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How To Recover Photos from a Failed Memory Card

“This memory card cannot be used. Card may be damaged. Insert another card.”

It’s the last thing anyone wants to see blinking on their camera’s LCD, particularly when they are halfway around the world from home. Unfortunately, that was exactly the screen I saw while shooting on location in the Isle of Skye with Haggis Adventures. I think it was fitting that the sky, which had been blue and full of sunshine all day, chose that moment to fill with clouds and bucket down rain.

Swirling Towards the Sea

I’m serious. It was sunny until about 15 minutes before I took this shot (which happened to be right around the time my card died).

While some memory card issues can be quickly remedied, mine most definitely did not fall into that category. It took months to exhaust every possible option for recovering my images, and in the end, I was only able to access 50 of the 400-500 images that I had taken.

You shouldn’t give up hope though. Most people don’t suffer complete card failures like I did and (at least some) images should be recoverable much earlier in the process. So what steps should you take if you’re in the same situation I was?

Don’t take any more photos

Me Taking Photos in Orkney

Even if you’re sitting on the side of a cliff in Orkney, stop taking photos. Find another memory card and use it instead. Thanks to Annieke den Besten for this photo.

One of the most crucial steps once you have experienced memory card failure is to stop taking photos. As soon as your camera starts blinking “ERR” at you, take the memory card out of the camera and replace it with the backup card that you hopefully carry in your bag. Attempting to write any more photos to the card could cause catastrophic damage, or at the very least, it could overwrite your previous images and make them unrecoverable.

Try to read the memory card from your computer

Once you get back to the computer, plug the memory card in and attempt to read the card using your usual card reader. There are usually three different outcomes from this step:

Disk Utility

Disk Utility on the Mac.

  1. The card is recognised and you can import photos as per usual. In this case, I would recommend transferring the photos and immediately backing them up. Then, reformat the memory card (once you are sure that every photo you want has been transferred) in an attempt to avoid the same issue down the road.
  2. The card is recognised as a drive but the computer cannot read it. On a Windows computer, this will usually result in a popup that says the USB drive needs to be formatted. DO NOT FORMAT THE DRIVE. On a Mac computer, this often means that the card does not show up in Finder, but when you go to the Disk Utility app, you can see it listed.
  3. The computer does not recognise the drive at all. On a Windows computer, this means that no USB icon appears on the task bar when you plug the memory card reader in, and when you go to the Windows Device Manager, there are no USB devices listed for your card. On a Mac computer, this means that the card does not show up as a drive in Finder and when you go to Disk Utility, there is no drive listed for your card.

If you fall into the first category, you’re in luck and your saga has ended there. I’m jealous! Otherwise, you’ll need to read on.

Try a second memory card reader

Me at John O'Groats

With luck, you’ll be able to recover your images so you can show people what a glorious, sunny place you visited. (This was one of the last photos recovered from my card.)

If your memory card has displayed an error in camera and it can’t be read on the computer, it’s likely not to be your card reader’s fault. Just in case, though, you should try to read the card with a separate card reader, whether it is the built-in reader in another computer or a separate external reader. If you have the USB cable that can connect your camera to your computer, you can try reading the card through the camera as well.

Try a different operating system

This is another last-ditch effort, but there is a chance that the file system on your memory card could be corrupted in such a way that a Windows computer cannot read it but a Mac can (or vice versa). If you have access to a friend’s laptop with a different operating system from yours, it is worth trying to plug in your memory card reader to see if their computer can recognise it.

Download recovery software

Only take this step if you fall into the second category above; if your computer has not recognised your memory card at all, no recovery software will be able to see it either.

One piece of software that has worked for me in the past is Sandisk RescuePRO. This program is available on both Mac and Windows and will scan your problematic card to bring up a list of all files that it can find. (Note: this isn’t just for memory cards; the program works with any drive that can connect to your computer, including flash drives and USB drives).

RescuePro Search

SanDisk RescuePro running a search on a 32GB card.

It’s worth noting that the files it displays may be from a variety of sources and do not all represent high-resolution images on the drive. They will often be a combination of thumbnail files (which are auto-generated so your camera can display the image on your LCD), partially recovered files (which will appear partially grey), and your high-res JPG and RAW files.

This application does take a while to run, and once you choose what you want to recover, it will require a flash or hard drive large enough to hold the recovered files.

One handy thing to know is that you often get a free one-year subscription to RescuePRO when you buy a Sandisk memory card. Make sure you note down the license key on the little piece of paper that comes with the card in case you need it! Also, you can download the application and use it as a free trial to test if it can recover anything before committing to paying the full price. Handy, right?

If RescuePRO does not work for you, there are a host of other options available. I tried a number of these during my memory card saga, but as my card fell into the “unrecognisable” category, I can’t personally vouch for how well they work. They include:

Bring in the professionals

Orkney Cliffs

Yesnaby Cliffs on Orkney; this image was recovered from my card but I had previously transferred it.

If all else has failed so far, it’s time to call in the professionals. This step will unfortunately require the biggest outlay of money, so it’s well worth it to assess how much you’d be willing to pay to get your photos back. In my case, I would not have paid a professional to recover the photos if I hadn’t been shooting for a job.

First, I recommend looking for a local data recovery shop as the results will be fastest. When I was in Edinburgh, I googled “data recovery edinburgh” and came up with 4-5 different options around the city, and I can imagine the results would the same in any reasonably large city.

Make sure that you get all the details about what this shop can do for you before you give them your memory card. I was lucky enough to find a shop that was willing to attempt recovery with no payment; others may charge a nominal fee simply to look at the card, regardless of whether they can recover anything.

It’s also worth noting that nearly all data recovery centres will charge you based on the size of the media you are giving them rather than the number of photos you’d like to recover. So, even if you only want 100 photos off a 64GB memory card, you will be charged for recovering all 64GB.

Bring in the best professionals

A Staircase near Wick

The second-to-last image recovered from my memory card, a full day before the card failed.

Just because a recovery centre advertises itself as such doesn’t mean that their opinion is the be-all and end-all. If you end up in the unlucky camp whose card cannot be recovered by the professionals (as I was), you still have one last option available to you — professional recovery in the US.

The recovery centre that I mailed my memory card to is run by LC Technology, the same people that make the SanDisk RescuePRO software mentioned above. They do not charge you until they have recovered images, and they promise an answer between 2-5 business days after they receive the card.

Their prices are by no means cheap but they are more reasonable than quotes I saw on forums from others in the same situation. For $275, they recovered as many images as possible from my 32GB memory card, and for $20 extra, they put the images on a USB drive instead of a CD (a handy alternative if you don’t actually have a CD/DVD drive in your computer).

When they contacted me about their recovery efforts, I was ecstatic. They told me that they had managed to recover more than 900 JPGs (including thumbnail files) and over 400 RAW files. I was going to get my blue-sky Isle of Skye photos back!

While it would be impossible not to get your hopes up at this, it’s still worth it to wait (impatiently) while the photos get sent back to you before you celebrate. I was so excited to get my photos back, only to find that only 50 of those photos — all JPGs, no RAWs — were from the 500 images I had wanted to recover. The images abruptly stopped about a day before the failure occurred; the rest were likely destroyed in the complete failure of the card’s controller circuit.

A better backup strategy

Steaming Away from Mallaig

The Jacobite Steam Train, taken the day after my memory card failed. It would have been easier to shoot high-speed if my memory cards weren’t backing up between each other in-camera, but I was pretty paranoid at this point.

I know it doesn’t help for me to get up on a soapbox and talk about backing up when you’ve lost all your cherished images. However, I do have one recommendation for future you: use in-camera backups.

A number of SLRs now offer two memory card slots and give you options on how to use them. I was using the cards independently of each other, so once one filled up, the camera began recording on the other. This saved on memory card space, which I was running low on, but it meant that when my card failed — while out shooting when I had no chance to transfer to my computer — everything was gone.

Now, I’ve set it up so images immediately copy from one card to the other. It takes more time for each shot to save — so it’s not a good option if you’re trying to take a fast series of photos — but it gives me the peace of mind that I won’t have to fork out $300 at the end of the day to get a small portion of my photos.

I sincerely hope that you were able to stop reading partway through this post because one of these options worked for you. If not, I’m really sorry to hear it, but I most definitely feel your pain. Here’s hoping it’s the last time it happens to you.

Have you ever had a memory card fail? Did any of these options work for you?

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6 Responses to How To Recover Photos from a Failed Memory Card

  1. Meg Jerrard November 29, 2015 at 9:56 am Reply

    These are fabulous tips, thanks Kristin! I’ve been lucky enough not to have had a memory card fail (knock on wood) though I’ve definitely fallen victim to my own stupidity on clicking that ridiculous “format disk” pop up and it’s wiped everything we had on there. You’ll only ever make that mistake once!!

    We always travel with backup memory cards, so I’ll make a mental note to switch it out immediately if I ever get an error on a card.

    Thanks for the great tips!

    • Kristin December 3, 2015 at 6:31 am Reply

      So glad you found these tips helpful Meg. I hope you never need them though! And the idea of accidentally hitting “format disk” makes me cringe — I’m so glad that my computer doesn’t give me those “helpful” popups so I can’t accidentally click on them!

  2. Cest La Vibe January 3, 2016 at 4:19 pm Reply

    I wish I had these tips a few months ago when I lost 2 days of epic photographs from a memory card.
    I learnt my lesson and always make sure to format before using now.

    • Kristin January 6, 2016 at 4:54 pm Reply

      That’s really unfortunate to hear! I’m glad you at least took some learnings away from it but it’s something you never want to go through!

  3. Conundrum January 29, 2017 at 7:49 pm Reply

    Hi, I had some success getting these back using Winhex. At the very least you can get a raw data dump of the entire card this way and recover from the image.

    I haven’t ever seen further damage being done from a read done in this way although with mechanical hard drives it is a different matter.

    • Kristin February 7, 2017 at 5:18 am Reply

      That’s good to know. Probably a bit advanced for non-technical users, but glad to hear there are other options I didn’t get the chance to explore.

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