8 mins

How to recover lost photos

Corrupt memory card? Accidentally deleted a photo? You'll be surprised how easy it is to recover your precious images

Error Message (Peter Moore)

I’d just spent ten minutes photographing a temporary art installation of giant brightly-coloured Chupa-Chups in the park in front of the Berliner Dom. If I faced east, and ducked down a little, I could get the Fernsehturm tower in the shot as well, an olive on a toothpick among the oversized neon-hued sweets.

Well, that was the plan. But when I looked down at the screen on my camera to check my shots I saw an error message instead. ‘Cannot create folder’, it blinked at me. ‘Format card to use with this camera.’

My memory card had been corrupted. I didn’t know how or when –  I couldn’t check because my camera was insistent on formatting my memory card. All I knew was that all my precious photos from the past few days were gone. My daughter rugged up in a blanket that every café in Berlin seems to hand out. The family shot of us standing beside one of the remaining sections of the wall. The picture of my first ever currywurst. My heart sank.

I took out the memory card, put in my spare one and decided to deal with it later. Here's what I discovered when I got back home:

Don’t format your card

Take it out and keep it aside until you can get back to your computer. Every time something gets written back to your card, you lessen the chances of getting all your photos back. 

Having said that, formatting your card can sometimes  help you recover lost photos. But there are a few other things you should try first before going down that path.

Use a card reader

It could have been your camera that created the problem in the first place. And using it to connect to your computer to access your card could further exacerbate things. You’ll get better results taking your memory card out of your camera and attaching it to your computer using a card reader instead.

Make a clone of your card

That way you have something to revert to if things go wrong. There are specific programs that will do this for you, a lot of the recovery programs available will include the option of cloning your card as part the recovery process.

Find the recovery software that works for you

It’s not just a matter of what operating system you use, it can depend on the type of memory card you use and the make and model of your camera as well. My camera  uses Compact Flash cards, saving RAW files in the Canon CR2 format. I got the best results from a program specialising in recovering data specifically from CF cards. The more generic programs didn’t even recognise my card.

Funnily enough, after I had recovered my photos, I formatted the card and tried the other programs again. They found images where previously they hadn’t. Go figure.

Try before you buy

Most of the recovery software on the market lets you download it and try it out for free. That way you can see what images it can find and what kind of state they’re in. The program won’t let you actually recover the photos. You have to pay for the software to get that kind of functionality. But it’s better than paying for a program on spec and discovering that it can’t rescue any of your files. 

The other benefit is that you can look at the photos with a dispassionate eye and decide whether they are worth saving! Data recovery software doesn't come cheap.

Reconsider your format

Before my memory card was corrupted I shot solely in RAW. Raw files save more information about each image but are more easily corrupted. I lost about 20 photos that just couldn't be recovered. If I'd shot in JPG I probably could have saved them all. I’ve changed my settings on my camera so that a JPG of each image is saved as well.

Which software?

There's no easy answer to this, I'm afraid. I googled 'photo recovery software' and tried three or four before I found the one that worked for me. I've listed some of the more popular ones below that you can use as a starting point.


EasyDigital Photo Recovery

Odboso PhotoRetrieval


Photo Recovery for Mac

Windows and Mac

CF Card Recovery

Remo Recover (Media Edition)


Wondershare Data Recovery

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