Photo Recovery from a Deleted, Damaged or Formatted Digital Camera Memory Card

You may read about how to recover files on other cases:
Get Deleted Files Back
HD Video Recovery from SD cards
Recovery from an External Device with a Damaged File System
R-Undelete: File recovery from a non-functional computer

Most consumer and professional digital photo cameras store images on memory cards, such as an Secure Digital (SD) flash card or a CompactFlash card. While convenient, memory cards are often accidentally formatted (e.g. when loading them into another device) or individual photos may be inadvertently deleted by the camera or a computer. Furthermore, memory cards can become corrupted if they are ejected improperly, rendering them unreadable. These accidents happen frequently, even to advanced digital camera users. Luckily, recovering photos from digital camera memory cards - whether the photo was deleted or the card was formatted or damaged - is relatively easy with R-Undelete.

When compared to recovering lost, damaged or deleted files from other media, such as a hard disk drive, undeleting files from a memory card isn't much different. In fact, the chances for successfully recovering files from digital camera memory cards is often higher due to three typical features: memory cards tend to be smaller in capacity (32 GB or less); files on the card are usually not fragmented; and memory cards tend to contain only photos and movies.

In this article, we’ll walk you through two of the most common scenarios. First, we'll show you how to use R-Undelete to recover photos that were accidentally deleted from a memory card. We'll also show you how to recover photos after a memory card has been formatted, or if the file system on the card has been damaged. In most cases, files can even be recovered even if the card is unreadable by a computer or digital camera.

Before You Begin
The first thing you should do after accidentally deleting photos or formatting a memory card is to stop using it immediately. Writing to a card, and even reading from a card, can overwrite your salvageable data, decreasing your chances for a successful recovery. Avoid using the card until your undelete efforts have been exhausted.

If you haven't already, download and install a copy of R-Undelete. If the size of the SD card is 32GB or smaller, the card is almost surely formatted as a FAT32 volume. R-Undelete doesn't need to be registered to recover files from FAT32 devices. If the card is larger that 32GB, it is formatted as an exFAT volume, and you have to register R-Undelete to recover files. You can also use the Demo Mode of R-Undelete for free in order to evaluate your chances for successful recovery of your photos from the exFAT - formatted SD card. The Demo Mode of R-Undelete allows you to perform all the file recovery tasks available in the registered version; the only limitation is that you cannot save files larger than 256 KB. If you aren't ready to purchase a license yet, follow these steps using the Demo Mode to see if it's possible for you to recover your deleted photos from your memory card. If so, you can register on the fly without stopping file recovery.

Also, before we begin, it's worth knowing a bit about how digital photos are stored on memory cards. Your digital camera will typically create an automatically generated file/folder structure. This varies from camera-to-camera, but in general, it includes a number and the camera manufacturer. For example, here's a screenshot of a file/folder structure created by a Canon digital camera:
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If the camera were a Nikon, the folders may be named something like 100NIKON, 200NIKON, etc. Recognizing these patterns is one of the ways that R-Undelete increases your chances of recovering deleted photos.

Once you have R-Undelete installed on your machine, you can insert the card into a card reader connected to your computer. You can use an external card reader that connects via USB, or use a built-in card reader on your computer's tower (or on your laptop) or on your printer. Once inserted, your computer will recognize the card and will display it as a disk on the R-Undelete panel.

Note: If the card's file system is damaged, it may not appear in the R-Undelete panel as a logical disk. In this case file recovery may still be possible; skip down to the Recovering Photos from Damaged or Formatted Memory Cards section for details.

Recovering Deleted Photos
Digital photos can be deleted by your computer or by the camera itself. In either case, deleted photos can typically be recovered wholly intact. For this tutorial, we'll assume that nothing has been written to the card since the accidental deletion occurred. While it may still be possible to recover photos after using the card after a deletion, your chances are much greater if you attempt an undelete procedure as soon as possible.

1. Launch R-Undelete. In the Select Disk panel, choose your memory card's drive letter by checking the box next to it. You can usually recognize a memory card by its size (~1 GB to 32 GB, rather than 80 GB or more, like a hard drive) and the device it's listed under (e.g. SD/MMC). Click the Next button.
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2. Select “Fast search for lost files.” Click Next.
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3. Mark files for recovery
R-Undelete will show you a list of the existing and deleted files on your memory card. You can select only the files you want to recover of select an entire folder by checking the box next to it in the left-hand panel.
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To preview the contents of a file, simply double-click it. This will show you a preview of the recovered file, which helps you gauge your chances of a successful recovery.
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File Mask and Filtering
If you are recovering photos from a particularly large memory card, or if you are looking for a specific photo on your memory card, you may find the File Mask feature particularly helpful. This lets you narrow down the results that R-Undelete shows you so you can find certain photos quickly.

For example, by default, R-Undelete shows existing and deleted photos. But you can limit it to showing you only deleted photos by following these steps:

  1. Click the File Mask button.
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  2. From the drop-down menu, choose "All Files:". Next, clear the "Existing files" and leave the "Deleted files" box checked. You can also clear "Show empty folders" option to hide folders that don't contain the types of files we are looking for (optional).
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  3. Click Ok. Now, R-Undelete shows us only deleted files. And if you mark the entire folder, only deleted files will be marked for recovery.
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Sorting Files
The "Sorted by:" toolbar along the bottom of the panel can also be helpful. For example, if you want to sort the photos by date taken, click the "Creation Time" tab.
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This will sort your deleted files in ascending or descending order by date.
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To restore the normal file/folder structure, click "Real" on the "Sorted by:" toolbar.

You can also use the Find/Mark feature to systematically locate and preview deleted photos prior to marking them for recovery. Again, this is helpful for larger memory cards with hundreds of photos. To use this feature:

  1. Click the File Mask button.
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  2. Select the parameters for the files you want R-Undelete to prompt you with. In this example, we'll set it up to scan all files on our memory card (F:\) and to show us only deleted files (see screenshot). Also, we'll have R-Undelete start with the first matched file and then move sequentially through them ("Find first matched file" under Find/Mark mode).
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  3. R-Undelete will start searching until it finds the first deleted file that matches our criteria. Preview the file and, if desired, mark it for recovery. To continue searching, click the Find Next button. To go back to a previous file, click Find Previous.
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This is just one way to use the Find/Mark feature. You can learn more about Find/Mark options on the R-Undelete online help.

Once you've marked all the files you want to recover using the methods outlined above, click Next to move on to the next dialog box.

4. Specify Recover Options
Select the output folder for the recovered files. IMPORTANT: Do not try to save the recovered files onto the same memory card from which you are recovering the files. This can cause recovery to fail permanently, resulting in a complete loss of the deleted files. Instead, choose another disk, such as your hard drive, a network drive or another memory card.
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The Advanced Recovery Options are optional. If you are not sure what they do, leave them blank. You can learn more about Advanced Recovery Options on the R-Undelete online help.

Click Recover. In most cases where deleted files are being recovered, the "Broken File Name" dialog box will appear at this point. This simply means that there are invalid characters in the filenames. Select "Change all invalid symbols to:" and choose a character to replace the invalid characters (default is $). Click "Rename All" and R-Undelete will fix all the broken file names.
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R-Undelete will start file recovery. You can see the progress of the overall procedure, as well as other details, such as the number of files recovered, the current file being recovered and the outcome of each operation.
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When the file recovery is completed, R-Undelete will show its results.
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Photo recovery is complete. To view your file, navigate to the output folder you selected in Step 4 and attempt to open the recovered photos in Windows Explorer or another image viewer.

Recovering Photos from Damaged or Formatted Memory Cards
There are two ways for photos to be lost from a memory card: deleting them one by one, or by formatting the memory card. Memory cards can be formatted by a computer or a camera, and is typically done to prepare it for use by the device. Before formatting a memory card, you'll be warned that this will completely erase the contents of the disk. But depending on the type of format you perform and how quickly you act, you can still recover photos that were previously written to that card even after it has been reformatted. Your chances of recovering deleted photos from a formatted memory card are greatest when a quick format has been performed. A quick format does not alter the contents of the card - it merely clears the file system to allow other devices or programs to overwrite your files. So, as long as no new data is written to your card, you should be able to recover 100% of your old photos on a quick formatted memory card. Likewise, if a file system is corrupted or damaged, rendering the card unreadable (e.g. due to unsafely removing the disk while it was being accessed), you can recover the photos from it using R-Undelete, even when Windows Explorer or The Finder can't recognize the card. Instead of relying on the card's file system to locate photos, R-Undelete can perform a " raw file search" to scan for known file types. R-Undelete will search for file signatures, which are like the fingerprint for certain types of files, and using these file signatures will be able to recover intact files.

Note: While the chances for successful recovery are very high with quick formats and formats performed by most cameras, full formats, secure formats and other advanced disk wiping processes may render the files irrecoverable. Again, you can estimate your chances for recovery using the R-Undelete preview feature before registering.

1. Select disk
Unlike above, where we selected the logical disk (F:\), we'll be selecting the card reader device itself (SD/MMCCardReader1.00) for the raw file search. Your card reader may have a different name. Check the box next to it and click Next.
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Note: If the memory card is damaged and cannot be detected, there will be no disk letter beneath your card reader device. You can still select the card reader and click Next to proceed with the recovery process.

2. Select action
Select "Detailed scan for lost files." Check "Enable File Types:".
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Click the "Known File Types" button. For this tutorial, we'll only be looking for jpg files, since we know that our camera saves photos in this format. By limiting our search to just jpg files, we can increase the speed and accuracy of the scan.

Note: Most point-and-shoot digital cameras use the jpg format, but if you have a professional camera that uses a RAW image file type, you should enable that option as well. Check your camera's settings or manual to verify which file type you are looking for.

You can find the JPEG Image known file type by expanding the "Graphics, Picture" folder.
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After selecting the JPEG image type, you'll likely be prompted with a message asking you if you'd like to enable dependent definitions. Click Yes.
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Next, Click OK on the Known File Types dialog box to return to the Select Action window. Click Next.

3. Detailed scan for lost files
The scan will begin. You'll be able to see R-Undelete's progress as it searches for file signatures. This may took a while, depending on the size of your card, the parameters you chose and the speed of your computer.
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When the scan is complete, R-Undelete will show the results. Review them and click Next.
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4. Mark files for recovery
Next, R-Undelete will show you the files that the scan found.
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Mark the files you wish to recover. You can use the same search techniques described in Step 3 of the Recovering Deleted Photos section above. Again, you can preview a file by double-clicking it to estimate the level of recovery you can achieve.
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If a file cannot be recovered, you won't see a preview. Instead, you'll see a message indicating that the file is damaged or unsupported.
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In these cases, the file is usually damaged beyond recovery. Click Cancel to move on.

Before clicking Next, make sure to examine the "Extra Found Files" section by clicking it on the left. These are the results of your scan for known file types procedure. Typically, the more damaged the card is, the more files you'll find in the Extra Found Files Section.

When we need to look at the Extra Found Files section.
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As you will notice, the original file names of files recovered using scan for known file types cannot be recovered. As such, R-Undelete will assign them new file names. Preview them to see if they are the photos you are looking for.
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Note: It's worthwhile to pay attention to the file size of a photo. Many cameras will store thumbnails or previews of the full quality images. They will show up with very small file sizes, usually around 6 KB. While these may appear intact in the preview, these usually aren't worth recovering.

In most cases where a memory card was accidentally formatted, you'll want to recover all of the photos. So, we'll go ahead and mark all of the files on the card for recovery.
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Click Next.

5. Specify recover options
Choose an output folder. Remember: avoid saving recovered files on the same card that you are recovering them from. Leave the "Advanced recovery options" at their default settings and click Recover.
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Click Next.

Once again, you may see the "Broken File Name" dialog box.
Select the "Change all invalid symbols to:" option and click Rename All.
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R-Undelete will start file recovery, showing its progress.
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When the file recovery is complete, R-Undelete will show its results.
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To view your recovered files, navigate to the output folder and attempt to open them using your default image viewer.

It's all too easy to accidentally delete photos from a memory card, whether it's due to accidental deletion of one or two files or an unintentional reformat. Fortunately, it's relatively easy to recover photos from a memory card using R-Undelete. R-Undelete offers two powerful file recovery methods that are perfectly tailored to these scenarios. The "fast search for lost files" lets you undelete photos before they are overwritten, while the raw file search allows you to access photos even if the file system has been deleted or damaged. So, before you panic, before you pay a technician hundreds of dollars, and above all, before you begin writing new data to the card, run these scans on the card using R-Undelete to see if your lost photos and videos can be recovered. You can even use the Demo Version for free to estimate your chances of recovery before registering.

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