering Lost Images from Digital Media

by E.J. Peiker | September 1, 2004

Several times a week I receive panic emails from digital photographers stating that the photos they took are not readable on their flash card. Either they accidentally formatted a card before downloading pictures from it, removed the card before the camera was done writing, the flash card encountered a glitch, or, it actually failed. Fortunately, in the vast majority of cases, all or at least most of the photos are easily recovered if you know exactly what to do. Even cards that have become damaged can often have many of the images onboard recovered.

In my opinion, all digital photographers should have the program PhotoRescue (www.datarescue.com/photorescue). The latest incarnation of this program is version 2.0 Build 657. It is the most comprehensive program on the market for rebuilding image files as it recognizes all current digital photograph file types. The program can be purchased online with a current cost of $29.00 which includes one year of updates. Unfortunately, the documentation for this program really does not help you get the most out of it. Here is a workflow that will give you the highest possible chance of recovering all the lost photos. Please note that this process may be applied to restoring data from CompactFlash cards, microdrives, and other digital media.

Most importantly, stop using the card immediately as soon as you realize something is wrong. By preventing further writing to the card, you won’t be further damaging what’s already on the card. Upon realizing you’ve just formatted a card with photos you still need to access, don’t worry; the pictures are still there, only the file allocation table has been erased. But if you start using the card, you are likely to lose some of the images as they will be overwritten by new ones. Even if this should happen, only the photos that were overwritten are no longer available; the others are still salvageable.

Once you realize that you have images that you can’t retrieve for whatever reason, take the following steps to recover them:

  1. After inserting the card into its reader, be sure not to write to the card. Most people try to do the data recovery directly on the card. Not only is this very slow, it is also dangerous since you will be writing directly to the card, thereby manipulating the data on it. Should something go wrong during the recovery process you may lose some or all data forever. After the card is connected to the computer, launch PhotoRescue, click “OK” on the opening screen, and then click “cancel” on the initial dialog box.
  2. Click on File > Duplicate Card. This puts a mirror image of all of the data currently on the flash card bit by bit onto your computer hard drive. All future operations will be done on the data that has been copied to the hard drive. The data on the flash card will then be untouched in the event you need to restart the process.
  3. On the dialog box that pops up after Step 2, select “Physical Drive,” “Determine Cache Size,” and “Cache Input.” The default file name is fine, just remember what it is so you can access it during the recovery process. At this point, the bit by bit contents of the flash card are written to the specified file on the hard drive, making an exact mirror image of your flash card on your computer. Of course you need to have enough disk space available to copy the entire contents of the card. Once the file has been duplicated, the flash card is no longer accessed or needed for the recovery procedure.
  4. When the program is done duplicating the file, select File > Analyze Drive and select the “File” button. Place checkmarks in the “Determine Card Size” and “Cache Input” boxes, then select the filename that was created in Step 3. Now click “OK” and the recovery process will start. This can take several minutes for a larger card and a long time for a damaged card as the program tries multiple ways to access data from memory addresses that are corrupt.
  5. Once the recovery process is complete, click on “Continue” and select the “No Thank You” button when it asks if you want to try the recovery with expert mode. In my experience, Expert Mode is not necessary 99.9% of the time. If your images are not recreated in the standard mode, you may redo this entire sequence and select “Yes” for Expert Mode, but it is unlikely that it will make any difference.
  6. At this point your images with previews should appear on the screen, although they probably will have different filenames than those your camera typically assigns. Copy them to a safe folder and rename them if you prefer. Your images are restored!

Unless you accidentally formatted the card or removed it from the camera while data was still writing, you may want to do some tests on your flash card at this point to make sure that it isn’t defective. This is easily done by shooting an entire card full of images and then seeing if they can be read.

With PhotoRescue in your toolbox, you can rest easy that you are not likely to lose photos, even in catastrophic situations like an accidental reformat, removing the flash card before the camera is done writing to it, or even in the case of a flash card failure. For $29.00, it is a very cheap insurance policy that can save the day.

About the Author

E.J. was born in 1960 in Augsburg, Germany and moved to Ohio in 1969. He attended Purdue University and earned a Bachelor's Degree in Electrical Engineering and completed graduate studies in Microelectronics and Semiconductor Physics. After working for the Intel Corporation for 27 years, he is now retired from the electronics industry and is a professional freelance photographer. E.J. and has formally studied photography at the University of New Mexico and completed courses from The Rocky Mountain School of Photography. E.J. has two sons, and has lived in Chandler, Arizona since 1994. A photographic specialty is artistic images of ducks and E.J. has published the book Ducks of North America - The Photographer's Guide. E.J. is also prolific in landscape photography, his first photographic love. E.J.'s photographs have been published worldwide in books, advertising, magazines, billboards, murals and more. Some of his publishers and clients include The National Geographic Society, World Wildlife Fund, The United States National Parks Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, the United States Navy, State Parks Arizona, Barrons, and Dorling Kindersley. New Zealand Post honored E.J. by making one of his penguin images the primary image for their 2014 Commemorative Antarctica Ross Dependency Stamp set. He has also been named one of the top 100 Wildlife Photographers in the world by Eastern Europe's Digital Photographer Magazine. Visit his website at: www.ejphoto.com.

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